If Civic Engagement Is Boring, You're Probably Doing It Wrong

History can provide some lessons in making it actually engaging.
July 14, 2015
By Ron Littlefield  |  Senior Fellow
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.

The Ross Hotel in 2012. In the 1980s, it served as the headquarters for Chattanooga Venture's Vision 2000 project, which leveraged civic engagement to help turn the city around. (Larry Miller)

The five cities of the City Accelerator's second cohort -- Albuquerque, Atlanta, Baltimore, New Orleans and Seattle -- are spending the summer doing the detailed work of turning their winning proposals into practical, results-producing models of civic engagement.

During the next 18 months, we will learn from the cohort as a whole and from each city individually because civic engagement, like most anything that matters, is deeply contextualized -- informed by a unique sense of place. The personality of each of these places is shaped by the mixture of people, politics, economics and histories that make that city what it is.

And so it is in Chattanooga, the city I know best. Our sense of place and that place's people shaped how we approached an ambitious revitalization campaign. They were heady times. It had a startup sensibility to it, and its success relied on our ability to meaningfully engage with the people who lived and worked there.

Spoiler alert: We worked hard and made it fun, on purpose.

Chattanooga was a tired industrial city, with all the elements of a decaying urban environment. Factories shut down, companies took jobs to other communities and young people decided to plan their futures elsewhere.

Chattanooga Venture was a nonprofit created specifically for the task of turning things around and Vision 2000 (remember these were the 1980s) was the program designed to accomplish it. It was a challenging assignment that some might have likened to a Hail Mary pass considering the likelihood of failure.

We set up shop in the lobby of the long-vacant (and some might say derelict) Ross Hotel – a downtown fixture from Chattanooga's railroad era. The old hotel was centrally located and its history inspired a sense that good times could return. The owner was happy to let us use it rent free, provided we clean up the property and purchase insurance.

As a side note, the Ross Hotel was the place where the famous lawyer and politician William Jennings Bryan spent his last night on earth. He died the next day at the end of the Scopes Trial in nearby Dayton, Tenn. That historic fact alone made it worth saving and something of a minor public attraction. That might be a story for another day, except it helps to underscore another theme we adopted for our marathon of meetings and related civic engagement activities: “It doesn't really matter what you do as long as you do it with a flair!” That line from Disney's “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” captured the spirit of the effort – whatever we do, let's make it interesting and entertaining.

So we set about to accomplish civic engagement in a manner never seen in Chattanooga by making it fun. The meetings were high-energy media events and we spent more on coffee than most would have thought possible. In addition to the vision sessions, the six-month process was sprinkled with presentations by major “visionaries” – well-known thinkers including Weiming Lu, a noted city planner, and William Holly White, an author and urban critic. These individuals brought an objective and hopeful message to the process.

We just kept cranking up the volume and sparking the enthusiasm.

Whenever possible, we celebrated! At regular intervals, we would line the lobby of the hotel with pages bearing the unedited product of the process thus far. We would invite the public to a special showing and local media would attend to interview the real people who otherwise would have had little opportunity to be heard.

As the principal work of Chattanooga Venture and Vision 2000 was wrapping up in the mid-1980s, we wanted to both end with an exclamation point and sustain the special atmosphere we had created.

Tennessee's youthful Gov. Lamar Alexander – now the state's senior U.S. Senator – announced plans for a grand statewide celebration that he called “Homecoming '86.” All Tennessee citizens, former citizens and wannabe citizens were invited to come home in 1986. World-class country stars, as well as advertising and public relations professionals, participated to make the event a success. Small grants were offered to communities that planned special events. It was perfect.

And so, we announced “Visions '86’” and promoted it nationally as an example of transforming a community by innovative civic engagement. I still can't believe the lineup. Legendary developer Jim Rouse, "Roots" author Alex Haley, Former Mississippi Gov. William Winter, our own Sen. Al Gore and a host of other prominent speakers – including Chattanooga Mayor Gene Roberts – all took part in the fast-paced conference that lasted only a day and a half. A "Do it Yourself Kit" was available for those who wished to initiate something similar in their own communities.

Some naysayers had predicted that nobody would come to a vision conference in the drab city of Chattanooga and, given our circumstances up until that time, it was admittedly something of a stretch. But by anyone’s measure, it was a resounding success with approximately 300 people attending and traveling from as far away as Greeley, Colo.

For me, the most notable thing about the conference is the still-valid comments of the speakers – the “prophets,” if you will.

Developer Jim Rouse related his experience in building the new city of Columbia, Md., and helping rebuild Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Rouse felt deteriorating neighborhoods, substandard housing and high levels of unemployment were a disgrace of the country – and civilization in general – and they were the fundamental sources of the “cancer” of alcohol, drugs and crime. Rouse’s opinion was that the government's housing efforts for the poor had been inadequate and related his dreams for his Enterprise Foundation, where he hoped to provide people a way out of poverty by enabling them to obtain safe and livable housing. In this way, they would build equity they could later tap to educate children and ensure a better future for an entire family.

Former Mississippi Gov. William Winter – still regarded as quite possibly the most progressive “pro education” chief executive in the history of that state – believed leaders should not cheat the future to achieve short-term goals. Winter said students needed to learn the skills that would enable them adapt to workplace demands of the future. This was almost 30 years ago and since then Mississippi has become one of the most successful states in luring new auto manufacturing and other advanced manufacturing.

Tennessee author Alex Haley, fresh off the remarkable success of “Roots,” spoke about inspiration and the important role personal history plays in determining the future of a person or an entire community. Haley recalled watching lightning bugs from his grandmother’s front porch and spoke lovingly of grandparents who “kind of sprinkle stardust in the lives of little children.” Haley said that a story-telling culture allowed even the youngest to participate in transmitting information and memories.

Tennessee Sen. Al Gore looked to times beyond the horizon, saying it was important for citizens to anticipate future developments even if they couldn’t predict their precise nature. Gore pointed to things such as chemical waste and greenhouse gases, and gave an early version of what was to become the award-winning film, “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Finally, Chattanooga Mayor Gene Roberts based his comments on an event that occurred almost a century earlier on December 21, 1886. On that date, the great Georgia publisher and orator Henry Grady delivered a visionary speech on “The New South” to the New England Club in New York City. “The New South” described displaced Southerners’ return to the burned ruins of Atlanta and the city’s subsequent rise from the ashes. Roberts said the visions for Chattanooga and Tennessee were no less than those proclaimed by Grady for the New South.

It was a special time in Chattanooga topped off by a mix of high-energy meetings and parties, and a world-class parade of urban prophets whose predictions largely came true.

In Chattanooga we proved that civic engagement doesn't have to be boring to be effective. But more than that, perhaps it should be more than simply “not boring” – it should be truly engaging and inspiring.

We demonstrated something other cities have found. You can do important work in ways that surprise your staff and the people you serve -- by having a little fun along the way. The destination matters, to be sure, but so does the manner of the journey.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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