Community Engagement – The Final Chapter

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As I go around our city meeting people, I often have the experience of encountering a Facebook friend whom I have never met face to face. It always happens the same way: she says her name; I take a moment to think through the list of profile names who have commented on my posts recently and then there is the smile of recognition, followed by a spontaneous hug. My existing, virtual connection is made more intense because I have now made real contact. Regardless of the lure of social media, with all of its safe anonymity, people desire personal interactions. As human beings, we get our context from each other. Without face-time (the real kind, not the application), our social media interactions are like talking to paper dolls.

For communities to be strong, they must be built on a foundation of positive relationships, which lead to trust and cooperation. Neighbors who talk over the fence don’t have arguments about whether the fence is in the right place.

So, how can cities better provide opportunities and facilities for citizens to play and connect?

“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”  Winnie-the-Pooh; A.A. Milne

CONNECT:

  • Renovate the Civic Center to provide classroom, recreational and exercise facilities at a reasonable cost to citizens.
  • Provide banquet space for special city events such as the Dogwood luncheon.
  • Update the sidewalk plan to prioritize installation of sidewalks in areas near schools, city facilities, parks and retail areas.
  • Develop more entertainment districts within our city and provide incentives to retail developers to provide more green and community gathering spaces.
  • Encourage and promote neighborhood social gatherings.
  • Maintain a list of volunteer service organizations and clubs, including city groups, for newcomers.
  • Promote generational recreation and learning programs to meet needs of underserved groups such as seniors, empty-nesters and young professionals.
  • Promote youth manners and dancing classes.
  • Provide better publicity for city recreational programs and events by 1) issuing press releases before and after city events; 2) ensuring city events are on various community calendars; 3) promoting events on social media; 4) publishing a digital subscription newsletter.
  • Develop a comprehensive, interactive, subscription calendar to include all city events in all city departments;
  • Administer annual surveys to find out what services are most important to citizens.
  • Publish results of annual Parks and Recreation surveys through press releases.
  • Establish a focus group as a subsidiary of the Parks and Recreation Board to assess and improve programming.
  • Provide adequate transportation for seniors, so they can participate in city programs.
  • Attend senior events/gatherings to find out if needs of senior citizens are being met.
  • Promote through community organizations and various avenues of communication our annual, city-wide Day of Service.
  • Assess recreational sports programs to ensure they are affordable and accessible to all, regardless of athletic talent, physical ability or income level.
  • Cooperate with Parks and Recreation Foundation to develop an athletic scholarship program for indigent youth.
  • Survey to determine what services are most desired in different parts of our city and develop a Parks and Recreation master plan to address needs of various neighborhoods; budget to ensure equitable distribution of services across the city.
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Mr. McBeevee

LifeOnTSS TAGS MrMcBeevee6One of the most difficult things in sharing a personal testimony regarding your experience with God is to relate something that is very personal and very spiritual to another person who may or may not have had a similar experience.

In the book The Giver, Jonas experiences memories that are part of a world that is not evident to most of the inhabitants of the community.  Trying to express what color is to a person who only sees in black and white or sunshine to a person who has only known artificial light would challenge our language of expression.

Using a mainstream example, in the Mr. McBeevee episode of The Andy Griffith Show, where Opie meets a lineman and describes him to his Paw, Opie’s description sounds outlandish because he doesn’t know what to call Mr. McBeevee so that Andy would understand who he was.  Opie tells his Paw that Mr. McBeevee can climb trees and wears a large silver hat.

In a similar way, it is a challenge to share your salvation experience in such a way that others can relate to the person you are trying to describe.  It is also important that your character and integrity are such that the person hearing your testimony feels he or she can trust what you are saying to be true.  I think the following lines from the Mr. McBeevee episode says this very well, when Barney questions Andy accepting Opie’s assertion that Mr. McBeevee is real in spite of what seems to be obvious:

Barney: Yeah, but how can you explain it all?

Andy: I can’t.

Barney: But you do believe in Mr. McBeevee?

Andy: No… no… no. I do believe in Opie.

Fortunately, I believe God expresses himself to every individual who seeks Him.  “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”  [Hebrews 11:6, NIV]  If we start the conversation by testifying to what we know, God will finish it.

