(Originally published May 11, 2014.)
I recently stepped down as the president of the Dignowity Hill Neighborhood Association. After five years of serving in that role, I welcome the change. Don't get me wrong, I have truly enjoyed my time served, but it's time for some else to push this cart.
During my stint I met many wonderful people, dealt with interesting and challenging issues and gained some wisdom of how to be a leader in a changing community. When I stepped into the president's role in April 2009 it was with a great deal of naiveté and plenty of apprehension. Being relatively new to the Eastside I wasn't sure how I would fit into its dynamics and our neighborhood. At the time, I didn't fully realize that Dignowity Hill was on the cusp of a sea change that would go beyond our neighborhood.
I can list a number of significant events that happened under my turn as president. For example, the re-opening of the historic Hays Street Bridge, Alamo Brewery getting the nod to build next to the Hays Street Bridge, the Eastside Economic Summits, historic street signs were installed, the Eastside Promise Neighborhood and Choice grants were awarded to the city, and the progression in the re-vitalization of Dignowity Hill accelerated.
During this time we also adopted a neighborhood and reinvestment plan. Many if not all of these initiatives were all ready in the works or were a result of political pressure to make things happen. I just happened to be at the right place, at the right time.
Being president of a community organization such as a neighborhood association is a rewarding, humbling and frustrating experience -- all rolled into one package. Neighborhood associations are the rawest form of democracy where folks can voice an opinion as part of the civic process that can shape a neighborhood and influence elected officials. Being in a leadership role of a neighborhood association role requires patience, perseverance, a thick skin, and good organizational and leadership skills.
Mostly, you need a willingness to serve, be accessible, responsive and have the ability to connect with people. For those of you out there that aspire to serve as president of your neighborhood association here are some insights that I gained over the last five years:
Never underestimate the power of relationships and good will. Always keep in mind that people matter and so do their concerns. You may have the title of president and have multiple degrees or certificates but they don't mean a thing if can't connect with people. That means following up when someone calls you about a concern or a complaint. The little things matter. Common sense matters. Credibility is the bottom line and you earn that by treating people with respect and dignity.
All organizations need structure, and neighborhood associations are typically governed by a set of by laws. Learn the by laws and follow them without becoming rigid in your thinking. You need to find a balance between structure and letting things happen organically.
In a changing neighborhood like Dignowity people need to feel that they are part of a movement and that their voice matters. It's good to have structured agendas for meetings and committees that do specific tasks, but you also need to feel comfortable with the ambiguity that comes when people are allowed to be creative. Not all neighborhoods are alike and Dignowity stands out, at least for now, as a neighborhood where diversity and eclectic notions blend nicely as residents still feel the need to build community.
Learn the Regs
To serve as president of a neighborhood association is an education in zoning ordinances, code compliance, city and county government policies and bureaucratic acronyms. If you happen to live in a historic district then you need to gain some understanding of design guidelines and become familiar with preservation issues. Layer that with developers looking to build new construction in your historic district and immediately a tension forms. Your life just got more interesting.
Never stop learning. The city's website, www.sanantonio.gov, will simultaneously become your best friend and a rabbit hole of information.
Dig into the Issues
Learn as much as you can about whatever issue is affecting your neighborhood. For example, gentrification has become a hot topic for urban core neighborhoods such as Dignowity as revitalization efforts or zoning changes are starting to change the face of the neighborhood. Infill development, the quality of our schools, public safety, and quality of life issues are topics that are neighborhood agenda issues especially in an urban core neighborhood.
Layer that with developers looking to build new construction in your historic district and immediately a tension forms. Your life just got more interesting.
Advocate or Activist
Will you be an advocate or activist when it comes to your neighborhood association? These two terms are often used interchangeably but there is a difference in their definitions. An advocate is typically one who speaks on behalf of a group or another person. An activist is an individual who takes an intentional action to bring about social or political change. I saw myself as more of an advocate than an activist ,especially in the role of representing the neighborhood association's interests in the media and in forums where public relations are important. On the flip side, you will deal with the activists in your group. Not a bad thing, it tends to keep things real.
It's Not Personal
Neighborhood politics tend to be raw and unfiltered. In the time I served as president I was harangued, demonized, and generally disliked by folks that were on opposite sides of an issue. This was especially true during the period when the brewery project became such a hot topic. I had to acknowledge that the criticism directed towards me was not personal. It comes with the territory of being the face of the neighborhood and supporting the positions that the association takes. It's not personal.
The thoughts I mention above are rooted in emergent leadership. I think that approach can serve any aspiring community leader. Emergent leaders are comfortable with not knowing all the answers. They typically seek consensus and behave more like a coach than a general. They share information freely and communicate clearly. They are energetic and tend to inspire others into action. They tend to be empathetic and compassionate. Collaboration is usually a favorite approach to getting things done because they see the value of multiple perspectives.
Does this style fit everyone? It depends on an individual's temperament, skill set and the lens through which one sees the world. In end, what matters most is to be comfortable with yourself, try not to step on cow patties, and have fun. When it's time to step aside, do so with grace.
Now I welcome the chance to sit back a bit. I was fortunate to be a part of the initial wave of revitalization of the Eastside and my stint was truly a great ride. My hope is that things will continue to move forward, especially for all of our neighborhoods. I feel that perceptions are beginning to turn positive for the Eastside.
I'll still be involved as I serve on other boards related to Eastside activities, but in the meantime, perhaps I can convince my wife to buy that Teardrop trailer and hit the road for a spell.