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To Create More Equitable Community Engagement, Cities Can Go Back to the Basics

While working for the City of Lansing’s Department of Neighborhoods and Citizen Engagement (DNCE) back in summer 2018, my colleagues and I realized something was amiss with our Neighborhood Advisory Board Grants program. The program was intended to promote community engagement among city residents, but at the time, it was only available to neighborhood associations—groups that tend to be whiter, wealthier, and more likely to own homes than the average resident.

We wanted to promote more community engagement across the city, so we decided to revamp the program.

The Neighborhood Grants program provides small grants—typically no more than $5,000—to neighborhood organizations to host social events, plant gardens, activate vacant lots with art, or install neighborhood signage. Groups interested in receiving funding submit an application for funds, and the mayor’s Neighborhood Advisory Board (NAB) makes grantmaking decisions.

Although the grant program is only a small drop in the city’s overall budget—it makes up only .05 percent of the city’s general fund—it is one of the few funds in the city intended to promote civic engagement, build social capital among residents, and connect residents directly to city employees. If this fund weren’t available to everyone, how could the city claim community engagement was really a priority?

As cities seek to address long-standing racial inequities in their neighborhoods, revisiting those programs designed to promote community engagement—no matter how little their funding might be—will be critical. They can learn from the steps we took in Lansing.

Step 1: Reevaluate eligibility criteria

To make the grant program available to a wider swath of the city’s population, we revisited the definition of who was eligible for the program—broadening it from “neighborhood associations” to “civic organizations.” Then, we made explicit that this change meant cooperatives, housing complexes, nonprofits, “friends of” groups, faith-based organizations, and parent-teacher associations could apply for funds if their work was place based.

“We started asking questions about what a neighbor is,” said former DNCE director Andi Crawford. “It’s just someone who lives in a neighborhood. We wanted people to feel like they were full neighbors regardless of whether they rented or owned.”

Step 2: Ensure program materials are user-friendly and accessible to all

In addition to changing the eligibility criteria for the grant, we took steps to move the application online and worked with the NAB to simplify the application.

“We wanted to make it right from a user experience,” said Crawford. “We were pretty inaccessible in terms of the language and the questions being asked. No one had done that on purpose, but it had become cumbersome over time. It needed to be reworked to help people be successful and lower the burden of participation.”  

Step 3: Build the outcomes you’re hoping to see into funding criteria

The DNCE and NAB also revised the rubric used for grading grant applications to encourage two program outcomes we were hoping to see: collaboration among civic organizations and more applications from parts of the city that hadn’t received funds in the past. Organizations applying from one of the city’s designated “Neighborhoods of Focus” (PDF)—where the city is working with community partners to improve the neighborhood—get bonus points. So do those that partner with other organizations.

Step 4: Explain program changes to interested groups and offer support to first-time applicants

Finally, the DNCE and NAB hosted office hours, during which first-time applicants sought assistance filling out the application. We also hosted a launch event where interested groups could learn about the program’s updates. “We learned that we can’t just throw something new online without helping residents to understand the changes,” said DeLisa Fountain, the DNCE’s new director. “We took time to go through it and laid out our expectations so there are no surprises at the end. We want to fund everybody. The application shouldn’t be a hindrance.”

How revamping the grant program is helping to create more equitable community engagement

All these changes have led to important results for the grant program. Since we implemented the changes, the program has received more applications from a greater diversity of organizations. The grant is also reaching different types of projects and encouraging more collaboration among groups from different neighborhoods and with external partners. As a result, the mayor increased funding for the program. In 2017, the DNCE funded $47,785 in projects. In fiscal year 2019 to 2020 (PDF), they funded more than $65,000 in projects.

“The worst thing people can do when talking about equity is talk about it like a program. It’s not a program, it’s a value.”

Andi Crawford, former director of the City of Lansing's DNCE

Though the Neighborhood Grants program is only a tiny drop in the city’s budget bucket, Crawford contends the changes made to the program have acted almost as a “proof of concept,” showing other departments how they, too, can make small changes that will lead to bigger things.

"The worst thing people can do when talking about equity is talk about it like a program. It’s not a program, it’s a value. If you’re talking about equity as a value, you have to get into the nitty-gritty of things like this. When inequitable practices are woven into policy, it takes a long time to unweave them and discover where they exist,” said Crawford. “There is no such thing as a small tweak in policy.”

“In Lansing, we have high-level equity talks going on, and we have the work of uplifting the neighborhoods,” said Fountain. “We want to get the neighborhoods to trust us enough so that they apply for funding for projects to improve safety in their neighborhoods. Trust is broken everywhere. We are trying to slowly stitch it back together, and the neighborhood grant is one way to do that.”

Creating racially equitable communities requires that those most affected by inequities can participate meaningfully in community development. Reexamining programs designed to increase community engagement is a critical step to get there.

This post was originally published on Urban Wire, the blog of the Urban Institute.