Public Engagement in Burlington
Public engagement in Burlington is tricky.
I attended a meeting in City Hall on August 14th, where city officials presented new plans about the City Hall Park redevelopment. I spoke from my perspective as a preschool teacher who works with many young families and children from many different cultural, economic, social, gender, and racial backgrounds. I shared with city officials what my students liked to do on Church Street and City Hall Park, and how they could add more structures in the park to make it more child and family friendly. It felt great to see Planning Director David White scribbling notes as I talked, and I was grateful that my perspective felt heard.
I write about this experience because not only was this the first time I really felt heard, but also because at that meeting I heard two different people (one of whom is a planning commissioner) make very common remarks about public processes in Burlington.
The two common refrains are:
- If people don’t partake in the public process it’s their own fault.
- I had many opportunities to engage in this process, so it was a fair and inclusive process, even if you are saying you weren’t meaningfully included.
I believe, if we are willing to look critically at our city’s public processes, listen carefully to the many folks who inevitably feel ignored, we can create a local government that ALL people want and do engage in, want to give their time and expertise, to make the city a better place.
My school and I have attempted to engage our students in the parks planning process on three different occasional over the past five years, one of which felt somewhat successful. The first time was in 2012, under a grant through Burlington City Arts, called Imagine City Hall Park. I had honestly entirely forgotten the experience until I was looking at park plans and saw this great photo-op of my coworker and former students.
Five years ago we were invited to participate in the original City Hall Park design process for 45 minutes. Once. There were no follow ups, no invitations to attend meetings, or to work on our designs and present them to city staff.
The second time, three years later, I emailed (former) Parks and Rec Director Jesse Bridges, about engaging with my students and my school again around the City Hall Park redesign as the process had moved forward. I was inspired by the University of Colorado’s amazing public engagement processes called Growing Up Boulder, which works hard to include local schools and children in community design processes. I was hopeful to see if we could attempt something similar in Burlington. Here was my initial email:
Are there any plans to include child-friendly structures in the new city hall park? We’d love to help! Let us know what we could do.
Charles and the Helping Heroes
And here was Jesse’s response.
The conceptual design includes a splash fountain which will be a major draw for kids and a huge improvement over the new fountain. Additional steps, I think some of the new art work (including boulders like on church street) and of course the stage will all function as good spaces for play.
Design needs to advance further of course but it will become a much more kid friendly public space.
What this said to me, and I do not believe was his intention, was that children were not to be included in this process. I spend a lot of my time as an educator trying to create stronger community engagement and civic engagement with my students and their families. This was disheartening.
Now I don’t bring this up to shame anyone – this is unfortunately how planning works in most cities, where those in charge make decisions and keep a lot of the decision-making power firmly in their own hands, and our city is no exception. Democracy is messy, and it’s safer and easier to have a project designed by professionals and knowledgeable coworkers than by common, sometimes angry and often discomforting or negative citizens. Yet it’s important to recognize that this may be a reason that so many people feel angry towards the city, that so many people feel unheard and have chosen not to vote altogether.
The last experience with Parks and Rec was incredibly positive. A year or so ago my students and I were exploring our local parks, drawing and building different maps of our community, and engaging with the Old North End to build positive experiences of the neighborhood. Since we had learned there would be a new children’s park in the New North End (near the dog park), I invited the Parks Department to share their designs.
For 25-30 minutes Jesse showed us some of the mock ups/designs of the new park. The children were incredibly engaged, asking some amazing questions, and it was one of the highlights of their (and my) summer. When children have a positive experience with city government, it trickles to their parents, and in a school with many children from marginalized backgrounds, this was a success! While there was no follow up, I really hope that maybe some Parks and Rec staff recognized the value in community building and inclusion.
A lot of people in Burlington don’t know how to participate in public processes – they either don’t feel comfortable being in those spaces, showing up to City Hall to speak in front of powerful figures, or they don’t have the time. And I get the impression that a lot of our political leaders have not been trained in meaningful democratic civic engagement.
There is a reason that I’m often one of the youngest people in any room involving local politics. If you’re not ready to geek out and read hundreds of pages of technical jargon-filled documents, if you don’t have hours of free time, childcare, or transportation after working 40+ hours a week (for many people, 60+), it can be incredibly hard to find time to engage in our community in a regular manner and feel like you are heard when you can’t check in every step of the way.
Many times, folks like myself are able to engage in these processes because 1) we have the free time, 2) we make enough money per hour to *only* have to work 40 hours a week, 3) we are mostly college-educated, 4) English is usually our first language, 5) we are mostly white and have an easier time traversing majority-white spaces.
This means that yes, the process does work for people like me. I feel included in these processes – and when I don’t, I can write an oped or blog post and have it read. As a city, we need to make sure we are including those who are already marginalized, who already face discrimination in our local institutions and government. Often, that means we need to move outside of our own comfortable spaces and go find and meet people where they are. We need to hire interpreters and translators. We need to make it easier to read government documents, advertise events and public processes in ways that reach other folks. We need to find out what works best for folks who don’t show up and make it work for them. This helps not just the disenfranchised, but also city workers who end up dealing with the brunt of an angry electorate.
These are just a few suggestions. I know if we are willing to take some risks with processes, be willing to share power and control, we can rebuild trust in our community, and hopefully people will want to engage in positive ways. But to do that we first have to break down barriers that continue to make our processes less inclusive than they can be, and continue to strive towards inclusive processes. There is much we still have to learn.