In Community Cafés, residents in Brooklyn Park, Minn., discuss issues ranging from community policing and garbage collection to keeping chickens at home.
When Brooklyn Park, Minn., started a community relations program in December 2009, it was a pretty straightforward effort. The city was trying to strengthen relations between residents and the police department. Now almost three years later, the program has “gone places I never thought it would,” says Denise Rene Wollenburg, the city’s community relations coordinator.
The range of the program has broadened from gathering ideas for creating safer neighborhoods to include everything from garbage collection to the practice of raising chickens at home. And now the program has brought Brooklyn Park, a city of 78,000 north of Minneapolis, a national award.
In March, Brooklyn Park was among five communities that received City Cultural Diversity Awards from the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials, a constituency group of the (NLC). The awards recognize communities that encourage citizen involvement and promote cultural diversity.
Other winners include Dubuque, Iowa; Irvine, Calif.; Arlington County, Va.; and Phoenix. Dubuque was recognized for its free inter-cultural training sessions for community members, while Arlington County’s Spanish language website and citizenship classes for newly arrived residents won praise. Irvine received recognition for its 10-year-old Global Village Festival, which features activities representing more than 50 cultures. Phoenix’s police outreach program, which includes training police officers in cultural sensitivity, was highlighted in the awards presentation.
A hallmark of Brooklyn Park’s Community Engagement Initiative are small group meetings billed as Community Cafés, where residents discuss specific topics in a mock café setting. Six to eight people at each table discuss a topic and then rotate to other tables. Facilitators help document suggestions from participants.
The meetings, often hosted by residents, are held throughout the city — in schools, churches, even garages. The goal is to get people talking. “Before you can work on real issues and problems, you have to sit down and talk,” Wollenburg says.
Some of the discussions were tough. “We had shouting matches about race,” she says.
The sessions helped lead to changes in Brooklyn Park, where 21 percent of residents are foreign-born and 48 percent are people of color. For example, Wollenburg says, “We stopped using the word ‘citizen.’ We use ‘community member’ or ‘resident.’ Because when 21 percent of your population is foreign-born, they are lawful permit residents but they might not be U.S. citizens.”
The program has reaped benefits, Wollenburg says, including a 20-year-low crime rate even as population has grown. The biggest benefit, though, may be in changed attitudes. “We still have a long way to go,” she says, but “people are more prideful of where they live. It’s helped our community become more connected.”