Equipping Citizens to Make a Difference

User .Minh Luu
Posted Date : February 25, 2013

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Especially in our current funding climate, partnership and authentic engagement with those we seek to serve is critical to ensuring that limited philanthropic resources are invested wisely and deliver the greatest possible impact for those most in need.

The success of Foundation for Louisiana’s citizen’s guides illustrates just how important and rewarding it is for philanthropy to hear and understand residents, be effective at developing and activating partnerships, and be in a prime position to connect grassroots to grasstops on issues of shared concern.

As the New Orleans Master Plan, which will hold the force of law for 20 years, was being developed, city planners conducting community outreach meetings were met with empty rooms in many low-income and working class districts. They assumed that these residents just didn’t care. What Foundation for Louisiana staff heard from residents is that they had no idea meetings were taking place. Residents cared deeply about the future of their neighborhoods, but were not receiving meeting notices. Once they were properly notified of meeting times and dates, residents found that the information being presented was too technical and that there was not enough time allotted for them to ask questions, share ideas, or express concerns. While well intentioned, this was clearly a failing model and practice of community outreach and engagement.

The foundation’s Neighborhood Organizing and Planning Fund (NOPF) was established after Hurricane Katrina with support from the Ford Foundation to address just these sorts of challenges. NOPF staff worked with city government to ensure that meeting notices were disseminated via channels that actually connected to residents, and then worked with planning officials to improve presentations for clarity and alter meeting formats to allow ample time for resident questions. Residents were finally gaining the access they sought and opportunities to influence decisions that would impact their neighborhoods and affect their quality of life.

Responding to needs repeatedly articulated by residents, Foundation for Louisiana set out to create tools that would empower residents with the knowledge and skills necessary to have a meaningful impact on planning processes: The Citizen’s Guide to Land Use and the Citizen’s Guide to Urban Design. From the earliest concept meetings to final edits, the foundation enlisted residents, city planners, community development professionals, philanthropic peers, and local leaders in focus groups to guide the process and maintain alignment with both community needs and the highest standards of accuracy.

The high-engagement process the foundation employed for developing the guides ensured that the final product would meet the needs expressed by community members. Further, planners and city officials may now rely on the guides as a bridge to residents that provides a common knowledge base and a shared language to exchange ideas and share concerns. While both guides contain some examples drawn from the New Orleans area, they were developed with scale and reproduction in mind: The information contained in the guides is relevant and applicable to any community embarking on planning and zoning processes.

Foundation for Louisiana is building permanent capacity and further supporting resident engagement in city and regional planning by hosting “train the trainer” workshops throughout the state. These workshops provide hands-on training to prepare grassroots leaders to engage their constituents in local planning and zoning processes using the guides. The goal and anticipated outcome of the foundation’s investment in the guides is to promote economic opportunity in vulnerable communities throughout the state by giving residents the tools they need to be a meaningful part of public decision-making processes.

What other examples of shared learning and community engagement should we be tracking?  How can we transform successful engagement models into actions that have generational impact in our communities?

Flozell Daniels Jr. is president and CEO of the Foundation for Louisiana.

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