Fresno State anthropology student Marisol Torres (left) takes input from community members.

Since taking office last year, Mayor Ashley Swearingen has charged the newly-created Downtown and Community Revitalization Department with making the Lowell neighborhood a community development test case.  As part of that process, the city has been hosting a series of Lowell community meetings.  The fourth such meeting was held on Tuesday, April 13…but my involvement with the meeting process goes back to last year.

I attended my first Lowell meeting last November and found the Lowell Elementary School cafeteria packed with nearly 200 residents, city officials and members of community benefit organizations.  One goal of the meetings is to hold city departments responsible for responding to community concerns.  Hence, the first half of the meeting was occupied by a series of city department PowerPoint presentations about their activities.  The second half of the meeting consisted of a mass input session, with the moderator taking comments from the crowd.

Everybody present saw potential for the meeting to be a significant forum for city-citizen communication, but it was also apparent that the format presented some obstacles.  Most importantly, the feedback session – one mass feedback session – set a high bar for participation.  Attendees had to be willing to voice questions and concerns in front of the entire group.  Some were willing, but I suspected that many were being left behind, especially Spanish-speakers in a meeting conducted in English (albeit with simultaneous translation).

In the months that followed, I entered into a series of discussions about the format of the meeting with Craig Scharton, director of downtown revitalization, and his staff, including Elaine Robles-McGraw and Dawn Steele.  Phil Skei of the Fresno Institute for Urban Leadership joined in some of the meetings, and I also consulted with the Lowell Neighborhood Association and La Union de Familias (two sides of the community organization coin in Lowell).  With their consultation, Kiel Schmidt (of ArcHop and Spacio Design) and I developed a plan for a new format, intended to maximize community participation and provide a model that community leaders might use to “take over” the meeting in the future.

Our efforts involved some significant design challenges, including the organization or time and space and the delegation of roles to the right people.

The main change over previous meetings came during the community feedback portion.  Basically, we broke the room down into eight smaller sub-groups, each with its own moderator, to provide a more intimate and relaxed setting for neighborly participation.

Fresno State student Pete Serrato at the kids table.

Here’s how we did it.  We moved the clunky cafeteria tables out of the room and the city brought in eight tables and 200 folding chairs.  We set up the chairs facing the screen in front and distributed the tables throughout the room.  (Thanks to Kiel’s keen eye for spatial organization for this set-up.)  Nine of my anthropology students from Fresno State and two Fresno Pacific students were assigned to the tables; each table had both Spanish and English language moderators.  We decided not to split tables up by language group in order to oppose the existing tendency for neighbors comfortable in each language to go their own ways.  At the end of the department presentations, meeting moderator, Elaine Robles-McGraw, called on everyone to find a table and share their input on three questions:  progress made in the last year, remaining challenges, and what they felt they could do to make their own community better.  The moderators recorded all comments on 2′ x 3′ post-it notes in both English and Spanish.

During the input sessions, Craig Scharton and Elaine Robles-McGraw of the city and Ivan Paz and Araceli Almadan from the neighborhood circulated among the groups to gauge the trends in the input.  At the close of the meeting, Craig and Araceli delivered their impressions of the major themes to the entire meeting – Craig in English and Araceli in Spanish.

We are still in the process of compiling the comments from the post-it notes, but I can definitely say that the volume of input by both English and Spanish speakers was much higher than the previous meetings.  I also know that the issues raised in the small groups varied from those voiced in front of the entire meeting.  The large meeting provides some space for certain controversial issues to emerge, such as the problem of “slum lords” and poor building maintenance.  However, it’s understandable that barriers exist for some issues to be voiced for all to hear.  In at least one small group, a Latino woman complained that driving home from work late at night, she has been pulled over and she felt she had been a victim of racial profiling.  The fact that she felt she could voice this concern to the moderator of her small group is a victory.  Craig told me another story that is even more encouraging.  As he circulated among the groups, he came to one in which an elderly Latino woman was doing a lot of talking.  One of her neighbors told Craig that the woman has attended every meeting so far, but this was the first time she had spoken.  Craig was elated.  We feel that these stories, and the objectively higher rate of commentary, vindicate the revised meeting structure as a way to greater and more candid community participation at the meetings.

Mai Lee and Elfego Franco listen to Lowell residents.

We still have some challenges to address.  The city department presentations occupied a full hour, leaving only about 20 minutes for community input.  The student moderators agreed that their group discussions were just getting rolling when time was called.  This needs to be balanced out more.

In my engagement with Craig Scharton and his staff, I have found collaborators with a sincere desire to build community capacity for self-governance.  Thanks to Craig, Elaine, Dawn and Elliott Balch, as well as Phil, Ivan, Araceli and other members of the Lowell Neighborhood Association and La Union de Familias, the meeting was largely successful.  I’m lucky to have Kiel Schmidt as a collaborator in this and other projects – his eye for space and feel for community-based work is invaluable.  Next, we will focus on helping community leaders replace me and my students and ultimately take over the meeting.

I would especially thank the student moderators, Fresno State anthropology students Kim Arnold, Jackie Cortez, Selena Farnesi, Elfego Franco (actually, a recent graduate), Jim Hoak, Mai Lee, Courtney Perry, Pete Serrato, and Marisol Torres.  Two Fresno Pacific Students, Miguel and Suzy, also helped moderate the tables.