Ten things I learned as President of a Trenton Civic Organization

Written by Phil DeRose

As President of The Old Mill Hill Society from 2007-2009, I helped to lead or foster many endeavors and address the concerns and vocalize the complaints of the people within our compact 6-block neighborhood. Some of these endeavors met with great success, like the addition of a 15-minute community-police dialogue at each of our monthly meetings. Others failed, like an attempt at organizing a nightly neighborhood security walk (though, a second attempt is faring better).

Mill Hill has gained attention – both positive and negative – for being vocal and for being organized as a group in the City. It has its own identity and personality and very much influences the quality of life in its own confines. This is something that I think every neighborhood has the potential to do. And when more neighborhoods become strong on their own, we have increased energy to reach out to each other and create larger synergies that will have a positive impact on the city.

Over three years, I’ve found that some common approaches made getting things done within our organization work, whether that meant organizing a neighborhood cleanup, energizing a grants program for homeowners, planning a community barbeque or working with the city to create a plan to revamp permit parking on our tight streets. Notably, we have rallied around parking as a quality of life issue but our new parking permits remain mired in red tape after three years…you can’t win them all, but we haven’t given up yet.

So, who am I? A Jersey boy who grew up an hour north who only learned about Trenton when he graduated from the school then known as Trenton State College. A young man who found an inexpensive apartment on a street in Chambersburg that felt a little like his grandparent’s neighborhood in Brooklyn, and then somehow became captivated with the City…captivated enough to move into a rented home in Franklin Park for a few years. Then I decided the time had come to buy a house . I’m a guy who has always liked to meet diverse people and float between different groups. Mill Hill immediately felt like a perfect fit, and I found a great restored home at a price I could afford. Now, more than a decade after discovering this City, I’m a married man whose wife has adopted Trenton as her home, too. We’re invested and facing the realities of many Trenton families: what do we do about school when we have children? Will our home have increased in value enough to sell when we need to upsize? What’s the future of our neighborhood…and could we ever find another place quite like this one?

Now that you know a little bit about this author, what follows are my takeaways from being President of a civic association that I think are worth sharing:

1. Accept that we live in a City that requires a little more of its citizens.

We all complain about what the City administration should be, but isn’t, doing. Regardless of how you feel about any one city administrator or worker – or all of them for that matter – there are clearly capacity issues in City Hall that aren’t easily fixed. We can’t necessarily rewrite the entire budget or revamp departmental operations (though we can influence the process through City Council and direct correspondences from our organizations), but there are many things we can do ourselves if we all adopt the attitude that each of us personally needs to effect the changes we want to see. In other words, let’s show them how it’s done!

We can coordinate with neighbors to tackle quality of life issues such as absentee landlords…create a log of complaints and consistently bring them to inspections; make those landlords and the inspections department pay attention. Litter in the streets? How about a commitment to clean up in front of your own house to start? We can go a step further and organize community gatherings that introduce neighbors to each other. We can start online listservs that allow for the dialogue 24/7, whenever people have time.

What I’m saying is that each of us can make a commitment to devote some of our personal time to making the City a better place to live. And while we’re doing that, we can keep speaking up!

2. Focus on simple goals.

With all that said, it’s not always easy to fit another thing into our daily lives or to engage others in working together. I get it; like everyone else, I have long days at work and sometimes just want to kick back. If you want a piece of someone’s personal time, you have to convince that person that it will be time well spent. Focusing on simple goals creates a greater opportunity for simple successes. Keep it manageable and achievable. For example, if the goal is to clean up the neighborhood, first focus on one street so that everyone who participated can really see the impact at the end of the day. Then move on to the next street. Little wins create a momentum that keeps things going.

3. Get community buy-in.

You may have a great idea, but you need the interest and support of your community to give it life. Explain your ideas and look for feedback. Be flexible in where an idea starts and where it goes. Let it evolve with the group, keeping the core purpose in mind. Some organizations work for consensus. Others vote for a majority decision, including ours in Mill Hill. So long as everyone has an equal voice and the decision process is fair and consistent, most people accept and support those decisions (I’m not talking presidential elections and the congress here). After all, we have things to get done!

