Pandemic changes how city reaches its residents

Minneapolis's Neighborhood and Community Relations department logo
Minneapolis's Neighborhood and Community Relations department logo

Council Member Jeremy Schroeder used to randomly knock on doors in his 11th Ward to try to reach out to people who don’t typically attend neighborhood meetings or call their local representative, but he can’t do that anymore.

In some ways, he doesn’t have to. Since the pandemic began and in the aftermath of the May 25 police killing of George Floyd, Schroeder and other elected officials in Minneapolis have heard from residents who don’t normally write or call their representatives. Big issues like policing, housing, pandemic-related job loss, rebuilding from civil unrest and local business retention are front of mind.

“Right now, people are reaching out,” Schroeder said.

The pandemic has altered the manner in which public entities and elected officials are able to reach their constituents at a time when residents have more questions and thoughts about what’s transpiring in Minneapolis and what should happen next.

Many Southwest Minneapolis elected officials are holding ward meetings on Zoom, which were very well-attended in the weeks after Floyd’s death. Schroeder said he’s been doing his normal open office hours on Skype and Council Member Linea Palmisano (Ward 13) said she’s been doing backyard block meetings and made a more concerted effort to be digitally present at every neighborhood organization.

For Cheyenne Brodeen, community engagement director for the city’s Neighborhood and Community Relations (NCR) department, the pandemic and Floyd’s death have changed how outreach is done and emphasized its importance.

Her department produced an online engagement guide with a goal of making sure city activities and initiatives are reaching intended audiences in thoughtful ways. The work has shifted online out of necessity, but she said the goal hasn’t changed and that NCR must continue to develop relationships within neighborhoods to communicate effectively.

“Online engagement will never replace” the importance of meeting people where they are, Brodeen said.

But there are elements of digital outreach that public entities will try to replicate going forward. Being more broadly accessible to people with hearing, vision or language barriers has been a major emphasis in online engagement, Brodeen said. The chat function on apps like Zoom has allowed people not comfortable speaking up to ask their questions. And, importantly, people don’t have to travel to meetings or figure out a child care plan.

“I actually think that we’re learning some key things that might be useful even when we transition back to traditional in-person engagement,” said Adam Arvidson, director of strategic planning for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.

Both the city and the Park Board say letting residents tune in to meetings remotely will be a priority when in-person gatherings return.

The Park Board is trying to reach residents about multiple long-term planning efforts for city parks right now, including the Parks for All Comprehensive Plan and the newly launched Cedar Lake-Lake of the Isles Master Plan initiative, which will map the future for regional parks around the northern Chain of Lakes.

The MPRB extended the comment period on the Southwest Service Area Master Plan multiple times due to the pandemic and ended up receiving 1,200 survey responses, many more than for past area plans — so many that the final approval of the plan by commissioners has been delayed as staff work to organize feedback into themes to present to the board.

The pandemic has prevented the Park Board from reaching people in more spontaneous ways in parks and at community events like Open Streets Minneapolis. But more people have been tuning in for digital events than would show up at a typical planning meeting, he said, and many have said they prefer to attend online for convenience. Presentations that are typically made to sparsely attended Park Board meetings are now being uploaded on YouTube and have had solid viewership.

The Park Board partnered with a local Somali-American influencer who livestreamed a Zoom Somali language planning meeting and helped translate questions from viewers.

While there’s been success reaching non-English speakers, Arvidson is concerned about how to contact people without consistent internet access.

“I don’t think we’ve totally cracked the nut on how to engage folks who don’t have access to the same technology many people in our city have access to,” Arvidson said.

Not only are local entities trying to figure out how to reach people at a time when in-person interactions are discouraged; they are also gauging how to reach neighborhoods at various levels of economic and emotional crisis due to the pandemic and everything that’s followed Floyd’s killing.

Some conversations can wait, Brodeen said, and should. That, and not a lack of response, is why NCR decided to extend its comment period on Neighborhoods 2020, which will change the way neighborhood groups are funded, from early July to Sept. 30.

“I think the communities are at different places in how they are able to respond,” she said.

Sidebar story: City recommendation not to record neighborhood meetings criticized