How To Serve Your Neighborhood: Join a Board, Tune Out Gossip, Get to Work

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Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association President Brian Dillard confronts the agenda item regarding the North New Braunfels corridor. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Former Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association President Brian Dillard

March 31 was my last day as president of the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association. Those who know me understand that this transition comes with a fair share of relief. While I enjoyed the work my fellow board members and I accomplished during my three years on the association’s board, neighborhood politics created an unnecessary distraction that kept us from creating a greater impact on our Eastside community.

Neighborhood Politics

My wife Francesca and I bought our home in Dignowity Hill in 2013 and spent nearly two years renovating it from the ground up. When we moved in in 2015, I was immediately asked to run for vice president of the neighborhood association. I had no clue what I was getting myself into.

I was encouraged to run because of what I like to call a “fence-line faction,” a situation in which neighbors have beef with each other, but decide to avoid remediation and instead create their own faction against their adversary. I accepted the nomination and essentially became part of one side of the battle, because perceptions are reality – or so I’ve been told.

Throughout the next three years, I became friend and foe to each faction at one point or another. For example, when I supported our architectural review committee in publicly demanding more from the flood of developers building projects in our neighborhood, one faction would say I was blocking development, while the other said I was doing the right thing.

When I told developers to take appropriate steps to bring the community into the fold, I was accused of being “buddy-buddy” with developers, while the other side was happy to see a progressive conversation take place. Both factions essentially wanted the same thing, but they couldn’t find middle ground, simply because they were unable to get past personal problems with one other. I was caught in the middle.

Do The Work

A year into my presidency, I finally got past dealing with personalities and began focusing on “doing the work,” though the gossip and chatter never ceased. Some neighbors lobbied to get me kicked out of my position. I’ve gotten the silent treatment from folks who live a couple blocks away from me. Residents I would have weekly phone calls with unfriended me on social media. If you think that sounds petty, I agree.

I often felt like a failure as president: instead of bringing community members together to solve issues they face every day, I started to get blocked out myself. After many conversations with close friends and my wife, I came to realize that you can’t please everyone. Once I accepted that, I stopped focusing on the loud minority and began directing my energy toward the majority of my neighbors and their issues.

I got a lot less phone calls and texts than before because I refused to listen to the gossip and participate in the neighborhood politics. Being ostracized by that loud minority became a blessing in disguise, and I instead spent my time focusing on neighbors who truly wanted to do the work.

Rather than listening to drama on weekly phone calls with the usual gossip mills, I spent hours in weekly meetings with fellow neighbors, San Antonio police officers, and New Braunfels Avenue store owners, trying to figure out how we could reduce/eliminate the string of violent crimes occurring up and down the corridor.

Rather than trying to figure out how to repair a relationship between residents who thrive on unnecessary drama, I tried to figure out how to repair the relationship between our neighborhood and at least five homeless ministries we have within our community.

We rallied to get more than $15 million from the City’s 2017 municipal bond for our historically neglected parks and street infrastructure. When we tuned out the nonsense, we were able to do the work.

I met with our newly elected Neighborhood Association President Chris Barrows a couple months before he ran unopposed and won the election. I am grateful that he volunteered to serve in the position, and I commend him for committing time and effort to representing our community. It won’t be easy, and he’ll run into the same personalities I did, but I believe he will manage to stay out of the fray better than I did and focus on the issues. Focusing less on the noise and more on objectives will be key.

Stay Involved 

At times, being president of a neighborhood association is more politics than public service. If nothing else, my time as president has convinced me that I will never run for political office – and that’s coming from someone with a degree in political science. My personality isn’t suited for that type of position, and that’s okay. There are plenty of other positions in which people like me can serve to make an impact on a community and city.

For me, traditional boards and commissions are the best places for public service. I have served on City and school bond committees, nonprofit boards, and will hopefully serve on a City board or two in the near future. It’s important that young people start filling positions like these, and that they make them impactful. The people we elect into political office need us to help them get the job done: oftentimes they only hear from their constituents when they have complaints, and that’s not a productive or sustainable relationship.

