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Civic Engagement Needs More Cowbell

By Devin Tucker, Director of Community Development Programs

An estimated 96 million registered and eligible voters stayed at home during the 2016 presidential election. Voter participation during "off-year" elections is even more pronounced with some estimates suggesting that only 20 percent of eligible voters participate in local elections. An analysis of voter data for NHT-Enterprise's Florida portfolio prior to the 2016 Presidential election suggested that not enough of our residents participated in elections.

We are working with parents to help them become better advocates for their child's education.  Our tutors meet monthly with parents to bridge the home-school communications divide. We are focused on how to use our tutoring program as an organizing model to help parents address everything from neighborhood school closures to helping them advocate for their child's individual education plan (IEP) with their school principal. As a measure of civic engagement, the numbers suggest that we have more work to do in order to empower the communities we serve. Decisions about roads, schools, parks, and affordable housing impact our residents every day. As an affordable housing developer, we are left to ponder the question about how to create a culture of civic engagement with our residents that is more robust and can be sustained no matter the election cycle. In other words, like the famous Saturday Night Live comedy sketch, our civic engagement needs more "cowbell" (or emphasis) to help speak to issues that impact our residents daily. At the National Housing Trust, we are advancing several strategies to help move the needle on civic engagement in National Housing Trust communities.

We are inviting more institutional muscle to the civic engagement conversation to help our residents amplify their voice. A recent forum between Georgetown University, the National Housing Trust, and Galen Terrace (NHT-Enterprise-owned) community leaders focused on ways to help our tenant-partners articulate concerns about economic and social inequity in DC's Ward 8 neighborhood. We are in ongoing conversations with Georgetown University's Innovation Lab to help our Galen Terrace residents increase their "bandwidth" to network with like-minded associations focused on bringing better opportunities to Ward 8. 

We've invested resources in "Generation Next" to build a young leadership class.  Children participating in our tutoring program are required to complete at least four community service projects annually. Our community service requirement means that more than 600 hours of volunteer resident time are donated to local organizations like Martha's Table each school year. These community service projects are designed to build interests in important civic matters, while equipping children with the tools to respond to a natural disaster in Haiti or the needs of a retired veteran in their local community. Our community service requirement is a form of early, civic literacy that empowers our children to help make important choices about the communities they will live in as adults. 

Before Ferguson, we worked with local law enforcement at places like NHT-Enterprise-owned Hazel Hill in Fredericksburg, VA, to establish positive community-police relations. We are piloting a new initiative for our Washington, D.C. communities that will introduce young adults ages 16-24 in our communities to careers as a first responder. While this initiative fundamentally addresses the economic needs of our residents, it's also designed to allow young adults to complete community service projects, to meet with decision makers, and to engage directly with local law enforcement about policing matters. It is our hope that a successful pilot, involving citizens who are already "embedded" in the neighborhood, will help strengthen our most important public institutions. 

Civic engagement at the National Housing Trust moves beyond "building the box," or home - We help our residents share their concerns, participate in our democratic institutions and become leaders.