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How to make your neighborhood association more equitable and inclusive

Neighborhood associations play acritical role in shaping a community. Whether offering places to meet friends, exchanging information, advocating for improved public services, or just meeting new people and having fun, these groups enable community-minded people to band together and promote the common good. This can only happen, though, when that collective is viewed as legitimate, inclusive, and representative of the community it serves.

However, without putting deliberate thought into, and continually reflecting on, who is participating and how to incorporate the full range of community members’ perspectives, neighborhood associations can end up running against the goals of the wider demographic, especially of those whose voices are marginalized or left out of the public discourse.

Here are 3 strategies to start improving your neighborhood association, distilled from what we at Perci have discovered by engaging with stakeholders across the planning and development lifecycle. We’re constantly learning, testing out new strategies, and refining our approaches, so if you have feedback and ideas, please let us know how we can make this guide even more helpful!

1. Stack up your membership against the Census numbers

Even if your meetings are open to all, studies find that neighborhood associations attract certain populations more than others, with older, white homeowners most frequently found in attendance. To know if your group is truly representative and inclusive of all voices, you need to compare it against your neighborhood’s population.

Fortunately, finding out who makes up any given neighborhood association turns out to be easy. The U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) provides highly localized statistics on a range of topics, going down to the “Block Group” level. In addition to very visible basic metrics on gender, race, and age, we recommend looking at these less visible characteristics:

  1. Income
  2. Housing tenancy (i.e. renter vs. homeowner)
  3. Vehicle availability
  4. Housing cost-burden rate
  5. Household size
  6. Language

The goals of diversity and inclusion are often aspirational, constant works-in-progress. Be open about your numbers (especially when submitting letters of support/opposition, so decision-makers can contextualize the information), provide an explicit sense of how you’re tracking on a regular basis, be honest about where you might be falling short, and let people know how you intend to address any potential shortcomings.

Even if you already know how well you’re tracking as compared to your metrics, consider conducting a demographic survey of your membership as a baseline. On an ongoing basis, instead of just collecting people’s names and email addresses, consider setting up a form where you can let people self-identify before signing up.

2. Know what you’re working towards and why

Neighborhood associations are often born out of the uncertainty of a community’s future, especially when there are new development projects that are either out of character or that openly clash with what’s already there. Change is hard and scary, but can also present opportunities to make things better and correct historic wrongs, like redlining.

However, just establishing a forum for community members to speak isn’t enough. In fact, many times such forums become nothing more a place for people to complain, with little to show for the time invested. A fair, just, and productive assembly results when those present have a clear understanding of the current underlying challenges, goals, and priorities at hand.

Instead of making decisions based purely the input of members attending a particular meeting, perhaps take a more intentional approach.  Rather than tackle each case – an unwieldy proposition at best - consider adopting a more holistic strategy that weighs trade-offs. Remember: Your member and volunteer time is valuable and limited—leverage their strengths and direct their passion more effectively through the formation of committees with clear charters that help guide the organization’s collective thinking.

Consider whether your board and your membership have answers to these questions:

  • What types of day-to-day needs can we fulfill within our neighborhood? What mobility options exist for people to access what’s outside?
  • How welcoming is our neighborhood of people from different backgrounds?  Do we actually “walk that walk,” or are we merely giving lip service to the process while digging in and maintaining the status quo?
  • How easy is it for a newcomer to invest in, want to, and actually be able to stay in our community for the long run, such as by starting a local business or becoming a homeowner?
  • What should our community look like 10, 30, 50 years from now? Which aspects of our neighborhood are unique and essential characteristics that we want to uphold and preserve? Which parts should change and evolve over time to meet the needs of the future?
  • Is there sufficient diversity in housing choice to enable people to stay as they move through different stages in life? What would it take for children in the neighborhood to stay or come back? How about for retirees to downsize into a smaller home? Being honest about the community’s intentions – present and future – will go a long way toward furthering any stated goals.

Among the different priorities, give the greatest weight to those of highest importance and which are most realistic to implement.  

Not sure where to start? Many cities like Boston provide a wealth of open data to help supplement the lived experience of your membership. 311 data is particularly helpful in seeing what is already being brought to the attention of your municipality by residents.

3. Establish guidelines and procedures

A process that’s unclear, unpredictable, subject to discretion, and overly complex undermines your legitimacy, decreases membership engagement, and can lead to splintering of your group’s unified voice.

Avoid this dilemma by making sure your by-laws are openly available to the public. Writing things down (or better yet, visualizing it as a diagram!) helps make sure everyone is on the same page. 3 primary rules of thumb come to mind in ensuring that your meetings stay short, sweet, and productive:

  1. Document roles and responsibilities of leaders
  2. Host regular elections and set term limits
  3. Prepare an agenda in advance to assist reaching the relevant individuals and focusing those in attendance on the most relevant topics.

Additionally, here are some strategies we recommend:

  • As previously mentioned, avoid making any and all issues the subject of an open vote. Attendance will vary from meeting-to-meeting, so establish criteria that even newcomers could use to judge a proposal. Score proposals against a standardized rubric, share the scoring with your community, and give people an opportunity to share their feedback
  • Keep general meetings high-level and delegate specific things to individuals (or, for more complex issues, committees) to then report back to the full group with recommendations and thought processes
  • Most of all, keep meetings upbeat, positive, and results-oriented. For particularly contentious topics, consider stating this intention at the outset. By providing those present with a set of goals and expectations with which to align, chances for a successful outcome increase dramatically.

Do you have strategies you’ve seen work well or want to bounce ideas off us or others who work with communities? Join the discussion below!

This is just the first post in a series on sharing best practices that we’ve learned for promoting more equitable planning and development, so everyone can afford a place to call home. Join our mailing list for occasional newsletters sharing our work and learnings!