While I encourage more young people to run for office when it fits, the opportunities to impact their community and city without having to deal with the burden of an official title are endless.

Find your respective neighborhood association and, at the least, join and participate in meetings. Notice that I didn’t say “attend” their meetings – you have to participate. Volunteer for the events committee and help create opportunities for your neighborhood to get together every once in a while – why not make a fundraiser out of it?

Many of our schools need better partnership with the communities in which they exist. Create a committee that works with your neighborhood school to help tutor/mentor students.

If a neighborhood association is not your thing, find vacant City board and commission positions to serve on.

Bottom line: get involved. It may take a while to figure out where you’re most impactful, but I guarantee these types of opportunities not only help your community and city, they will also help build a better you. While being Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association’s president wasn’t the most enjoyable for me, I don’t regret serving in that position. In addition to working with many great neighbors, I became a better and stronger person. Public service allowed me to better my community while also bettering myself.

Thank you, neighbors, for allowing me to serve.

11 thoughts on “How To Serve Your Neighborhood: Join a Board, Tune Out Gossip, Get to Work

  1. I saw this fella at City meetings; usually by himself and other members of community on other side of room. Anyway, he makes a great point about actively participating in your neighborhood.
    I did not get elected to my HOA, but I still actively participate. I recall a comment from one of these City government meetings, It ALL starts with your Neighborhood. Do not rely on someone else, say government entity, to fix your problems.

  2. I had the privilege of serving on a 2017 bond committee chaired by Brian. He did an excellent job of balancing interests and encouraging input from all the various interests at play. It seemed in every meeting a volatile discussion would erupt and Brian would find a way to turn down the volume and get the competing voices to focus on the business at hand. Very impressive. I salute Brian for what he’s done and look forward to what he will do in the future.

  3. Great article. Great advice. I hope that your wisdom and experience will someday overcome your reluctance to run for office; your focus on the goals is just what we need there. Thank you for serving now and in the future.

  4. Brian, thank you for sharing and thanks for your service to the community. Speaking from long experience I can confirm that the middle ground is the hardest to hold. I echo your call for folks to get involved and serve through boards and commissions.

  5. Well stated article showing importance of personality on service as elected official or board officer. Some are willing to serve but are uncomfortable with petty aspects of job. It is ironic that people engage in personal attacks on those that are willing to serve w/o compensation for the benefit of the public and yet would never offer themselves as candidates for the same jobs. The political science courses should include a guerrilla warfare class to alert prospective candidates to the miseries and better to fortify them for the inevitable criticisms.

  6. Brian, That’s a tough job. I much appreciate the candor and honesty in your article. I certainly feel your frustration. Please stay in touch and don’t disappear on us.
    Mitch

  7. Brian, I am proud of the work you do for our city. Thank you for being bold. Stay the course. Don’t be disheartened. There is too much that needs to be done.

  8. Thank you for such a well-written and honest piece. As a member of an historic neighborhood association just across the highway from you, I have been amazed by the factions and personal issues that arise as part of most community focused discussions in that forum. I appreciated reading that it’s “normal” (or simply common) and that it can be overcome with levelheadedness. Every time I think about taking a lead, however, I am blown back by the ingrained rancor and personal attacks on opposing views. I hope I can overcome my flight response as you did and step up to serve the greater good. Thank you for leading by example.

  9. The more I meet with neighborhood presidents, the more awe I have of their strength and sacrifice. Three years is a long time, thank you. I, too, hope to see you on a commission soon but not before you get a ton of computer stuff done.

  10. As you move forward toward your next endeavor, you will be inheriting issues your predecessors ignored. You will be faced with a choice of political expedience and reputation. We both supported Ivy in 2015 and she leveraged reputation for political expedience but it did not pay off for her in the end. That same gamble did not pay off for Warrick either.

    Your next endeavor may not be an elected office but you will have constituents just the same. You make sure your constituents are treated in a fair and equitable manner even when it isn’t politically expedient. You would be wise to remember that we all answer to God. Tune out the noise and let God guide your steps. Doing so will guarantee your success in your next endevour.

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