I have been a neighborhood activist or community organizer for quite a while. I came up through what I half-jokingly call the DFL farm system—NRP.
I started by going to neighborhood meetings, was recruited onto my neighborhood board, served as Treasurer, and eventually became President of the Audubon Neighborhood Association. It was a big part of my life. I dealt with complaints, looked for development opportunities, conducted outreach, and did pretty much everything else a neighborhood activist does.
I worked with a lot of City officials, but usually the same handful of my neighbors. Finding volunteers is a perpetual challenge for community groups. Even when NRP was well-funded, meaning neighborhoods had resources and power, not many people got involved. If an association received input from 10% of the people it claimed to represent—like mine did—it was considered an outstanding achievement.
We spent millions of dollars without hearing from the other 90%. I think we did good work. Some of the 90% used the programs we offered. But they were essentially customers, not partners. For all its benefits, it is hard to call NRP a success at civic engagement.
During my tenure as ANA President, the Northeast Citizen Patrol was formed. Helping build the NECP was an eye-opener. When I actually started talking with people who don't go to meetings, I was amazed at how little awareness folks have of what goes on in local politics. And how much contempt they had for City Hall. Sure, we all joke about government, but I was meeting people who had lost faith, had lost hope, and were leaving the Northeast for a better life somewhere else. This was the other 90%—the disengaged majority.
Almost nobody had any knowledge that I was a “bigshot” in neighborhood activism, that I had been trying to reach them and help them for years. Most didn’t have a clue what the neighborhood association was up to. But they were glad to see that other folks cared enough to walk the sidewalks and fight crime. The NECP wasn’t—and still isn’t—about endless meetings to discuss which official can solve a problem. It was about action. The NECP seemed to awaken a power people had forgotten about, to help themselves and each other. We made a difference. And people joined up.