Introduction: How to Call the Shots in Your Neighborhood
This is a step-by-step guide to how to attend your neighborhood association meeting for city dwellers. If you've ever wondered who made the decision to put up the giant flag or rip up a street or cancel your favorite parade, chances are it's your neighborhood association. They're usually quite powerful.
So if you're remotely interested in your neighborhood, it's definitely in your self interest to go to a meeting at least once. They're a great way to meet your neighbors, get your agenda heard and people watch some of the more unusual people in your neighborhood.
I've been to hundreds of neighborhood association meetings in cities across the country as a regular neighbor and in a professional capacity for past jobs, so I've seen a wide range of meeting types and styles. I'm basing this Instructable on my experience attending my neighborhood association meeting in Duboce Triangle, San Francisco, where I just moved, but my advice will apply to wherever you live. However, if you live in New York City, please be aware that neighborhood association meetings are very different from Community Board meetings; the latter is a special breed of event that has its own special logic.
To do this Instructable, you will need:
-Some very basic interest in your neighborhood
-Lack of fear of being indoors or sitting down
-Access to a computer, though there are ways around this
-Willingness to take the time to go to a meeting
Going to a neighborhood association meeting is an item on Neighbors Project's Neighbor Checklist.
Step 1: Find Your Neighborhood Association (option 1)
The first step beyond securing a permanent address in some city neighborhood, is to find out which neighborhood association you belong to. Many neighborhoods have one, especially in cities that are prospering, but some don't. If you don't have a neighborhood association, you'll have to start your own, which is a whole other Instructable. (Stay tuned.)
I had a very easy time finding my neighborhood association because their volunteers left me (and all my neighbors) a newsletter on my doorstep. So option one is get lucky and receive a newsletter in the mail or on your doorstep. Since this is actually fairly unusual, be prepared to try Option 2...
Step 2: Find Your Neighborhood Association (option 2)
Your second option is to use the mighty power of the Internet. Simply search for the name of your neighborhood and "neighborhood association." For example, I searched for "Duboce Triangle" and "neighborhood association." And wouldn't you know? The Duboce Triangle Neighborhood Association is number one in the search findings.
Though most neighborhood associations keep a web site, some don't, or let theirs lapse into 2001 oblivion. So if you can't find your neighborhood association from searching online, you can call your city council member or even 311 in some cities and ask for help. You can also keep your eyes open for any signs or literature around the neighborhood that mentions the association. Keep in mind that most neighborhood associations are still run by people who came of age before the computer era and function quite happily without any sort of Internet footprint. Strange but true.
Step 3: Find Out When the Meeting Is
Most neighborhood associations have their meetings at the same time and location every month or every other month. Some have the sense to publish the actual date of the next meeting, but many just say, "third Thursday of every month at 7 pm at the library" and expect you to figure out the actual date of the third Thursday of the month. If you find the latter, then I strongly suggest that you put it into your electronic calendar as a regularly occurring event rather than expecting that you'll figure it out every month.
I found the date of the next meeting for my neighborhood association by looking at the front page of the newsletter I found on my doorstep. I could have also looked online at the Duboce Triangle Neighborhood Association's Web site for the next meeting date.
Some neighborhood associations send out newsletters to members only, and that newsletter will give you the date of the next meeting. To become a member, you can either sign up online (though sometimes you actually have to print and mail your form) or go to a meeting and sign up in person. It usually costs somewhere in the range of $5-20 to become a member for a year.
Step 4: Find the Meeting
Don't worry, you don't have to be on time for these meetings. You can show up whenever and leave whenever, though obviously you'll get more out of it if you stay for the full meeting. They run anywhere from one to two hours.
Most neighborhood associations have their meeting at the same place every month, so they don't always go out of their way to make it easy to find simply because the board members are used to the location. So if you're going for the first time, give yourself five extra minutes to find the exact location.
I've been to meetings in bars, churches, schools, hospitals, libraries and storefronts. The meeting I went to for my neighborhood association was in a hospital and was actually hard to find, though it was just a hop and a skip from my home. I wandered around the hospital a bit looking for it, following signs to a different meeting, but I found it. You can always ask people in the building.
Step 5: Go In, Sign In, Grab Food and Sit Down
This is the really really easy part. Just walk in the door and look for the sign in table.
