Gather the right small group of people committed to bringing government and communities closer together and then step back in awe at the energy such a fusion releases. That simple formula – elected officials, community and business leaders, government department heads and community members – guided January’s Community Engagement Leadership Institute. CELI represents a path-breaking amalgam of Community Partners, the Empowerment Congress, the Office of Los Angeles County 2nd District Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Delegations from seven American communities convened on the campus of Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles from January 10-12, 2012. Each group included one elected official – in all, five city councilmembers, a county commissioner and a statehouse representative – along with business and civic leaders and community activists. Their aim: genuinely engage people from diverse, often disenfranchised communities in governance, policy change and public service decisions. Then, upon this founding principle, build durable forms of “reciprocal accountability” between public officials and their publics and from the tax-paying electorate to the government they invest with enormous trust and expectations.
For 20 years the growing, evolving brainchild of Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, the 2nd Supervisorial District’s Empowerment Congress, provides one salient model for a reciprocal accountability partnership. Community members feed concerns, ideas and solutions through Empowerment Congress work groups to the Supervisor’s key staff who sit equally and volubly at the same table. The results of lively discussion and debate infuse the Supervisor’s ambitious legislative and service agenda with a ground-level reality test. In the process, the scores of community members receive a graduate course’s worth of insight into what it takes for an elected official to navigate local government. Done well, the process keeps the ear and eye of elected officials and government agency heads focused on what’s happening in the maze of natural leadership pathways that comprise all authentic communities.
In various ways consistent with the history, culture, capabilities and capacities of their communities, delegates from the seven CELI communities strengthened their footing during the five-day gathering. Experience varied among the groups, yet all met critical threshold criteria. Chief among these: come to Los Angeles prepared to talk across the typical barriers – often erected for the convenience of elected officials – that can divide government from community members and deflect the non-traditional forms of power neighborhood residents acquire when they know their communities better than anyone else. We’re pleased to have played a partnership role in bringing CELI to life. We tip a respectful hat to the hard work continuing beyond the close of CELI’s first gathering to forward-looking leaders from:
- Brooklyn Park, Minnesota
- Brooklyn, New York
- Detroit, Michigan
- Doña Ana County, New Mexico
- Eau Claire, Wisconsin
- Hawai’i Seattle, Washington