A Slice of Governmental Marble Cake
It could have been a cooking class. There were references to nested mixing bowls and marble cake. The local food over the course of the two-day assembly from Acapulco and Eggroll Queen, both in the Maplewood/ Eastside St. Paul immediate area, was delicious. I would have stuck around for extra credit to learn how to perfect the lamb wrap and the pork eggroll.
But food wasn’t the point. Government was. Through the Minnesota Community Assembly (MNCA), residents participate in a process to get at what good government at the local level looks like. The element of local is at the core of this effort, which is a particularly important distinction. Local matters at a time when America seems divided by party and at the national and state level political polarization seems to make it difficult to get anything done or agree on anything.
Maplewood residents prompted by a postcard or social media post, applied to participate in the April 27-28 assembly. MNCA selected a diverse group of 20 residents and they showed up to learn, get involved and work together. The two-day assembly led by David Schultz, MNCA leader and Hamline University political science professor, and the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation kicked-off by giving participants a view of what is possible through the assembly and an overview of the organization of Maplewood’s government.
To frame up possibility for participants, Xiongpao Lee, a community leader from a previous community assembly in Brooklyn Park, MN, shared the journey of their assembly from November 2017 to present. On the heels of that inspiration, participants in groups of 6-7 gathered round a table to get to know each other.
They created a structure around the healthy type of engagement they thought important to ensure the group’s best outcome. The priorities centered around things like allowing all voices to be heard, respecting differences of opinions and staying focused on the task at hand, and would become each group’s working agreement.
Large post-it notes with the working agreements went on the walls and the participants literally stepped into the next task around civic engagement. In this exercise, participants were asked questions about government involvement and were asked to answer by stepping into a square on the floor outlined with tape that indicated their answer: Yes, No, IDK (I don’t know/ it’s complicated). Some shared stories. Conversation ranged from hardships in getting help to observing their privileges and ease of access or answers when it came to individual interactions with local government.
The morning continued with Wilder Foundation modeling the continuum of community engagement from pre-determined through community-led and everywhere in between. It’s worth noting MNCA as a unique process in that it is not city-led. It is funded by grants totaling nearly $500,000 from the Joyce Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
This important distinction moved the needle toward the co-creation, community-led end of the spectrum. As an observer, I picked up on the optimism and proactive tone that might otherwise be missing from community engagement stuck in pre-determined solution mode. The small group sessions perhaps held the most telling insights for local government engagement as they prompted discussions around involvement, invitations in and barriers to participation.
More large and small post-it notes filled with insights began to adorn the room with progress. After the lunch break, participants came back to hear from Maplewood’s City Manager Melinda Coleman (Unfortunately, I had to miss the afternoon sessions). Although I personally was not present, I understand that participants appreciated connecting directly with Coleman and learning about how their specific local government is structured.
Following this robust learning session, Schultz stepped back in with a Government 101. This yielded the lovely cake graphic entitled Governmental Marble Cake that you see here with the largest tier being local, topped by a smaller tier representing state and finally the third and smallest tier as federal. The day’s icing on the cake included a review of eight principles of local government and how good governments address these.
Over breakfast, participants caught up with each other to share thoughts from the day before and expectations for the day. Schultz revisited the eight principles then focused on the problem-solving relationship between the government and the public.
This teed up the bulk of the next few hours, which used the caucusing method to create groups around individuals’ passions as they related to a particular one of the eight principles in order to make recommendations for Maplewood. Sustainability, trust, participation, equity, strategic vision and transparency reflected the six recommendation categories the participants were naturally drawn to select.
The six groups then used a set a questions to arrive at their recommendations for their principle. The questions addressed past attempts, successes, concerns, options for change and the answers informed their recommendations. Each group shared their recommendations in slide format while presenting and then the large group provided feedback for implementation via post-it notes. With the final presentation set, each group then presented it to Maplewood local government members who chose to attend the 3:30-4:00 session.
After two intensive days in Maplewood, participants received a holistic look at their specific government structure, connected with their local officials, built relationships among each other and shared their recommendations with their city. MNCA, in collaboration with the Wilder Foundation, will create a summary report that will be available for all to access. And while nothing further is required of participants, the foundation has been set with potential to further the recommendations into action.
The assembly ended on a high note with a recap of everything learned and created. Participants stepped up to receive a cool MNCA t-shirt and an official certificate of their participation. You can be sure I’ll be following what’s next and here’s hoping these engaged residents at least get together for another slice of governmental marble cake!
NOTE: Minnesota Community Assembly is a client of SparkTrack Consulting (STC). STC provided assembly communications including social media. The views shared in this event recap are entirely mine. Capture more of the conversation on social media on their @MinnCommunity Twitter and Facebook page.