Most neighborhood associations have a welcome table with a sign in sheet and pertinent literature. You don't have to sign in, but it's a good idea if you want to get on the mailing list. There was no sign in sheet at my neighborhood association meeting. Often there's an agenda for the meeting on this table or on the seats, but sometimes not. There was no agenda at my association meeting.
Usually there's some form of food. I've seen everything from fancy catered food from the bar to cheap cookies from the store. But free food is free food, and it's not unreasonable to expect that you'll be able to snack at the meeting. Often the food is donated by a local business, so it's a sign of appreciation of their support to eat heartily.
Most meetings start a bit late so there's a bunch of wandering around and socializing at the beginning. If you're not comfortable with this, then plan to arrive a late.
You don't have to actually sit if you don't want; standing is welcome. But most people sit. Unless there's a life and death issue on the agenda, you should expect to see around 20-50 people. A really good turn out for a neighborhood meeting is 100 people, but the meetings I've been to are usually closer to the 25 range. That's usually a nice number for feeling like you can speak up, but without feeling like you're on the spot.
You don't need to bring any special items. Some people like to bring pens and paper and take notes, but that's quite rare. One man I saw at my neighborhood association meeting was knitting. So I guess bring whatever helps you listen.
Step 6: Listen and Participate
The meeting is usually run by the board president. (By the way, it's usually easy to get on the board if you're interested. Just ask the president or one of the other board members, who are often introduced at the meeting.) That person's role is generally to facilitate the speakers and discussion, and not to impose her/his own opinions, but sometimes they stray.
Your city government really looks at these meetings as the voice of the community, so you'll often get a bunch of people from city government, including the mayor's office, as well as people representing institutions and stores doing business in the neighborhood, at the meeting. They're there to hear your opinions about their projects. Other notable guests usually include your elected officials, from city council member to state senate and sometimes congress, or their representative. Your city and state representatives make regular appearances to update you on their work and get feedback. So if you've never seen any of these people in person before, this is a good place to finally meet them and get their ear.
Meetings are generally designed for maximum participation, so there will definitely be an opportunity for you to speak up on whatever neighborhood issue is on your mind. Unfortunately, a lot of people only show up to meetings to speak against a proposed development on their block. Don't be that person. Successful neighborhood associations develop pro-active, constructive projects for improving the neighborhood and find volunteers to accomplish them. Unsuccessful, dying neighborhood associations simply monitor development and offer a forum for people to show up and say "no, I don't want that." If you find your neighborhood association trending to the reactive, negative condition, talk to the board president about changing the culture of the organization.
You'll notice immediately that most people at neighborhood association meetings are middle aged, own homes, own cars, and no longer have kids in the school system. Hence they often don't represent the typical resident in your neighborhood. Be aware of that in the discussion and don't be afraid to challenge them on their desire to be able to park all three of their cars right in front of their home whenever they want, for free, regardless of the impact on anyone else. I'm being snarky because parking is always a huge area of discussion; but the conversation often misses the bigger picture in the neighborhood and city. If you find yourself disagreeing with other people, do speak up. Just remember to stay calm and reasonable. You're more likely to win support that way. (It doesn't hurt to learn more about parking policy either.)
Some meetings require formal voting. Usually you can't vote unless you are a member of the neighborhood association. So do join.
Step 7: Socialize and Meet Your Neighbors
The end of the meeting is usually a good time to meet people who interest you in the crowd. Often people use the opportunity to talk to the special guests, including elected officials, one on one. I've spoken to my elected officials this way a number of times. But I also suggest that you introduce yourself to the board president.
The reality is that most neighborhood associations are in bad need of new members, and new volunteers to sit on the board. So the board president will be very glad to meet you. Lest you write off the idea of being part of a desperate organization, keep in mind that being a member -- and especially a board member -- gives you a lot of power in the neighborhood. Of course, you should use that power responsibly by constantly striving to represent the full neighborhood. But if you like having access to all kinds of insider information and a forum for pursuing your agenda, this is a great place to get involved. Board membership usually doesn't take too much time; you should ask about the commitment expectations.
I would be remiss not to mention that neighborhood association meetings definitely attract the more unusual people in the neighborhood. But they're not usually in the majority. Don't get distracted by it. Instead, enjoy the people watching.
Step 8: Leave and Plan on Returning
When you're ready to leave, just walk out the door. But do plan on returning for the next meeting, or getting involved in your neighborhood association in some capacity. It really is one of the most rewarding ways to volunteer your precious time, especially if you care about your neighborhood.