Improving Community Engagement for the Future of St. Paul
Where should we build new, affordable housing to help meet the growth in our city? What should happen to that abandoned parking lot near my house? How can our public parks better promote racial equity? How can we have a say in the projects that are being proposed in our neighborhoods?
I’m running for City Council because I want to bridge the gap between residents and local government, and help all of us have a say in these questions. I also believe that we could pursue major changes to the way we make decisions as a community before they even come before the Council. That means making fundamental changes to the way we engage our local neighborhood associations and district councils.
How we make decisions: neighborhood associations and District Councils
While many residents may not know this, on any number of issues, the answers to these questions begin in our neighborhood associations and District Councils. Across Saint Paul, there are 17 District Councils that receive roughly $750,000 a year from the city to carry out neighborhood-level discussions, often in collaboration with neighborhood associations. Through targeted community engagement, the District Councils aim to inform actions taken by commissions, committees, departments, and ultimately the City Council itself.
Because of the passion and hard work of our residents and District Council staff, many Councils have found ways to diversify their membership and strengthen engagement with people of all backgrounds. But we still have a long way to go. While renters make up roughly half of the city and continue to grow, they are still heavily underrepresented on District Councils. Other groups that are broadly underrepresented include people of color, young people, and students – or, at least another half of the city, depending on how you cut it. District Councils won’t be able to do their best until they look and feel more like the people and neighborhoods they aim to represent.
Organizing is work: let’s invest in it
What does it take to get people to a neighborhood meeting? If you’re an organizer, you know that it requires at least one central thing: relationships. Building relationships takes tremendous emotional, cultural, social and strategic labor performed by our District Council leaders and other engaged residents. This work needs to be valued, and funded as such. Many residents can’t or don’t attend meetings because they occur at times they can’t participate, aren’t advertised in their language, don’t explain in clear terms what discussions are taking place and why their input is vital, or just miss out because Councils need more capacity to do the true people-powered work it takes to bring everyone to the table. We could do three things right now to address this.
Increase funding for District Councils both directly and through community partnerships.
Our neighborhood groups are tasked with making critical recommendations that shape the very future of our city. If we want them to continue to play that role, and improve in it, they need to be adequately funded. Great organizations like the Center for Urban Research and Affairs (CURA) hold trainings for people of color to join their neighborhood boards and associations; partnerships like these can maximize the opportunity that more funding presents, and help us achieve equity.
Set clearer guidelines and goals around representation.
With more funding, District Councils should set goals to diversify their membership by age, race, income, gender, ability, and other key categories of demographics by neighborhood; expand their engagement efforts toward those goals; report regularly on progress to the City Council; and be supported in their outreach through partnership with community hubs, organizations and other natural networks of residents who collectively hold the solutions to our challenges.
Hire the community.
Increasing funding for these groups creates an opportunity to hire people from backgrounds grossly underrepresented in government who can—and often already do—lead these neighborhood conversations. With more funds and clearer guidelines, we can invest in organizing led by people who look like us and live like us. This would also serve as a pathway for greater civic leadership for people from low-income backgrounds; many community members can’t participate in formal civic leadership roles simply because they can’t afford to. We can eliminate the hidden taxes on working people who want to lead our city by paying them to do that – not just assuming that “the people who care can and will step up,” when so much of that involvement is dependent on one’s income, responsibilities, available leisure time and more.
Before the City Council even gets a chance to have a say on most things, key aspects of those issues are shaped by people at the neighborhood association and District Council level. The people who show up to those meetings often dictate the product we get. Building out our citywide decision-making infrastructure with clear goals around representation will help us get better decisions for everybody, and bridging the gap between residents and government is well within our reach if we prioritize it. The City Council can take parallel steps, including improvements like the recent decision to no longer require resident addresses as part of public comment, simplifying the language used in notifications about agendas at public hearings, expanding the ways the Council posts information about upcoming meetings, and much more.
We need these changes to meet the growth coming to our city
Ultimately, the future of our city is dependent on our ability to enhance these systems for progress. Our city is rapidly growing, and better-funded local processes will help us respond to them more nimbly and with far greater inclusion. Since 2010, we’ve welcomed just shy of 20,000 residents in Saint Paul – but severely lagged in our efforts to increase the housing stock to match it, in part because of underfunded and resultantly arduous processes in which the voices of renters, students, people of color and the other fastest-growing communities in our city are deeply lacking. These translate to literal costs to our communities in the long term, because we aren’t building for all of us; more often than not, we are underequipped to move boldly and thoughtfully forward at all. District Councils are already making efforts to change that. We should support ideas like their plans to share innovation fund money this year evenly among the 17 Councils to specifically advance some of these objectives around representation and effectiveness.
More voices at the table will mean better decisions for everyone. Like everything that involves people, it will take a lot of work, good faith efforts, and resources to realize them. We can and should do everything we can to support this, so we can have a city that works for all.
Mitra Jalali Nelson is a renter, first-generation American, and millennial woman of color living in South Saint Anthony Park. She currently running as a DFL candidate for Ward 4 on the Saint Paul City Council in this year’s special election.