Teaching Citizens How to Fight City Hall

"I've had my share of battles at city hall," said Al Foster, an inveterate neighborhood activist in Hampton, Va.The head of his local civic association, Foster will go to the mat for his neighborhood, whether it's for a streetlight or an extra cop on the beat. But more and more, this retired Air Force sergeant is getting tips on how to do it from a surprising source -- the folks down at city hall.Like Foster, a growing number of residents around the country are getting their basic training in neighborhood activism from city government. They're learning how to rally their neighbors and cut through the bureaucratic red tape. "We've poured millions of dollars into this effort," said Mayor Susan Hammer of San Jose, Calif., who made citizen education part of her platform when she ran for the office six years ago.Nationwide, the efforts are forming a potentially new episode in the continuing American saga of hell-raising in the halls of power. Leaders such as Hammer say they want to forge new partnerships in which local residents take a share of responsibility for getting the civic work done in their communities.Hammer, a former Peace Corps employee, recalled that some were skeptical at first. "They said, 'You gotta be kidding me. You're going to have more people coming down to fight city hall,'" she said.Now, when people go down to city hall in San Jose, they often head straight for the Neighborhood Development Center, which includes a computer laboratory that teaches how to publish community newsletters. The instruction is in four languages: English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Khmer.Some worry that citizen groups known for their feistiness might be pacified by friendly bureaucrats. This fear is enlarged by the fact that the training usually goes hand in hand with money for neighborhood initiatives.Minneapolis, for example, has amassed a booty of $400 million to be spread out over 20 years for neighborhood revitalization. Like San Jose and some other cities, Minneapolis invested in downtown restoration and business development in the 1980s and is now plowing some of the tax revenue back to residential neighborhoods. The citizen training includes sessions on how local groups can get the money and use it wisely. "There certainly are some organizations that -- if they're getting a pile of money from city government -- will also be quite hesitant about turning around and biting the hand that feeds them," said Jay Clark, who heads a training program for neighborhood organizers at the University of Minnesota.But this isn't the main worry of Seattle official Jim Diers. "Sometimes we train people who come back and beat up on the city," said Diers, who threw punches in his days as a community organizer and now heads the city's Department of Neighborhoods.[EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE, OR OPTIONAL TRIM NEXT 4 GRAFS.]Diers recalled that while sitting in his office one day in 1992, he heard loud chants by protesters outside the city building. He looked out the window and noticed the signs declaring, "Operation Homestead.""I said, 'Oh, gee, we just funded them,'" Diers recounted. The loosely knit group of activists from several neighborhoods was at the time occupying an abandoned hotel in downtown Seattle, demanding that it be turned into affordable housing for the homeless.Some officials were mortified by the Seattle Times headline "City Gives Money to Occupation Forces." But Diers remarked, "It was a pretty efficient use of funds." His department had given Operation Homestead $6,590 to train homeless people how to manage their own apartment buildings.Later on, the group won its drive to rehabilitate the historic Pacific Hotel and created over 100 new apartment units for homeless and low-income residents.[END OPTIONAL TRIM.]Diers said he has lost track of how many people have gone through the training workshops regularly offered by the Department of Neighborhoods, but puts the number in the "thousands."Among them are residents who pushed to have school buildings opened at night for community meetings, adult education and recreation. Since then the concept of "community schools" has spread from this neighborhood in West Seattle to others around the city.[EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE.]In that same part of town, Mike Little is turning a garbage-strewn 2.3-acre lot into a community park and fishing area.What helped get him started was city training in the arts of organizing and fund-raising. Since then, the city has pledged $100,000 to the park project. Little's neighborhood association must now match that amount with a combination of cash contributions and sweat equity, under the terms of Seattle's Matching Fund Program.The process has been remarkably free of acrimony, he said. "It's probably not the traditional way that citizens have engaged with their cities. Usually there's some kind of angry interaction to get things started," said Little, who lives in the Delridge neighborhood and works for the power company Seattle City Light.But Little added that he and his neighbors will fight again in the future if they don't like what they hear from the city.Diers at city hall says he's ready: "If we're really serious about empowering communities, we have to take what comes."SIDEBARCitizens Enroll in Activism CollegeIn Hampton, Va., residents who want to learn the fine art of civic leadership can enroll in an unusual institution of higher learning -- The Hampton Neighborhood College.Started two years ago, the college offers training in the nuts and bolts of citizen activism. Tuition is free, and the classes -- taught by volunteers -- are held all around town."One session is with the mayor, in his office, another at a community center. We also do a bus tour that takes three hours. The students really enjoy that session because they get to learn a lot about each others' neighborhoods," said Sydney Mason, who administers the college for the city of 133,000 people. The idea behind the Neighborhood College is that citizens must play an expanded part in revitalizing their communities."Everybody expects government to do everything for them. But of course we don't have the resources and manpower to do that. We can't do it for them, but perhaps we can give them the resources they need to do it for themselves," Mason said. The college now has 66 graduates as well as an alumni association. Like other students, Al Foster got advice on how to run a meeting and whom to see about fixing a street light or putting a new swing in the playground, among other lessons."Probably the biggest thing is the networking and getting to know the people in neighborhoods around the city," said Foster, a father of five who spent a career in the military. He now serves as president of the Hampton Federation of Civic Leagues and takes part in other civic work while holding down a full-time job as a facility manager at the nearby Langley Air Force Base.The school is modeled in part on the Dayton, Ohio, Neighborhood Leadership Institute, which began in 1983 and now counts 379 graduates. Back in their communities, the graduates find "they are much more effective and much less frustrated" by the bureaucracy, said Shelley Dickstein, one of Dayton's Neighborhood Affairs Coordinators.But Foster in Hampton said some officials are less than thrilled with the notion of "empowering" citizens."A lot of politicians are still hoping we don't come and talk to them, because they think it's easier to manage (the city) if you don't talk to the people," he said.Even the most supportive politicians, there and elsewhere, will admit to harboring a negative thought at times."The biggest headache is that they (citizens who have received training) tend to be insatiable. The more active they get and the more aware they are of the issues, the more we hear from them" about money for neighborhood projects, said Mayor Susan Hammer of San Jose, Calif. "I just have to say no sometimes. We have only so much money."William Bole is Associate Editor of The American News Service. His articles have appeared in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, St. Petersburg Times and other newspapers and magazines.


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