Community Outreach = Mutual Learning

I started Outreach for the 2020 Planning process in October 2011. Initially, I had a very simple goal: To increase the public’s ability to make informed decisions on how the Town of Chapel Hill should best plan for its future. I quickly learned that my goal was overly simplistic and did not take into account the passion and energy of many of the people that I would encounter.

During the three days that I rode Chapel Hill buses, I heard from many citizens that some of the best things that the Town could do to grow would be to increase the number and availability of affordable housing units; increase the number of buses on specific routes in the morning before 8 and after work between 5pm and 7pm. One particular gentleman on the A line was very glad to see me because he wanted to be involved with the 2020 process but did not have a computer and did not like to be out after dark. He had been carrying his comments around with him on notebook paper in the hopes that he would make it over to Town Hall before 5pm one evening. I was impressed! His suggestions included environmental sustainability, community prosperity, and increased social interactions. He was even more excited when I shared with him that those same themes had already surfaced and that there were large groups of people meeting just to talk about those topics.

During a discussion with a member of the UNC Chapel Hill capital improvement committee, the idea surfaced to host a 2020 information and discussion meeting on campus. Several students attended that event and shared their opinion on everything from Franklin Street to campus safety. Their opinions were also shared with the members of the University that have been active in the design and implementation of the Comprehensive Plan from the beginning.
One of the richest discussions that I was allowed to participate in took place in a resident’s home. She had tried to get out to a 2020 meeting but life kept happening: flat tire, child care issues, working late, etc. She contacted me through the comp plan email address and asked if someone could possibly come to her home and discuss with her and her neighbors what they could do to get more involved in the 2020 process. She had about 9 neighbors (with small children in tow) arrive and their comments dealt less with the 2020 plan and more on what it was like to be a young mother seeking activities for their young children. When they heard that one of the theme groups chose as its mission the discussion of a place for everyone, they were very pleased and decided that they would regularly contribute to the blog so that their voices could be a part of any final plan.

During one of the weekly meetings with the Outreach Committee at the Aquatic Center, we decided to amend the mission: To develop, strengthen, and examine existing community partnerships and seek new relationships to increase the impact of all outreach efforts. Our reasoning was simple, most of the meetings that we were attending were because either a member had heard about the 2020 process and wanted to know more or someone that had attended one of the formal meetings at the local schools wanted a way to share that information with others. There was already a large semi-connected group of people that lived, worked, played, prayed, and/or invested in Chapel Hill and we just had to continue to find ways to connect with them so that we might in turn connect them with the 2020 planning process.

Has it been all love fest and kum-by-yah moments? Not so much! There have been a few outreach efforts that did not yield the rich dialogue that we hoped. Instead, we have had opportunities to listen to people complain about their neighbors loud music, the cost of gas, the conflict in Afghanistan, the inability to locate full time employment, and the failure of the bus to arrive at the time the schedule stated. Yet, these have not been disappointments. Instead, we are reminded that we are dealing with real people living real lives and that sometimes the volume of their neighbor’s stereo is much more important to them than what Chapel Hill will be like in 2020. We just try to get an invite to return.

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