My work with neighborhood engagement in Walla Walla began in May of 2019. Towards the end of the school year, I was having a conversation with Walla Walla City Manager Nabiel Shawa, talking about the power of bringing community members together to create spaces of collective action and community organizing. I asked Nabiel how he, as the city’s chief executive, cultivated such spaces. He shared a number of city initiatives, but our conversation ultimately ended up exploring how neighborhoods could serve as the perfect building blocks for such an effort. A week later, during out next meeting, Nabiel asked if I would be interested in leading the creation of a City led neighborhood engagement initiative. This would build on work already being undertaken by key Walla Walla organizations including Blue Mountain Action Council and Commitment to Community (C2C), but aim to spread those opportunities for engagement throughout the city as a whole.
The invitation took me by complete surprise. Talk about imposter syndrome! Here I was, a 22-year old college student being asked to essentially create a new department for my City, working alongside other department heads and non-profit directors. I have a background in international disaster relief and non-profit management myself, but this was a whole different animal. I accepted Nabiel’s offer wholeheartedly, committing to take on the challenge and give it my all.
The process began by creating a committee to explore the kinds of neighborhood engagement programs already in existence around the country and develop a model that would be specific to Walla Walla. With help from this incredible group of community members, nearly a dozen municipal neighborhood coordinators from all across the United States, and countless residents of Walla Walla, we formulated a project proposal which I then presented to the City Council. In August, the City Council agreed to let the project proceed and I was asked by Nabiel to stay on and implement it.
The result is the City of Walla Walla’s new Neighborhood Engagement Program, for which I now serve as the director. The program engages neighbors in key community issues, provides funding for small neighborhood improvement projects and offers resources to pursue more specific undertakings, such as neighborhood newsletters, traffic-calming programs, anti-bullying sessions, or gang issues.
This semester, funded by a Whitman Internship Grant, we began by launching a media campaign to raise awareness of the program and build both interest and momentum. Our hope was to start with a pilot project, partnering with 3-5 neighborhoods before gradually expanding to the rest of the city as we were able. First, however, we needed to get the word out! To do so, I worked closely with City Communications Director, Brenden Koch, to publish an op-ed in the Union Bulletin, advertise in the local Spanish newspaper, put out a city-wide press report, conduct multiple radio interviews, and blast the information through social media channels. We developed a logo for the program and created a platform on the City’s website. Many of these things I had no prior experience with, but with the incredible support of City staff and many others, we managed to pull it all off.
The media campaign culminated in the City’s first Neighborhood Summit, which brought together neighbors from each of Walla Walla four wards to reflect on the ways they could get engaged in their neighborhood. Through this event we got our first pilot partner signups and gathered feedback on how the program could best help the residents in Walla Walla. Though we attempted to make this program as accessible as possible, providing food, childcare, and translation services, I also pursued a parallel effort to engage those who might not feel comfortable in such a space. Working with Mercy Corps Northwest and other local organizations/organizers, I have allocated a significant portion of my work time to conducting outreach in otherwise underrepresented neighborhoods. In doing so, the goal is to bring the resources of this program to the communities that need them most.
As it stands, the Neighborhood Engagement Program is working with four neighborhood groups on issues ranging from disaster preparedness to how to confront discrimination and bullying in schools. We are also developing the infrastructural resources necessary to make sure the program is sustainable far into the future. In April of 2020, I will be presenting an evaluation of this program to the City Council. The results of this evaluation will determine where and how the program will develop into the future. For now, however, our goal is to cultivate strong community partnerships with our four pilot-neighborhoods to determine how the program can evolve in the future. I feel extremely honored to be able to engage in this work, with such amazing partners both within city governments and the neighborhoods of Walla Walla. I am very proud of all that we have accomplished thus far and cannot wait to see where it leads next! Stay tuned for more updates in the spring blog post!
Check out our new Neighborhood Engagement Program Video Here!
Also, checkout our website for more info!
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