We must keep this in mind when interacting with friends and nonbelievers.  Do not be afraid to share your faith, for fear that the receiver will not believe you or will have questions.  God will take what you offer and will answer the receiver’s questions, if the person to whom you are witnessing has enough faith to ask the questions.

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.

Community Engagement – Part I

COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT – PART I

VH City Logo Unity Prosperity FamilyAs I sat in the city council chamber audience, waiting through numerous business items to hear the results of the February 2016 board of education appointment, my eyes were drawn to the emblem laser-etched on the back of the chair in front of me. I read the words, “Unity, Prosperity, Family.”

There are many definitions of unity. For our city, I prefer the definition of unity that is described in the Bible as it relates to the body, which has many diverse parts, but they all function towards one unified goal and purpose—to live a life of purpose and meaning. There are certainly other definitions for “unity,” such as “oneness of mind, feeling, agreement,” but we all know this doesn’t often happen for a family of four, much less a city of 35,000.

In our city emblem, the word “Family” appears as the balance to “Unity.” As I developed my COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT platform, I kept the word “Family” in mind, because this is a metaphor that works well for a city our size.

There are certainly all kinds of families. My parents divorced when I was twelve, so I have a different perspective than my husband, whose parents are still together after more than 50 years of marriage. From his parents, Greg learned three things about how to have a happy household:

Treat all your children the same. Having three sons, no doubt Greg’s parents understood the importance of this precept. In Greg’s family, this did not mean every child had the same rules to follow, demanded the same amount of parental attention or even got the same big present for Christmas. Why? Because, all three sons were different—with diverse needs, desires, and personalities. Nevertheless, Greg knew his parents loved all three sons equally because his parents went to great lengths to give equal treatment. Children are more likely to overlook a disappointment if they understand they have been treated equitably and given a fair hearing.

Families need to hang tight and be ready to welcome new friends. Greg’s Air Force family moved frequently. He described his childhood as a series of starting new public schools, packing and unpacking, living in temporary transitional quarters, and getting accustomed to new climates. To me, a girl who grew up in the same small town and attended the same church until I went off to college, this sounded terrible. Greg explained that the frequent moving was a good thing because it made his family close, because family was the only thing that didn’t change. Frequent moving also meant you either had to make friends quickly or be isolated.

Don’t go to bed angry. Even if your family is tight, there will be disagreements. As parents, Greg and I have learned when there is an impasse—a decision that must be made and there are two directly opposing views—one person has to “give.” Often, the outcome is more important to one parent than another, so it is best to allow the parent with the stronger interest to get his or her way. In all negotiations, communication should be open and civil. Once the decision is made, put any unhappy feelings about what happened behind you. u.Make the decision and then put it to rest, realizing, at the end of the day, what you have in common is more important than what divides yo

So how can we make our Vestavia Hills family stronger? Over the next several weeks, I will publish my ideas in sections. This week, I would like to focus on OPEN DOORS. At my house, we fight a continuing battle to get our youngest son to leave his door open when he is upstairs and we are downstairs. We desire this because having open doors facilitates conversation and interaction. This makes families stronger.

OPEN DOORS

  • Schedule weekly “office” hours at various neighborhood locations; invite the community to drop in and talk about any subject.
  • Recruit community members to serve on boards to ensure diverse representation (geographic; socio-economic; long-timers; newcomers); publicize board and commission openings through multiple media outlets.
  • Organize topical town hall meetings in various parts of the city, as needed.
  • Once every two months, rotate the location of a work session to an off-site location, choosing venues in various parts of the city.
  • Allow public comment and questions at the end of work sessions.
  • Assign communication tasks to city employees to ensure effective, regular communication.
  • Monitor social media forums for issues and respond to questions and concerns.
  • Publish “Tales from the Meeting” – a bi-monthly councilor blog regarding old and new business.
  • Publish monthly work session reports regarding requests and response rates for our Action Center.
  • Issue press releases to alert media regarding important topics to be addressed at council meetings.
  • Publish calendar of board and commission meetings on website.
  • Facilitate subscriptions to a city calendar so citizens can receive notifications regarding city board, commission and council meetings.
  • Publish minutes and agenda packets for all city boards and commissions on website.
  • Video-record work sessions and board/commission meetings and post on website.
  • Support and encourage development of community groups to address specific neighborhood issues and facilitate special projects; put community groups in touch with city resources to assist their processes.
  • Provide an online “community engagement” portal, to provide information about ways citizens can become involved and volunteer in our city government.
  • Schedule council meetings at a time that is convenient for citizens.

