Beyond running for public office, there are a variety of ways citizens can serve their community.
Every year there is a wider variety of tools available for the public to keep up to date on events happening around them. But even as social media platforms, online news sources and 24-hour cable news shows have broadened the availability of information, it seems the depth of involvement and connection between the public and the community at large is receding.
Community engagement has a long and critical history in the United States. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types: religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute… Nothing, in my view, deserves more attention than the intellectual and moral associations in America.”
Engagement in the life of a community is one of the most important factors in building a strong and vibrant city—and many Peoria residents are actively engaged. They attend sporting and cultural events, volunteer on church boards and at charitable organizations, attend political meetings and stay up to date on the events that make Peoria the community it is. Two of the most important ways in which residents can become engaged in their community is by volunteering to serve on a city commission, and by forming or joining a neighborhood association.
There are more than 30 city commissions, consisting of over 300 residents nominated by the mayor and appointed by the City Council. These critical groups focus on a variety of topics important to the health of Peoria—and each has a different but equally important role. The Planning & Zoning Commission, for example, holds public hearings on large development proposals and makes recommendations to the City Council. The Transportation Commission explores ways to make Peoria friendlier to all modes of transportation. The Human Resource Commission reviews applications for social service programs and makes funding recommendations to the City Council. The members of these commissions are all volunteers serving without compensation—and often without recognition of the time and effort they put into their responsibilities.
While the visibility of most commissions can be limited, the importance of serving cannot be overstated. Without these 300-plus volunteers serving on commissions, many of the decisions made by the City Council would be delayed, while opportunities for the public to comment on public business would be limited. These commissions provide an open forum for discussion of items that are under consideration for adoption or approval by the City Council—while offering an opportunity for changes before specific recommendations are made. They also help to share the workload with City staff. Much of the work that commissions do would still have to be carried out by City staff, and with current staffing levels, this would inevitably lead to a delay in the processing of many applications and proposals.
There are more than 100 neighborhood associations in the City of Peoria. Some meet monthly, some just once a year, but they all serve as a grassroots connection between individual residents and community-level events, issues and concerns. Neighborhood associations are a great forum for individuals to discuss how to improve their own neighborhood by working with their neighbors, as many issues can be identified and corrected by simply talking with the people who live on the same street and share the same concerns. While neighborhood associations are not as formal as city commissions, they serve the same basic purpose: to connect residents and allow a setting to discuss common issues.
City staff can help residents form neighborhood associations—or strengthen those that exist but would like to be more active. The City understands that having strong, committed and active residents and associations is a key element in building a great city. The City uses the Nextdoor service (nextdoor.com) to provide information to neighborhood associations, allowing them to share information internally among residents. This technology makes the sharing of information far easier than distributing flyers to all of the houses in your neighborhood.
In his classic book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam lamented the dwindling of participation in many traditional community activities—the activities that tie communities together and create the civil society that has been the basis for American life for decades. Peoria has not been immune to this decline. However, with over 100 neighborhood associations and more than 300 individuals volunteering on city commissions, we are clearly a community that believes in the importance of working together toward a better future.
I encourage everyone to increase their community connections in 2017 by volunteering to serve on a commission, attending or establishing a neighborhood association, or participating in some other aspect of your city’s common community life. iBi
Ross Black is Community Development Director for the City of Peoria.