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A unique civic engagement initiative in the City of San Antonio, Councilman Nirenberg’s District 8 Community Academy is a way to get information and get engaged in District 8 and San Antonio. Through a combination of education on issues and opportunities to serve the community, the Councilman hopes to create a more unified and involved populace in District 8. Some of the Academy’s initiatives include Citizen Advisory Councils to inform the Councilman’s position on issues, a Graffiti Abatement Task Force, and various community meetings, including monthly town halls, biannual HOA consortiums, and regular conversations with various members of the faith community in D8.
To get involved, volunteer, or get information about the Community Academy, contact Community Academy Directors Noah Howe or Chris Stewart at 207-0941. Feel free to email us at academy@CouncilmanRon8.com.
Citizen engagement is and has always been a challenge in San Antonio. The problem of uniting a population as diverse as any in the nation is only compounded by the fact that municipal elections take place spring of odd-numbered years. The most recent of these off-year elections drew an astoundingly low 6.94 percent. City Council District 8, which encompasses Northwest San Antonio, recently played host to the most expensive Council race in city history, which still only drew 9.78 percent of the population to the polls.
The newly elected City Councilman from District 8, Ron Nirenberg, brought a new goal into office, one which would seek to get more citizens informed, engaged, and, ultimately, out to the polls. His "Community Academy," managed by two local college students, was conceived for the purpose of bringing fresh ideas and faces into the public discourse in a meaningful way, and being a proactive mechanism in reaching out to the community, rather than the standard practice of City Council offices as a simply place to receive complaints about public works and graffiti. The concept hinges on leveraging a base of volunteers who would seek to enhance their community - by having neighbors reaching out to neighbors - through the framework and capacities of the Council office itself, the "Community Academy". In addition, efforts would be made to heighten the level of public discourse and make information readily available to members of the public.
On the outreach side of the Community Academy, some efforts have tended to what is normally expected from a City Council office, such as preparing a monthly newsletter. Other initiatives include the "D8 Dialogues", a series of community conversations hosted monthly at various locations around the district for citizens to have their concerns answered in depth by the Councilman and city staff. A block walking effort has been developed into door-to-door walking by both neighbors and the Councilman and his staff for the purposes of informing neighbors about work being done by the city, how to be involved, etc. Another important function of the Community Academy has been stand-alone event planning. For example, a BBQ was planned to kick off the year and a back to school event eased neighbors back into the school year and provided enough school supplies for 300 kids. Eventually, this public outreach effort will culminate in the annual State of the District address, which will also function as a community goal-setting meeting.
The State of the District is a good transition into the second critical function of the Community Academy, which is community goal-setting and meaningful engagement in the policy-making process. One way this has taken shape is the formation of Citizen Advisory Councils, which cover five policy areas of focus to date:
- Family, Health, and Education
- Public Safety, Energy, and Infrastructure
- Arts and Culture
- Environment and Natural Resources
- Government Accountability
These are informal committees and are open to any resident of the district. Citizens are invited through our email database and social media tools. Stemming from this advisory effort is the development of a Community Academy resource website. Much like the difference between traditionally reactive constituent and more proactive Community Academy activities, many current government services websites only provide information and sparse opportunities for engagement by average citizens. The Community Academy resource website will solicit important concerns from citizens and help them have a direct impact on the policy-making conversation of the City Council, if not directly on policy outcomes.
The purpose of the Community Academy can be seen on a philosophical level to create a meaningful civic engagement, rather than having token citizen participation and reaction. On the street level, which is where municipal government operates, direct civic engagement is the best chance we have to stoke that kind of informed and constructive dialogue. While it is not a new goal, and the results of innovation in this area can sometimes be unpredictable and messy, the focus and emphasis of the District 8 office on the Community Academy framework has already resulted in a high level of engagement that Councilman Nirenberg believes supports our universal goals for active citizenship in our community. He believes, and the work of the Academy team has borne out, that such activities are not peripheral to a healthy democracy, rather thy are foundational to the process.