Community Engagement – Part II

courthouse_andy_1024I grew up in a small town, in Southwest Virginia, that only had one main street. I lived in the same house for 15 years, so that, riding my bicycle, I knew every bump and dip in the road. I knew where everyone sat in the pews on Sunday. As a first grade student, when I accidentally got off the wrong stop on the school bus, miles from my babysitter’s house, an elderly stranger took me in and fed me buttermilk and crackers until my mother could come from work to get me. (To this day, I have an acquired taste for buttermilk.) Every Friday night, I spent the night with my grandparents and every Sunday afternoon, I sipped sweet, iced tea on my grandmother’s sofa. This was life in a small town. This was my Mayberry.

After graduating from college, I desired to see the other side of the fence. I got my first job in Washington, D.C.—about the furthest place removed from Mayberry one can imagine. I learned to navigate traffic circles, drive six-lane interstates and read a subway map. I experienced coming home to an empty apartment because I knew few people in a large city. I eventually found my community and met my husband, Greg, at First Baptist of Alexandria. As a redneck, Alabama boy, he felt as much an alien as I did in D.C.

Even further removed from Mayberry was Boston. Greg and I moved there right after our marriage so he could attend law school. I worked for Electronic Data Systems at a GM plant in Framingham, MA, supporting a car manufacturing production system. I parked my shiny, red Honda Prelude in a parking lot full of GM cars every day, and not once did anyone threaten me with a baseball bat. I learned the difference between blue collar workers and management. (Management eats in a dining room and workers eat in a cafeteria.) I met people who played recreational ice hockey. I learned how to understand a Yankee accent and they learned to interpret my Southern one. My husband and I attended a Baptist church service where they served Kool-Aid and animal crackers for communion. (Yes, we drank the Kool-Aid.) We attended a Passover Seder with upstairs apartment neighbors hailing from California and New York who became close friends.

After law school and our adventures in the frozen North, Greg and I decided to return to his roots, so we picked Birmingham as the best place to start our family. In 2002, we moved to Vestavia Hills because we found a beautiful home in Liberty Park, where our children could walk to and attend a great school. At first, we knew few people in the Vestavia Hills community, but I engaged right away in PTO and local Scout groups and soon found connections, making lifelong friends from all parts of our city. We can’t imagine a better place for our children to have grown up than Vestavia Hills.

Thank you for indulging my recitation of the places I have lived. My point is I grew up in Mayberry, where “everyone knew my name” (and my mama’s name and my granddaddy’s name); but, I have also lived in Raleigh, where I was a small Barney Fife in a big city pond. Probably all of us have had these experiences, however temporary, where we were the outsider—the alien.

In talking to all sorts of people in Vestavia—both those who grew up here and those who “are not from around here”—there is a common desire: we want our community to continue to be a wonderful place to live and raise a family.

So, what is the best way to make that happen? How do we connect pride in our city’s heritage and the desire of everyone in the community to continue moving forward? How do we engage our newcomer residents and help them form connections with their Mayberry neighbors?

Below is Part II of my COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT platform. Here are my ideas about how we can WELCOME others to our community and make it easy for newcomers to engage:

  • Organize “Welcome to the City” receptions on quarterly basis.
  • Enlist the help of realtors, apartment managers and school board to distribute “Welcome to Vestavia Hills” packets of information to new residents; include voter and school registration information; helpful information about city services (libraries, parks and recreation programs, garbage pickup, police and fire protection); helpful links (QR codes) to city website resources.
  • Organize voter registration drives before city elections and provide sample ballot/issue information.
  • Provide comprehensive publicity for community events through a variety of methods such as email (by subscription); social media; newsletters (digital and paper); community events page on website).
  • Provide a community events calendar on city website to which residents can subscribe for regular updates.
  • Establish a “Newcomers” page on the city website to include links to: Action Center, city services index, FAQs, contacts for city council and school board representatives, city volunteer opportunity index. (Link to this from Chamber and PTO websites; provide a “contact” for newcomer questions.)
  • Encourage partnerships between community business leaders and schools to provide enhanced learning opportunities through mentor relationships, work-study programs, and enrichment studies.
  • Establish city directory of opportunities for service and engagement (for example, Friends of the Library, youth athletic leagues, Sunrise Rotary Club, Toastmasters, city boards, Help for the Hills, Leadership Vestavia Hills); allow citizens to add to the directory, upon moderated approval.
  • Establish a moderated, online “suggestion box” where citizens can post recommendations for ways to improve our city.
  • Work with schools to ensure prospective students visiting our schools have a good first impression.
  • Work with schools to institute student ambassador program for new students in the first month of school.
  • Encourage the school system to allow foreign exchange students to attend city schools.
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