6 Ways the City of Decatur Became a Model of Inclusion

In response to the tragic events in Charlottesville, the National League of Cities is celebrating #InclusionWeek to support diversity, inclusivity, and hope in America’s cities. This guest post by Linda Harris originally ran on June 8, 2017.

What is the role of local government in creating a space for community dialogue among residents? How do you bring everyone to the table, especially those who have not traditionally felt welcomed or included? What happens when you spend time and money on a civic engagement process to create a plan designed to result in a more welcoming and inclusive community?

The city of Decatur, Georgia, answered those questions with its Better Together initiative, launched in 2015. The year-long, community-wide visioning process included conversations across differences and a community engagement outreach component designed to include all residents, especially those who might not feel welcome at the “table.” Approximately 800 citizens contributed more than 1,300 hours to the initiative, resulting in the largest citizen participation process since Decatur’s 2010 strategic plan.

The initiative resulted in the Better Together Community Action Plan. The plan includes 60 action items for individuals, organizations and local government to undertake, individually and collaboratively, around six focus areas:

  • expanding community participation and engagement
  • prioritizing racially-just community policing
  • ensuring the availability of diverse and affordable housing options
  • cultivating a welcoming and inclusive retail environment
  • maximizing the use of public spaces
  • facilitating low-cost transportation options

The city commission accepted the plan in 2016 and immediately enacted one of the top recommendations by creating and appointing a volunteer Better Together Advisory Board to lead the implementation, thus institutionalizing the city’s commitment to being a more just, welcoming, inclusive, equitable and compassionate place for all.

Thirty-six people applied for the Better Together Advisory Board, the largest and most diverse number of people to apply for a volunteer board in Decatur’s history. The city commission appointed a group of 15 to the advisory board, including a high school student. The board held a planning retreat and began meeting monthly in January 2017.

The Better Together Advisory Board. (City of Decatur)

It Starts With Conversation

Addressing diversity issues in your community can be difficult and complex, so the advisory board intentionally designed the Better Together initiative to provide opportunities for people representing Decatur’s diverse population to come together and hear a broad perspective of community experiences, both good and bad. And it worked.

The public survey component of the initiative, which was designed to gauge perceptions about what makes Decatur welcoming or not, generated 724 responses. The day-long Working Across Differences training session drew 70 people (with a waiting list), and 55 of them used their skills at Better Together events.

More than 250 people attended a five-hour community conversation on a Saturday designed to connect community members across differences and contribute their action ideas to the Better Together plan. The event generated 625 action ideas that were distilled into a draft list of 71, which was further distilled (with more community input) into 60 items for the final plan. The city of Decatur hosted a meeting for organizations identified as having an interest in taking the lead or partnering on some of the emerging ideas and programs. Thirty-five people from 50 different organizations pledged to work collaboratively on the completed plan.

The Better Together Advisory Board now leads the charge to continue the conversations across differences — among themselves, with the potential partner organizations, and with the community. They are utilizing the outreach techniques identified and used in the Better Together initiative to ensure that all residents know they are welcome at the “table” even if they have not participated in the past.

Decatur’s vision to be open, inclusive and welcoming to all is an aspiration that is not easy for any city to achieve. It requires intentional conversation, ongoing action, and a commitment from elected officials, city staff and the entire community.

The city of Decatur, Georgia, took second place in NLC’s City Cultural Diversity Awards program for cities 50,000 and under. The program showcases examples of how cities can achieve excellence in diversity. If your city is interested in issues of inclusion and diversity, we encourage you to join us at one of our constituency group meetings this summer: the 2017 Women in Municipal Government (WIMG) Conference in Cleveland, Ohio, June 21-23, or the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials (NBC-LEO) 2017 Summer Conference, July 20-22, in Birmingham and Bessemer, Alabama. Also, this October, learn how to become a more inclusive leader at the NLC University Leadership Summit for Inclusion in sunny San Diego, California.

Featured image by Shawn Vinson.

About the author: Linda Harris is the chief of civic engagement, education & communication for the city of Decatur, Georgia. She was the project manager for the Better Together Initiative and is now a staff liaison to the Better Together Advisory Board.