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Innovations in Resident Civic Education and Engagement

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Please see a link to a complete audio podcast of this panel session on the right under “Documents and Resources.”

PowerPoint presentations from two of the speakers, Cherise Brandell and Gerardo Mouet, are also available. We hope to make Monique Tsang’s PowerPoint presentation available soon.

The recent League of California Cities’ Annual Conference offered a lively session on public engagement that highlighted the civic education of youth, a citizens academy for Cantonese speakers, and the new role of civic engagement manager in two California cities.

Organized by the Institute for Local Government’s Collaborative Governance Initiative, Innovations in Resident Civic Education and Engagement: From Citizen Academies to Sustained Community Engagement featured California’s only two municipal civic engagement managers, Cherise Brandell of Menlo Park and Anne Hallock of Ventura. Also participating on the panel were Monique Tsang, Director of the Equal Access Office for the City of Oakland, and Gerardo Mouet, the Executive Director of Santa Ana’s Parks, Recreation and Community Services Agency.

Sal Alvarez, the Interim Manager of the City of San Jose’s Strong Neighborhoods Initiative, moderated the session and welcomed the city officials in attendance from around the state.

Youth Learn About Their Local Government

Gerardo Mouet spoke first and described the Santa Ana “Youth in Local Government” program. Inspired by a YMCA youth leadership program that involves teens in state government, the Santa Ana City Council decided to create a similar program to involve teens in city government. Coordinated by Gerardo, thirty-five high school juniors participated in eight weekly seminars that described how the city operates, how policy is made, how problems are solved, and how residents become elected city officials.

Teens were paired with city staff “coaches” and created a mock city council. Roe playing elected and staff roles, the young invited parents and friends to these mock council meetings where they debated real issues relevant to young people. “Learning and breaking barriers to city hall is the objective, but it is important to have fun in order to reach teens; and don’t underestimate the power of food” Mouet advised.

Citizens Academies Reach Out to Non-English Speakers

The second speaker was Monique Tsang, Equal Access Office Director for the City of Oakland, who discussed that city’s citizen academies. “People who come to these academies have a chance to talk to city officials informally and learn how the city is structured and managed,” said Tsang. City managers, department heads, county supervisors and Congressional representatives give presentations at the citizen academies. Oakland offers two versions of their leadership academy; one in English and one in Cantonese.

“Cantonese people were very excited about this,” shared Tsang. “Some had lived in Oakland for over 20 years and had no idea where city hall was, what their rights are, or what services the city provides.” Alumni of the Cantonese Academy stay involved in city matters through an alumni association, volunteering at city events. Tsang is working to build community interest in a Spanish language Citizen’s Academy and is considering an online academy with videotaped content, subtitles and interpretation in multiple languages.

New City Staff Roles Support Community Engagement

Cherise Brandell, Community Engagement Manager for the City of Menlo Park, spoke next about this new position and how she and the city are creating a sustainable community model of civic participation. After several new council members were elected on a platform of open government and transparency, the council decided to create the community engagement manager position and voted to make sustained community engagement one of their priority goals.

“My job is to help build the capacity of the entire organization to embrace the philosophies and methodologies of community engagement,” said Brandell. She spoke about research that demonstrates how deliberative processes can help residents reach a consensus and more informed public judgment on contentious issues. Her presentation also described the approaches the city uses to help residents understand public issues and the technical requirements of city decision making, while working in small groups to uncover participants’ hopes, fears, dreams, and values and to find often unexpected consensus.

So far the idea is working, says Brandell. For instance, development has been a polarizing issue for the city in the past, but recent deliberative public workshops on downtown development have been civil, focused and productive. “There was some disagreement but everyone in the room felt heard,” reports Brandell. “For the first time there was nobody yelling, angry or leaving the room, and we are moving forward with a downtown development plan.”

Finally, serving as a panel respondent, Ventura Civic Engagement Manager Anne Hallock spoke about why it is important for cities to sustain community engagement in the face of budget cuts. At the request of the city council, Hallock is training city staff to better collaborate with colleagues and to provide residents the opportunity for early involvement and a meaningful voice in shaping solutions to city issues.

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