Community Engagement


“Strengthen your VOICE…Great by Choice.”

What happens when people are not happy with the way things are?  They want change. They want a VOICE and they want their CHOICES to matter.

Over the past two years, beginning with Dr. Blair’s early paid retirement, our community has experienced squalls that have threatened our unity and identity. John Oliver’s satirical commentary, broadcast to a national audience, was the icing and sprinkles on the donut. The formation of the Cahaba Heights Community Foundation and the “Not in My Schoolyard” campaign was a reaction to a perception that one segment of our community lacked consideration and representation. (One councilor’s statement, “They don’t matter; they don’t vote,” really summed it up.)

In my “Coffee & Conversation” meetings with friends and neighbors, I ask the question, “What would you like to see change in our city?” One common theme is the desire for our community to come together as one community, and not just individual parts of a whole. One trusted friend said she would support my candidacy, but only if I would run as a representative for the entire community.

In our community, we are geographically fragmented. In 1950, the city of Vestavia Hills was incorporated and eventually included most of the current area shown on the map to the east of Highway 280. Screen Shot 2016-05-23 at 11.13.45 AMVestavians have an ongoing, friendly debate about the proper term to use for this original part of Vestavia Hills. Some call it “Vestavia Proper,” which doesn’t work very well as a descriptor because it implies the rest of Vestavia is somewhat “improper.” Others call it “Old Vestavia,” which also offends because it implies an elderly aristocracy. I still don’t know what to call the original part of Vestavia without offending someone, so I have decided to go with “Pre-1995 Vestavia.”

In 1995, the legislature passed an amendment to the state constitution (because that is how we roll in Alabama) to allow the annexation of Liberty Park. At the time, the City of Vestavia Hills and Liberty Park did not share any borders and such an annexation violated the state constitution. The annexation of Liberty Park added Liberty Park Elementary and now Liberty Park Middle to our school system.

A short time later, in 2002, Cahaba Heights was also annexed, which connected Liberty Park and Pre-1995 Vestavia like a jewel pendant strung between two large beads. The annexation of Cahaba Heights added Cahaba Heights Elementary to our school system.

In all, our city covers about 19 square miles, although there is nothing “square” about the configuration. What I do know is that it takes me 25 minutes and one cup of coffee to drive from Liberty Park, through Cahaba Heights, to the high school. We have 34,000 residents and 15,000 households. Our median house value is $318,000. We are 90% white (Caucasian), 4% black (African-American) and 6% other races. Our median household income is $87,000. We have 4% of our population below the poverty line. We are the third largest city in Jefferson County.

As we reflect on our history and recent events, it becomes clear that for Vestavia Hills to move forward, we need positive and inclusive leadership. We all want to have a seat at the table. After the Memorial Day holiday, I will publish the second part of my platform: COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT. I will share my vision for how we can make our community ONE.

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Cpl. William F. “Sonny” Silver

Over the weekend, I will be visiting my oldest son and daughter–both VHHS graduates–in D.C. My daughter is a summer intern on Capitol Hill and my son is working as a software developer in Herndon, Virginia. On Monday, I will visit the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial because my uncle’s name is on that wall. My youngest son proudly shares his name—William Franklin “Sonny” Silver. Uncle Sonny was killed by a grenade on Hamburger Hill, May 13, 1969. He was 21 years old and unmarried. He did not even complete a full year of service, but he was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star with a “V” for Valor. As I remember my uncle’s faithful service, I hope you will take the time to honor our veterans who have served us so well. Have a happy and safe weekend.

Transparency

window

Transparency. We all want it in our government, but how does transparency “look” in real life and what are its effects?

