Last Tuesday’s mayoral election may not have gone Councilman Ron Nirenberg’s way, but the District 8 representative has not wasted a moment dwelling on disappointment. Nirenberg’s Community Academy started a week of litter clean-up on Sunday.
The Community Academy is an idea that Nirenberg, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, hopes will reverse the continuing trend of declining civic engagement. Rather than swinging at incoming issues like a frantic kid in a batting cage, the councilman aims to take government to the people with education and service.
“Civic engagement is the foundational issue for San Antonio,” Nirenberg said.
The Community Academy accomplishes its goals through varied avenues. Citizen Advisory Councils inform the councilman’s position on issues. The academy has formed a graffiti abatement task force, and its members hold various community meetings, including monthly town halls, biannual homeowner association gatherings, and regular conversations with members of various faith communities in the district.
Nirenberg’s efforts at civic engagement earned him a formal recognition by Rep. Pete Gallego (D-Alpine). The U.S. congressman honored Nirenberg at a ceremony at City Hall in June.
The litter clean-up kicked off with a mid-summer barbecue at Bonnie Conner Park, where the councilman and Community Academy members are leading the charge to beautify the district’s public spaces.
The Community Academy is run by Nirenberg and Director Noah Howe, who lead a team of volunteers of all ages, including interns from Churchill High School. Through these outreach efforts they channel interested individuals into the District 8 Talent Bank. When they see a group with a common interest or concern, they encourage that group to form a Citizen’s Advisory Council. The youngest member of a Citizen Advisory Council is eight years old.
That’s right, civic engagement is not just for voters. Nirenberg visits schools in his district to start the process early.
Creating a culture of engagement will be a social and generational effort. Neighbors need to talk about what’s happening at City Hall the same way they talk about what they’re watching on television. Children need to grow up watching their parents participate in government, whether that’s informed voting or hands-on activism.
In District 8, engagement starts with leadership.
Nirenberg believes that elected officials could spend less time defending themselves if they put more energy into sparking public dialogue.
The Community Academy hosts “D8 Dialogues,” neighborhood-based, town hall-style meetings across the district. The open forum Q&A’s are an example of Nirenberg’s proactive approach to governance. Constituents have a greater voice in smaller groups.
It’s similar in approach to what other Council members do to connect with constituent at the grass roots level. District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal has held well-attended monthly coffees at different locales in his district for several years.
“There are always really specific things happening in each neighborhood that we would never have known without the forum,” Nirenberg said.
Issues like broken street signs, aging infrastructure, and drainage concerns often have a hard time finding their way to the top of the municipal to-do list when each council member is running a district the size of medium-sized city. Direct access to a council member is usually a privilege of the most well-organized group or the “squeakiest wheel.”
Members of the Community Academy canvas the district on foot, by mail, and through social media. They target homeowner and neighborhood associations, and also disengaged citizens not active in any civic organization.
“We need to use campaign techniques to talk to constituents about what the city does for them,” Nirenberg said.
Right now, according to Nirenberg, the city is undergoing the consequence of years of public disengagement as the VIA Modern Streetcar moves forward without the support that such a major project requires. In his view, the movement to stop the project is a clear indication of the disconnect between citizens and those elected to serve them.
“The VIA situation is decades in the making. It is the failure of politics to be responsive and relevant to the concerns of citizens,” Nirenberg said.
Nirenberg said he agrees San Antonio needs progressive, multimodal transportation, but he also thinks the routing and the scope of the streetcar project demonstrates a mismatch of problem and solution.
“It’s an economic development solution to a transportation problem,” Nirenberg said.
While advocates view the streetcar as the foot in the door for multimodal transportation, Nirenberg’s concern is that the issue has now been poisoned by the way it has been approached – in his mind a prime example of governance with minimal civic involvement. Nirenberg considers the public meetings hosted by VIA inadequate because the agenda was set by VIA and there was little opportunity for true dialogue in any one forum.
The suburbs-versus-downtown rhetoric could so divide the city, Nirenberg believes, that further system expansion could be a casualty.
“We may believe in a particular policy outcome, but if we don’t respect the process, we either do long or short term damage,” Nirenberg said.
Nirenberg believes a grass roots effort like the Community Academy will elevate citizen engagement and keep him connected to the pulse of the district and able to avoid a political disconnect.
*Featured/top image: Local residents and District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg (center, left) pose for a photo while picking up trash during the mid-summer barbecue at Bonnie Conner Park. Photo by H. Drew Galloway.