Opening City Hall to build trust in cities

Opening City Hall to build trust in cities

// By Jacqueline Brennan

/ By Kristina Gawrgy Campbell /

We recently caught up with Myung J. Lee, executive director of Cities of Service, who will be moderating an exciting session at Upswell LA on Thursday, November 15 at 4:00-5:30 pm, titled, “How Changemaking Mayors Are Building Trust and Community.” The session will offer participants an intimate setting to hear from Mayors G.T. Bynum of Tulsa, Oklahoma and Sam Liccardo of San Jose, California on how they are working closely with their communities to build trust and improve lives, particularly for residents often left behind. Read on to get a preview of what you’ll hear at Upswell in November and register today.

KGC: First, tell us first a little about your organization’s work.

Myung J. Lee, Executive Director, Cities of Service

MJL: At Cities of Service, we help mayors and city leaders build stronger cities by engaging their citizens to help them identify and solve critical public problems. We support our coalition cities as they activate their citizens in a variety of ways. Citizens have deep expertise in their own lives and know what’s best for their families and communities, and we help cities leverage that expertise to deliver better services. Contributions from citizens can take many forms, from defining and prioritizing problems to volunteering time, creativity, and expertise.

KGC: This session will give participants an intimate setting to ask Mayor Bynum and Mayor Liccardo questions about how their own communities could be building trust and community. Can you give us a little flavor of how these mayors are doing this work already?

MJL: I don’t want to give everything away but both of these mayors believe in rolling up their sleeves, joining their citizens out in the community, and bringing them into city hall and involving them in the day to day business of the city. They exemplify everything that is great about local government in terms of opening city hall to the public and asking for their help and input.

One example in Tulsa is Mayor Bynum’s Urban Data Pioneers program. This Engaged Cities Award-winning program united city staff and citizens to analyze data and better understand local challenges, such as income disparity and blight. To date, the program has engaged over 120 community volunteers and city staff and helped the city address more than a dozen public problems, including improved assessment of street repairs and programs to increase graduation rates.

In San Jose, Mayor Liccardo not only regularly participates in volunteer activities himself, through partnerships with Cities of Service and others, he has activated community members to volunteer in numerous ways. When the city experienced historic flooding last year, their existing infrastructure and network of more than 2,000 volunteers allowed residents to return home four to five weeks earlier than they would have otherwise been able to. Through our Prepared Together program, San Jose residents continued to be key to the city’s resilience efforts, planting and caring for trees and rain gardens, cleaning up waterways, and restoring river banks to increase green infrastructure and mitigate the impact of future flooding.

KGC: In the current political climate, people might be wary of their chances in succeeding in local advocacy. In what ways will that discussion be a part of the session? 

MJL: There is no better time than now to get involved at the local level. People have the most opportunity to make a difference in their own neighborhoods and communities and there are so many mayors following in the footsteps of people like Mayors Liccardo and Bynum.

When cities are strategic they can turn a short-term project into long-term engagement.  When they connect with residents by being open to their ideas and talents and assume that citizen collaboration is a force for good, they can solve more problems more quickly, and keep those people and more coming back for more. We are seeing more and more cities adopt this model and work hard to share their stories so that more cities can adopt these same methods with confidence after seeing proof that it works!

KGC: One of the key themes at Upswell is racial equity. Communities like Tulsa and San Jose are different but like all American cities, have deep histories with race and racial injustice. How do you see racial equity being a part of this session? 

MJL: One of the underlying goals of our work at Cities of Service is about helping cities make sure that they are lowering barriers to access and engaging residents who historically have been less engaged. The strongest cities are doing this through simple actions like being intentional about where and when a meeting is held and addressing more complex challenges like eliminating racial bias in their processes and plans. Cities don’t only need to understand the needs of these underrepresented communities, but also hear their ideas and harness their expertise.

KGC: In one sentence, why should people attend this session?

MJL: Because “think globally, act locally” is not just a bumper sticker.

Kristina Gawrgy Campbell is director of strategic communications and public relations at Independent Sector.

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