A – ACCESS

  • Plan meetings at a time and place so that people can reasonably attend.
  • Discuss issues in open meetings, where citizens are invited and encouraged to hear all that is being said.
  • Provide public information to citizens in a convenient, accessible format through an open data platform.
  • Record and post public meetings.

C – COMMUNICATE

  • Post meeting agendas for work sessions and regular meetings in a timely fashion on the city website.
  • Provide meeting materials (agendas and agenda packets) to citizens who subscribe.
  • Post meeting notices on city social media pages.
  • Record and post minutes for all city council meetings–work sessions and regular meetings–where business is transacted.
  • Record and post minutes for all of our city’s subsidiary foundations, boards, commissions and committees.

E – ETHICS

  • Post all city contracts, competitive bids and relevant conflict of interest statements before contracts are awarded.
  • Post publicly all service agreements and conflict of interest statements in advance of the agreement signing.
  • Regularly review and evaluate professional service contracts that are not bid to ensure an optimum level of service and cost-effectiveness.
  • Select professional service vendors, whenever possible, who are not impeded by a conflict of interest.
  • Rotate the selection of auditors to ensure independence, objectivity and fiscal responsibility.
  • Advertise vacancies on all city boards and commissions; use an application process to identify potential conflicts of interest and ensure the best selection is made.
  • Provide mandatory ethics training for new city council, board and commission members.
  • Require appointees to adhere to this transparency platform.

When we ACE transparency, we achieve:

  • Development that is responsive to the desires of the community
  • Stronger ethics in government
  • Efficient, responsible use of taxpayer dollars
  • Decisions that put citizens first and other concerns second
  • City services that best meet the needs of citizens
  • Community image and reputation that makes us all proud
  • TRUST
  • ACCOUNTABILITY

If you elect me to the Vestavia Hills City Council, you will have a pair of watchful eyes and an advocate for the examples of transparency provided above.

“If the broad light of day could be let in upon men’s actions, it would purify them as the sun disinfects.” [Justice Louis Brandeis, U.S. Supreme Court]

“It is Your Soul I Buy From You.”

 

valjean-eveque
“Now,” said the Bishop, “go in peace. By the way, when you return, my friend, it is not necessary to pass through the garden. You can always enter and depart through the street door. It is never fastened with anything but a latch, either by day or by night.”

ValJean, the main character of Victor Hugo’s epic tale of judgment and redemption, Les Miserables, is a convict who has served 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. Though he has paid heavily for his crime, he continues to suffer under the heavy weight of society’s ruthless prejudice, even after his release. In a moment of desperation, he throws himself upon the good graces of Monsieur Bienvenue, a humble and good man of the cloth.

After having supped at the bishop’s table and slept in the bishop’s guest room, the demon of injustice overtakes the convict in the night; ValJean decides to rob the bishop of one of two items the bishop still has of value–the silverware. The bishop has already given everything else of value, including his palace, to the poor. He does not even have a lock on the front door for security.

Following his theft, ValJean is taken into custody and brought to the bishop for accusation. The bishop, more concerned with the state of ValJean’s soul than the theft of his silverware, tells the gendarmes that ValJean took the silverware with his blessing. His generosity extends to offering ValJean the silver candlesticks as well. [Matthew 5:40] As the police leave, the bishop has a private word with ValJean:

The Bishop drew near to him, and said in a low voice:— “Do not forget, never forget, that you have promised to use this money in becoming an honest man.”

Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of ever having promised anything, remained speechless.

The Bishop had emphasized the words when he uttered them. He resumed with solemnity:— “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”

What a beautiful picture of grace and redemption. God does not only offer us the silverware, but the candlesticks too, that there may be no impediment to our returning to his side through the front door whenever we choose. He has not made us his into guilty thieves, taking things to which we have no right; but, he has made us his children. Through Christ, there is no barrier–no lock on the front door–to prevent our coming into His Presence. Not only that, but in His buying back our soul from the certainty of hell, we experience the removal of guilt, anger and frustration, and a resurrection of our soul through the promise of hope. God tells us to “Go and sin no more.” [John 8:11] We can do that because we have a new spirit.


“What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” [Philippians 3:8-11]