4. Repetition. Repetition. Repetition.

Give advance notice. Send out reminders and updates like clockwork. People live busy lives, balancing career, family and everything else. If you want to stay top-of-mind, act like a marketer and keep touching your contacts at regular intervals. Make sure to keep your content fresh or you’ll get tuned out. Make yourself a regular part of someone’s life so they willingly give their attention and regularly reciprocate. Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter may be the hottest trends right now, but some of the basics of networking can still happen through emails, listservs and even paper notices put through doors. You’ll have the chance to really network and create connections when you meet someone in person.

5. Create a framework that makes it easy for people to help.

If you want people to help, tell them how you need their help. Create signup sheets! Don’t ask for help with open-ended questions. Give choices, spell out opportunities and give some indication of how much you expect. Let people share their talents and interests. Often, there is a core group that takes the lead and puts forth the most effort, but you need more people to flesh out the group and really make things happen. Handing around a blank signup sheet makes it easy to leave it blank. Handing around a sheet with multiple choices, timeslots and checkboxes makes it easy to sign up to get involved.

6. Remember that people are human.

I’ve heard of several notable volunteer-run events in the city that were incredibly successful but were a bloodbath of personality conflicts and negative stress behind the scenes (and, no, I’m not going to say which ones). When I’ve spoken with a few of the people who volunteered, they’ve told me they just wouldn’t go through that again. So what happens? An event that could become an annual attraction becomes harder to pull off the next year. A potential tradition becomes a one-off. I think it’s valuable to remember that, just like in the workplace, you don’t have to like someone to work with that person. Try to foster a sense that everyone is working toward a common goal, and focus everyone on that goal. Allow disagreements but defuse confrontations. Heated discussions are fine but set some parameters and let everyone have a voice. Nobody wants to feel slighted. If you we all give each other a level of courtesy and respect, we’ll get things done.

7. Create a link to City government.

Whether it be a member of City Council or a director within the city administration, work to make some friendly connections. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be vocal about problems or needs within your neighborhood. You should. But, again, you can do more than complain to these folks. They’re people, too, and relationships are always a give and take. So keep them abreast of what you’re doing in the neighborhood. Talk it up. Ask them to contribute to the effort. If you’re hosting an event, invite them to attend. Even if you don’t get a positive response, keep reaching out. I’ve learned that there are a lot of people in city hall who love Trenton as much as I do and work hard for us. When they see you contributing to your neighborhood, it just might inspire them to push a little harder on their end for you.

8. Add some fun.

Our neighborhood has held an annual Holiday House Tour fundraising event for more than 40 years. I’ve personally opened my home four times over seven years. It’s an incredible amount of work, but the tour attendees make you feel great. Even better, though, is our annual “pre-tour” held the night before for everyone who has opened their home or volunteered for the tour. One person hosts a cocktail hour and then we all spend a couple hours walking through the neighborhood to see each other’s homes. Since we’ll all be busy the day of the tour, we’d never get to see the fruits of our own labor. It’s fun, we learn more about each other and we all appreciate our efforts even more.

Another example of adding a little fun: several times each year, we have cleanups on the Market Street “Islands” – the landscaped dividers in the middle of Market Street on the way to the train station. If you come out and bring your gloves and trash bags, you’ll find coffee, bagels and water waiting for you. We pull weeds, pick up trash and do a lot of gossiping. When the organizer found a $50 bill caught in one of the bushes, she bought pizza and drinks for everyone. All work should be that fun.

9. Share success. Own failure.

A team succeeds as one and fails as one. Same with a neighborhood organization. Remember to publicly thank people by name and spell out their contributions. Recognize them individually and as part of the group. Give your team their props. You’ll get yours back. But when something doesn’t come off, don’t point fingers. Talk about what would have worked better and how it could be improved for next time. Most people will claim the shortcoming that was theirs – even if not out loud – and work on it for the next time. Failures lead to success if you have a group of people with the spirit to give it another shot.

10. Lead by example.

There is definitely a place for managers and workers in a civic organization. Still, in civic life, as in professional life, getting your own hands dirty goes a long way to earning the respect and support of others.

Last words:

We live in a city with great potential. As citizens, let’s get in sync and take some small steps toward reaching that potential within our own neighborhoods. In time, we all might look side to side and discover that we’ve gotten it together enough to make some bigger strides, marching through the city to the same beat.

Thanks for allowing me to share.


2 comments so far

  1. Eric Maywar on

    Nice. Practical. Sensical. Reasonable. Useful.

  2. Don Wallar on

    Sound advice for success what ever the project. Well said!

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