The next generation of neighborhood engagement

A transformation of the city’s relationship with neighborhood organizations is underway

A former executive director of the Stevens Square Community Organization, Steven Gallagher now works for the city's Neighborhood and Community Relations Department and is helping construct a framework for the next-generation neighborhood engagement program. Photo by Dylan Thomas

The city’s neighborhood engagement model is about to undergo what may be its biggest shift since the Neighborhood Revitalization Program began its long wind-down nearly a decade ago.

In November, three volunteer workgroups delivered their recommendations for what some are calling the “next generation” of neighborhood engagement in Minneapolis. In development since July, the recommendations suggest a new model for how the city conducts outreach and gathers public input through neighborhood and cultural organizations.

The framework of a new engagement model is still only emerging, but it appears to place a high value on inclusion. Neighborhood organizations are encouraged to more actively connect with their full range of constituents. And the Neighborhood and Community Engagement Commission, an advisory body now dominated by people with connections to neighborhood organizations, could be replaced by a new board with a mission more narrowly focused on how the city and its departments engage with communities of all kinds — not just those defined by the borders of a neighborhood.

“Overall, the goal of increasing diverse representation in neighborhoods and really taking this opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of neighborhood engagement strategies, those are in themselves very necessary and worthy goals,” said Kaley Brown, executive director of the Whittier Alliance, the neighborhood organization for Minneapolis’ most-populous neighborhood.

A framework

Like many other neighborhood leaders, Brown attended one in a series of five community meetings held in December where city staff sought feedback on the workgroup recommendations. As a result, the workgroups have already dialed-back some of their more radical proposals, including one suggestion to give neighborhood organizations direct control over 10 percent of the city’s capital long-range improvement funding, used to pay for city infrastructure projects. The workgroup is now recommending an advisory role for the organizations.

Also dropped was a proposal to require neighborhood organization boards to closely approximate the diversity of their constituencies, with a potential loss of funding for those boards that don’t mirror neighborhood demographics within a range of 15 percent. As of late December, however, the workgroups still supported a proposed “budget penalty” for city departments that don’t effectively connect with the public.

What if a neighborhood organization doesn’t want to play by the city’s new rules? They can opt-out of city funding while remaining the city-recognized neighborhood group — and risk being usurped by a startup board willing to meet the new requirements.

South Uptown Executive Director Scott Engel said the new neighborhood program’s opt-in clause was a “false choice” for neighborhood organizations like his.

“To go fully through donations or foundation grant, I think is just not even a possibility,” Engel said. “Organizing a wine tasting here or there or a chili fest is not going to keep much of the organization afloat.”

After reviewing an early draft of the recommendations, Engel said he thought there was not enough focus on the city’s role in effective neighborhood engagement. He gave the recent reconstruction of Hennepin Avenue through Uptown as an example; while the Department of Public Works could’ve collaborated with neighborhoods to keep area residents up to date on the work, it didn’t.

“I don’t think the city uses us very well,” he said. “… It’s all one direction.”

Next steps

Staff in the Neighborhood and Community Relations Department were laboring with workgroup volunteers to finalize the recommendations at the end of the year and planned to release them Jan. 14, with a 45-day public comment period to follow. Community feedback will be sought at annual Community Connections Feb. 2 at the Minneapolis Convention Center and at a Feb. 27 event planned for East Side Neighborhood Services, 1700 2nd St. NE.

The recommendations are scheduled to reach the City Council’s Public Health, Environment, Civil Rights, and Engagement Committee in mid-March.

“They’re not necessarily down-in-the-weeds detail of how everything is going to work, but they are a framework of what our neighborhood system would look like, how the funding would work, what the oversight would look like,” explained Steve Gallagher, the former executive director of the Stevens Square Community Organization who this year took a job with the city’s Neighborhood and Community Relations Department.

As an NCR policy specialist focused on neighborhood programs, Gallagher has played a key role in this latest phase of Neighborhoods 2020, a city-led project to redefine the role Minneapolis’ 70 independent neighborhood organizations. Financially supported by the city and viewed as a conduit for exchanging information and ideas between neighborhood residents and City Hall, the organizations are facing increasing pressure to prove they can reach out to all their constituents — not just the folks who tend to show up at their monthly meetings, who in past surveys appeared to be whiter, wealthier, better educated and more likely to own a home than their neighbors.

