Cameron Conner ’20, Launches the Neighborhood Engagement Program’s First Events for the City of Walla Walla in Walla Walla, WA.

Background: In 2019, I was asked by the Mayor of Walla Walla to create and implement a program dedicated to cultivating community throughout the city. The result was the Neighborhood Engagement Program (NEP), for which I now serve as the main Coordinator. My job is to help individuals come together as a community and collectively contribute to the well-being of the street, block, or broader area in which they live. The program offers community partners financial, logistical, and personnel resources to help Walla Walla’s neighborhoods address the issues that they have chosen to identify and prioritize. 

In my last blog post, I talked about our media campaign, the general outreach we have conducted in different communities, the neighborhood summit we put on to bring people from all over the city together and ignite a spark, and the process by which we chose our initial pilot partners. Since then, the world has been a blur and the program was rolling right along up until the advent of our national shut-down. For much of the last few months I spent my weekends knocking on doors to advertise potlucks, my early mornings supporting neighbors as they draft meeting agendas, and evenings drawing on my limited Spanish capacity to determine the best use of our program’s financial resources. Now, I’m adapting the NEP and working with other City staff to help combat the spread of COVID-19 in Walla Walla, and address the economic and social externalities that have resulted. I’ll get into that more later, but let’s start with some of the great things that happened before the world turned upside down!

In the beginning of March alone the Neighborhood Engagement Program helped put on three major events. On the 5th, the Washington Street community met for their second time to socialize and talk about neighborhood priorities. Attendance was great with over 20 neighbors there to discuss what they would like to see happen in their community. Former Mayor Barbara Clark joined us to talk about her experience with neighborhood engagement and field other, city related questions. Overall, folks were very excited about the work of bringing their community together and are hoping to get a big event going in late June to make sure the rest of the neighbors feel included too!

Later that same week, the Neighborhood Engagement Program partnered with Luis Rosales (Executive Director at Trilogy Recovery), Maria Remmington, and the Walla Walla Public Library to host a Bullying Prevention workshop for the Willow St. community. The program was conducted entirely in Spanish and attracted a total of 39 participants (26 adults, 13 children). Catering and childcare were both provided by local businesses and greatly appreciated. A representative from the 2020 Census was also present to help residents learn more about the upcoming push and Librarian Liz George helped register eight of the participants for their first library cards!

Finally, on the 12th, a neighborhood in East Gate hosted their first community gathering, organized by City Council Member Ted Koehler. Folks brought home cooked green beans, desserts, and cornbread to compliment the chili we provided, and  together we discussed the first steps of coming together as a neighborhood.

During this time we also welcomed on board the woman who will replace me as the Neighborhood Engagement Coordinator next year, Zidane Galant-LaPorte! Zidane is a Junior at Whitman majoring in Sociology and with an extensive background in community organizing and engagement. She has co-lead the Whitman Summer Community Outreach and Engagement program (SCORE) and has an intimate knowledge of the Walla Walla community. She’s currently working on a part time basis and will be taking up the position full time next fall. 

Amidst all of this smooth sailing, the rapid spread of COVID-19 and social isolation measures has certainly slowed our progress. Sadly, pandemics aren’t particularly conducive to community organizing and collective action. As we have all individually retreated into our homes, however, the significance of community is becoming ever more apparent. Though momentum has slowed in many of the neighborhoods the NEP works with, the drive to connect and continue the conversation is still there. In large part, the Neighborhood Engagement Program was created to help people in situations just like this. While the city is focused on sustaining a “continuity of operations” and ensuring that basic needs are fulfilled, it’s the people in our immediate communities that we will have to rely on most. 

In this spirit, we have been working to strengthen networks of mutual support where they already exist within neighborhoods, while also helping form new connections to make sure people don’t fall through the cracks. We are adapting the NEP to our current situation by transitioning to a “Mutual Aid” model of neighborhood engagement, creating ways for people to come together and meet each other’s needs, recognizing that as humans, our survival is dependent on one another. In doing so our priorities are three-fold: 

  1. To utilize relationships and community to provide a foundation of support and security
  2. To partner with existing grassroots efforts to support their work
  3. To build channels of communication (between city and residents, residents and local organizations, residents and residents, etc.) 

While all this is still a work in progress, things are moving forward. This is a time of great uncertainty for everyone, but with that uncertainty comes an incredible opportunity to be creative, think outside the box, and reimagine the world as it could be. In such a time of fear and tragedy, when our need for care and to care is more pressing than ever, we need to redefine what it means to truly “be there” for each other, what it means to support one another and, ultimately, what it means to come together as a community at all. This is the purpose of the Neighborhood Engagement Program, and now, more than ever, it is important that we continue to build those networks of support.

For more information on the Neighborhood Engagement Program, check out:

The NEP Facebook Page

 The NEP Website

Experiences like Cameron’s are made possible by the Whitman Internship Grant, which provides funding for students to participate in unpaid internships at both for-profit and non-profit organizations. To learn how you could secure a Whitman Internship Grant or host a Whitman intern at your organization, click here or contact Assistant Director for Internship Programs Mitzy Rodriguez


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