NYC Experiments in Civic Inclusion


Reprinted from Independent Sector - October 14, 2013

My organization, Public Agenda, helps diverse citizens and leaders navigate divisive, complex issues and arrive at workable solutions. This difficult charge can feel Herculean within our current political climate, particularly when it comes to national politics. Fortunately, on the local level there are great examples of communities working together to make progress on important challenges.

As moderator of a session at the IS National Conference last week in New York, I had the good fortune to learn about rich opportunities for people to participate in community problem-solving.

The format was a new one for me: a “Pecha Kucha” session in which presenters talk in front of slides of evocative images, with 20 slides appearing for 20 seconds each. The result was a rich, non-stop panorama of some of New York’s most successful efforts to foster inclusion and combat alienation and powerlessness. See the slides here.

For example, young people in juvenile justice centers compose and perform their own music thanks to the efforts of the Carnegie Hall’s Musical Connections program. Some of the creative work that happens in juvenile justice settings this year will be performed at Carnegie Hall. NGen award winner Sarah Johnson’s slides told the novel story about this program, which also serves people in health care facilities and homeless shelters.

Brooklyn-based Urban Bush Women troupe uses dance and movement to commemorate tragedy and help communities heal. Maria Bauman’s slides told the story of how the troupe marked the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four young girls during the height of the civil-and-voting-rights movement.

Each year, a new class of fellows from Coro New York's Immigrant Civic Leadership Program works in diverse communities, at City Hall, and with business leaders to lead change across the five boroughs. As the faces of Coro fellows filled the screen, Scott Millstein explained how they, with support from a strong alumni network, gain a deeper understanding of policy and decision making in the city.

In Brooklyn, the Red Hook Initiative was critical as the community responded to the devastation and strife caused by Hurricane Sandy. Jill Eisenhard brought to life RHI’s history of bringing people together to solve problems and develop common ground. The efforts of RHI help create a neighborhood where all young people can pursue their dreams.

In a number of New York City neighborhoods, through a process called participatory budgeting, diverse community members work together to choose how to spend a portion of taxpayer funds in their neighborhoods. Sondra Youdelman’s grassroots organization, Community Voices Heard, encourages more members of the New York City Council to adopt participatory budgeting in their districts. The result: local citizens are deciding how $1 million is spent in each of nine districts, bringing local democracy alive in the process.

For a native New Yorker, and for the president of an organization that has worked for decades to build a society in which progress triumphs over inertia and where public policy reflects the values and ideas of the people, it was an inspiring session. I hope others will learn from and support the organizations that shared their great work with us that day.

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