Whether and how neighborhood organizations can become more inclusive figures to be a big question for the City Council as it debates the future of their funding.

Inclusion

While many neighborhoods are still spending down funds from the 20-year Neighborhood Revitalization Program, they now get city financial support through NRP’s successor, the Community Participation Program. Like NRP before it, CPP draws on Minneapolis’ Consolidated Redevelopment Tax-Increment Financing District, which is set to expire at the end of 2019. Karen Moe, deputy director of Neighborhood and Community Relations, said the money dries up at the end of 2020.

“I think for a lot of people in this conversation, that’s the question: What is the commitment from the city in terms of long-term funding beyond this currently TIF-funded program?” Moe said.

In November, during one of the City Council’s 2019 budget markup sessions, Council Member Cam Gordon (Ward 2) successfully moved to include neighborhood funding in the city’s five-year financial plan. The action penciled-in support for neighborhoods and the NCR department at a level similar to current funding, about $7 million a year. That falls short of the $10 million in annual funding recommended by one of the Neighborhoods 2020 workgroups.

“I think there’s a common understanding there’s value in this place-based structure,” Gordon said of the city’s network of neighborhood organizations. He described the organizations as an “enormously powerful” tool for transmitting citizen feedback to council members, but said public funds for the programs come with an “expectation” the groups truly represent their wider communities.

City Council President Lisa Bender (Ward 10), a former members of the Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association board, said in comments delivered during a budget markup meeting that city funding for neighborhood organizations must be made “contingent” on their efforts to be widen participation.

“I am supportive of this funding, but I want to say the time has to end when where we say, gee whiz, it’s just too hard to engage with renters or students or people of color or the folks who live in our communities, and we just have to do a better job with the millions of dollars we spend every year engaging with community to make it inclusive,” she said.

Even the Neighborhoods 2020 workgroups have faced questions about representation and inclusion. At a community feedback session held Dec. 5 at North Market, Catherine Fleming said their recommendations were undermined by a lack of diversity among the volunteers.

Moe and another NCR staffer facilitating the meeting acknowledged Fleming was correct: Almost no people of color served on any of the three work groups.

“This is a lot of white people telling us what to do in our neighborhood,” Fleming said.

 

  • Ryan

    There are plenty of orgs in town that have proven they can and do reach all demographics of Minneapolis. It’s not that people can’t be reached: the majority of neighborhood orgs aren’t trying hard enough, or at all.

  • Harrison

    You can lead a horse to water….. there is no guarantee that the people who live in a neighborhood who are willing and able to get involved, go to meetings etc are a proportional demographic representation. Just look at the discrepancies in who votes.

  • Carolyn Bastick

    I’m with Lisa Bender. I welcome the introduction of accountability into this process. Because currently there is virtually none. While it may appear as if neighborhood associations have to qualify for CPP funding, the reality is that as long as the required paperwork is completed and submitted in a timely fashion, they get funded. I have documented evidence that the City’s NCR department provides shockingly cursory oversight over the 70 neighborhood organizations that it funds. At taxpayers’ expense. No receipts are required to receive reimbursement of eligible expenses, as one might expect with any other type of business. Blatant falsification of the required CPP annual reports are not addressed. Neighborhood association election irregularities are ignored. And City audits are conducted sparingly, with inconsistent and even inequitable consequences meted out to those organizations whose practices are found wanting. This is a story that needs to be written. Then we can start again.

  • mattaudio

    I’ve long been a part of neighborhood orgs (rolled off a term as VP of a board within the last year) but I can’t help but wonder if we’d be better off sunsetting these groups as an official channel and expense of the City.

    Mpls2040 proved how engagement models can work well – they went where people already were (events, not meetings), they had a great interactive online presence, and they specifically sought out voices that had been less
    represented in the past.

    I’d rather see NCR transition into an ongoing outreach/engagement arm for the city, and also have a citywide grant funding process for grassroots organizing and neighborhood improvement projects – available to individuals, existing neighborhood orgs that decide to continue without city funds, or any other org for that matter.

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