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Innovative Citizen Academies Educate and Engage New and Diverse Leaders in California Communities

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These typically free or low cost courses have many benefits. They improve resident knowledge about their city and local government, encourage and help prepare new community volunteers and leaders, and enhance trust and relationships with the local public sector.

A growing number of California cities are developing citizen academies. These typically free or low-cost courses have many benefits. They improve resident knowledge about their city and local government, encourage and help prepare new community volunteers and leaders, and enhance trust and relationships with the local public sector.

The Institute for Local Government has identified nearly 100 academies organized through the office of a city manager, mayor, police department and others. Classes typically meet once a week for 6 to 12 weeks for a few hours in the evening (although there are other sorts of schedules as well) and frequently involve presentations by different city departments, and/or may focus on particular topics of interest to the public

See at right a list of citizen academies in California (and to make sure we have yours listed). If you have a story to share about an innovative citizen academy please contact ILG at 916-658-8208 or publicengagement@ca-ilg.org.

Also, see at right a guide on creating citizen academies from the Florida League of Cities.

While many examples of successful citizen academies exist, there are a number of innovative academies in California that seek to add to the diversity of resident involvement in their community and local government.

By finding creative ways to involve immigrants, young people, and other typically underrepresented members of the community in citizen academies, local agencies tap into new reservoirs of potential community leaders. Citizen academies can provide these leaders with a working knowledge of local agencies, relationships with key city and county personnel, and the confidence to communicate with local agencies on behalf of their community. These leaders/ambassadors/liaisons are a valuable asset to their community, providing accurate information to residents about local services. They also can become advocates on behalf of their communities and may themselves become interested in volunteering or seeking local elected office.

Oakland

The City of Oakland has offered a citizen academy for the past 10 years. Silvia San Miguel has managed the program out of the city’s Equal Access Office since 2005. As her office provides translation services to all city departments and residents, San Miguel has attempted in the past few years to organize a Chinese and Spanish language version of the course.

So far the English and Chinese language academies have been quite successful. “The Chinese academy has an active alumni organization that meets regularly and participates in a lot of civic engagements.” reports San Miguel. “The whole point of the Citizen’s Academies is to let people know how the city works and where to go in case they have a problem. Once they have that information it gives them the knowledge and confidence to get what they need. If a resident doesn’t speak English they can call us and we will get them an interpreter to help them communicate with whatever city department can help them.” The city encourages graduates to stay civically involved by inviting them to events, asking them to volunteer, and by e-mailing them about what is going on in the city.

One important feature of Oakland’s citizen academies is the high level access that participants are offered to city leaders. Every city department participates in the program, and directors of most departments meet with each class and answer questions. San Miguel says it means a lot to most people to receive a business card from a city department director with a promise to respond to any needs or inquiries that might arise.

So far, Oakland has been less successful at enrolling monolingual Latino residents. “We have a problem with people not trusting the city government,” observes San Miguel. She is trying new strategies such as reaching out to stay-at-home moms through elementary schools and partnering with the city library to seek funding for a program that would include ESL classes in order to attract more Spanish speaking participants.

San Miguel and other city staff meet with prospective citizen academy participants and screen out those who may view the class as a place to advance a personal agenda. She reports that only once in her experience has an application ever been turned down.

For more information, contact project manager Silvia Sofia San Miguel with the city of Oakland’s Equal Access Office at ssanmiguel@oaklandnet.com or call 510-238-6448.

Santa Maria

The City of Santa Maria has operated a “Citizen Police Academy” since 1994. According to training coordinator Chrissy Alvarez, participants learn about drugs and crime lab investigations, shoot at a target range, discuss gang activity with the gang unit, and even get the opportunity to ride along with an on-duty police officer. The idea is to combat misconceptions about police and police practices and to develop community liaisons for the department. In recent years, the program has been expanded to include a separate Spanish language course.

For more information, contact Santa Maria Police Department Training Coordinator Chrissy Alvarez at calvarez@ci.santa-maria.ca.us or call (805) 928-3781 x276.

Long Beach

The City of Long Beach Police Department has recently expanded their “Community Police Academy” program to offer the course in Spanish. In addition, the department offers a Khmer language course for their 40,000 Cambodian residents (the largest Cambodian population outside of Cambodia). According to a Long Beach community relations officer, some Cambodian residents don’t trust the police, so this program focuses on trying to increase resident’s confidence and trust in their peace officers. Unfortunately, this program’s future is “up in the air” due to possible budget cutbacks.

For more information, contact Seargent Gail Dennison at 562-570-5959.

Sacramento

The Sacramento City Police Department and the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office jointly offer a citizen academy that focuses on the criminal justice system and related racial issues. Input from diverse communities determines the course curriculum, which emphasizes improved understanding and communication between law enforcement and the city’s immigrant and minority communities

In recent years, this curriculum has been adapted for “Cultural Community Academies” that have been specifically developed for Hmong, Slavic, and Mien immigrant communities. Focus groups from each community were used to help design the curriculum, and simultaneous translation and culturally appropriate foods were provided.

The goal is to build a relationship between members of these communities and the police. The course familiarizes newcomers with American culture and law enforcement, and also gives officers a chance to learn important things about newcomers in the community. For instance, when someone is pulled over in Russia the normal procedure is for the driver to exit their vehicle and approach the officer, who stays in their patrol car. This could lead to an unpleasant confrontation between a Russian immigrant unfamiliar with American norms and a police officer unfamiliar with a Russian driver’s expectations.

Recently the Sacramento D.A.’s office collaborated with the school district to offer a “Youth Academy” to high school students for the first time. The course was offered for credit during the summer at McClatchy High School, and may be offered at other district schools in the future. The idea is to deter criminal activity among young people, to expose them to possible careers in the criminal justice system, and to encourage students to be positive agents of change in their communities.

For more information, contact Karen Maxwell, Sacramento County Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney, at maxwellk@sacda.org or call (916) 874-5834.

Chula Vista

The City of Chula Vista graduated two “Citizen’s Leadership Academy” classes in 2007 and 2008, and has invited all graduates to two reunion events at city hall. In addition to giving these involved residents a chance to reconnect with each other and with city officials and staff, these events were planned to get feedback from graduates on important issues facing the city. One event held in July of 2008 engaged graduates to ask how they envisioned the future of urban development in Chula Vista. A second event held in February of 2009 educated residents about the City’s current fiscal situation and sought their feedback about a proposed 1 cent sales tax increase and future reunion topics.

Before the first reunion, an email was sent to these graduates asking them what their favorite urban place is and why. A noted architect and landscape architect were invited to give a presentation based on the responses to this email. Graduates’ input was collected through facilitated small and large group discussions.

The graduates appreciated that local leaders valued their input. Many proudly displayed their golden “CLA” pins and stopped to speak individually with the mayor or other city staff who attended the reunion. “I didn’t communicate with any city staff or officials before I took this class, but now I feel comfortable doing so,” said Al Hernandez, a 2007 CLA graduate who immigrated to the area from the Philippines in 1977 and who works as a senior plant technician supervisor for the city of San Diego. “It was an eye opener for me to see how the city works and how vulnerable the city is to budget cutbacks… since I took this course I’ve been more vigilant about how my neighborhood looks and I let city officials know about things that need to be repaired… I know now that the city needs help from residents.” Hernandez feels that the more input city officials receive from residents, the more knowledge they have about how to improve the community.

For more information, contact Jennifer Quijano, Constituent Services Manager in the Chula Vista Mayor’s Office at jquijano@chulavistaca.gov or call (619) 691-5044.
 

 

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