Arthur T. HimmelmanA poster during the mass uprisings in France in 1968 read, “You participate, she participates, I participate, they decide.” Malcolm X said: “Just because you invite me to the table does not mean I get something to eat.” Being invited to the table is a cliché commonly used by government, foundations, and nonprofit agencies when they invite participation in their change initiatives from stakeholders most affected by them. The word used to describe this kind of top-down, institutionally driven participation strategy is engagement.
Over the past year, City Hall in Minneapolis has used the engagement strategy in major community initiatives affecting a large number of residents, including the 2040 Comprehensive Plan, Neighborhoods 2020, and the Upper Harbor Terminal Concept Plan. Many neighborhood associations, cultural community organizations, and residents have shared serious concerns linked with constructive suggestions about these planning processes. However, City Hall engagement has included impossibly tight timelines for public comment, ignoring legitimate questions, optional public hearings, and accepting few recommendations of various community advisory commissions. Unfortunately, sometimes this is one of the reasons government uses engagement; it includes no shared decision-making power with people and their community/neighborhood organizations.
In 1991, the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) was created. NRP provides a large-scale, long-term example of how shared power differs from engagement. In the NRP, neighborhood organizations established strategies and allocated funds for priorities determined by residents while City Hall served as an adviser, funder, and provider of technical assistance. Since 1991, the NRP has provided over $400,000,000 for Minneapolis neighborhoods by using tax-increment financing (TIF) that allocates new property tax revenues from downtown development to neighborhood organizations.
City decided power sharing was problematic
Unfortunately, Minneapolis city government decided power sharing was problematic, and neighborhoods were not organized well enough to prevent the NRP from being “redesigned” in 2010 into a program within the Minneapolis city coordinator’s department called Neighborhood and Community Relations (NCR). The redesign eliminated the NRP’s power sharing and replaced it with engagement in city initiatives, which according to the NCR, provides a “feeling of being represented in city government … to influence city decisions.”
As a result, city neighborhoods became immersed in the diversions of engagement, which intentionally limit possibilities for change representing the desires and priorities of those most affected by change. For example, NCR’s current Neighbors 2020 planning process has resulted in many neighborhood organizations and residents becoming very dissatisfied with being limited to engagement in which City Hall retains full power to make all decisions about the future of Minneapolis neighborhoods.
This raises questions about governance and democracy: Should city government share decision-making power with its communities and neighborhoods? And, if so, in what ways and to what degrees? For those who believe it should, as it did to some degree in the NRP, there are two basic factors which must be addressed: 1) Many in City Hall would strongly oppose returning to sharing power with neighborhoods; and 2) Minneapolis neighborhood organizations would need to organize a citywide alliance to overcome this opposition.
A citywide alliance would be required
If neighborhood and community stakeholders want to move from engagement to shared power, a citywide alliance would be required and among other things likely include: 1) Examining and agreeing on what worked best and what did not in the NRP and building on lessons learned; 2) maintaining high levels of trust in creating a multi-neighborhood shared mission and goals; 3) addressing and resolving a variety of conflicts within diverse neighborhoods; 4) agreeing on methods of limiting disruptive actions by those who are self-serving rather than working for an alliance’s shared mission; 5) deciding on a structure and operating practices; 6) identifying and involving community-based organizations, such as nonprofit housing developers, which will support the neighborhood alliance; 7) securing adequately paid, skilled community organizers accountable to the alliance rather than accepting staffing support from city government; and 8) gaining support from at least some members of the City Council and others in City Hall.
Engagement invites you the table. Shared power gets you what you want to eat. Will city neighborhoods be on City Hall’s menu or build the power to order what they want from it?
Arthur T. Himmelman, of Minneapolis, is a nationally recognized consultant on community change partnerships who has supported Minneapolis neighborhood residents and organizations for many years.
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