inCommon is the Participatory Governance Blog of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy. Here you will find information about the latest resources, studies, programs and discussions about Civic Engagement in California, throughout the nation and around the world. We hope that the case studies and technological innovations discussed here will spark new reflection and conversation regarding both what legitimate civic engagement looks like and why it is important for good governance, particularly at the local level.

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Engagement & the Sycamore Trail

Jude Hudson tells the story of a community in West Sacramento that sparked a collaborative effort to enhance safety and quality of playgrounds and trails in their neighborhood.

About five years ago, parents and families living in a low-income neighborhood     in the City of West Sacramento were frustrated, fearful and angry. Walking their children to the Westfield Village Elementary School had become an increasingly      dangerous experience along a rough trail where crime occurred daily, and     vagrants harassed pedestrians and solicited mothers. In addition, neighborhood    children lacked a safe place to play. A group of Latino parents approached staff         at the Yolo County Children’s Alliance, a community-based nonprofit organization, and asked for help in finding a solution . . .

“The work that the Yolo County Children’s Alliance did with the Kaiser Permanente grant focused attention on the neighborhood,” says West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon. “The Sycamore Trail project improved the environment for health and safety. In part, this is because the neighborhood residents were so involved. There is a sense of ownership that would not have happened if the city had just gotten a grant and done the project on its own. Folks use the trail and protect it against vandalism and graffiti — they treasure it.” . . .

Check out this inspiring example of residents stepping up to improve the quality of life in their community at Western City here.

From EPA Mandate to Civic Engagement

Feather O’Connor Houstoun recounts at Governing how the city of Philadelphia’s plan to deal with excess urban stormwater is leveraging local agencies and community input:

Instead of a massive underground retention tunnel, Philadelphia proposed a comprehensive approach that would slow stormwater as it hit the ground, capturing it in myriad purpose-built basins, stormwater wetlands, green roofs and vastly expanded permeable surfaces converted from the concrete that dominates urban development . . .

At its heart, the EPA-approved plan is all about hydraulics and engineering. What interests me here, though, is how the city’s implementation of its Green City, Clean Waters plan has nurtured a significant community movement as well. Stormwater-management imperatives — executed with the deep engagement of communities and schools — have multiplied the benefits of changing out dreary concrete and asphalt surfaces by making environmental education an integral part of the planning and implementation of rebuilt school and recreation-center playgrounds. This aligns perfectly with the city’s goal of bringing a green park (not a concrete playground) within 10-minute walk of every Philadelphian. And in turn, community education and involvement has built support for a daunting project affecting virtually every city resident and business.

This wasn’t a spontaneous process – effective engagement efforts require significant planning and thought, while leaving space for citizens’ participation and creativity. You can read more about that here.

Contributor: Ben Peterson, Pepperdine School of Public Policy, MPP Candidate ’16.

The Next Big Thing(s)

Robert J. O’Neill is trying to figure out what “the next big thing” will be for city and county governments. He got some ideas from a recent conference he moderated, sponsored by ICMA and AFI:

  • Collaboration
  • Technology and citizens
  • Closing gaps between rich and poor
  • Resiliency

Look for more on these and related topics coming soon from the ongoing 101st Annual ICMA Conference, where Davenport Institute Director Pete Peterson and Assistant Director Ashley Trim were in attendance!

Read O’Neill’s piece at Governing here, and learn more about ICMA’s “The Next Big Thing” project here.

Are They Ready for This?

Executive Director Pete Peterson’s latest reflects on a recent online phenomenon, where the blogosphere had a bit of fun at the expense of Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation (PennDOT), which registered 289 Adarians to vote. If you’re unfamiliar, Adarians are “bipedal humanoids from the planet Adari,” prominent in a series of Star Wars books. We have not independently confirmed, but we’re guessing the count was slightly high.

At least we can applaud PennDOT for pursuing inclusive civic engagement.

In light of the incident, Pete  questions whether the California DMV is up to the challenge of implementing the proposed AB 1461, known as the “Motor Voter” program:

The story got me to thinking about California’s own “Motor Voter” program outlined in a piece of legislation (AB 1461) that sits on the Governor’s desk.

The bill, which will start automatic voter registration for all California citizens when they get their driver’s license starting next June, casts a spotlight on an agency that appears unprepared to take on the challenge – at least in the coming year. And while much attention has been paid over the last year to improving California’s voter participation, aside from a public complaint filed by the ACLU earlier this year, the DMV has received precious little consideration relative to the significant role it’s mandated to play on the issue.

Read Pete’s comments at Fox and Hounds here.

Contributor: Ben Peterson, Pepperdine School of Public Policy, MPP Candidate ’16

Cultural Engagement over Civic Engagement?

Gregory Rodriguez recent op-ed in the LA Times is an interesting – and rather controversial – answer to the issue of civility.  He raises some important questions about the meaning of civics – especially when it comes to education.  Describing a recent meeting he participated in that sought to “revive and reinvent civics in the U.S.” He notes a problem of definition:

For some, it was simply about the teaching of how government works. For others, it was mainly about civility. And for a third group, into which I fell, it was about something more meaningful and demanding. Kristen Cambell of the National Council on Citizenship, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering civic engagement, was also in that last group. “Successful civic engagement,” she told me, “is all about capturing and harnessing empathy. Ultimately, we’re talking about wanting people to care for their neighbors, communities, their country.”

Rodruguez challenges the idea that increased civic engagement will itself counter the polarizing and uncivil political climate:

In order to change today’s gridlocked public dialogue, then, we need to find ways to encourage empathy — double-mindedness — on a broad scale. History has shown us that a democracy with sufficient moral engagement can thrive even when political engagement is low. (Think of Switzerland, which has lower voter turnout than its neighbors yet has enjoyed decade after decade of peaceful prosperity. But a democracy without sufficient moral engagement can easily dissolve even when political engagement is high. (Think of Venezuela, where high voter turnout — as much as 75% — has failed to halt a steady descent toward one-man rule.)

He raises the possibility that  the question of a “better self” may be as important for us as it was for Matthew Arnold:

Today, the idea that the acquisition of culture builds moral character is viewed as quaint — even elitist. But as British philosopher John Armstrong writes in his new book “In Search of Civilization,” the real task of art is to “shape and direct our longings, to show us what is noble and important.”

You can read more and join the discussion here.

H/T to Sarah Mirembe, Pepperdine School of Public Policy MPP Candidate ’16 for bringing this article to our attention!