The Compact: Climbing the Ladder

Richmond Forward’s current goal is to get an education facilities plan passed and funded. In pursuit of this goal, we hold quality engagement and partnership with all stakeholders as required elements for successful and lasting change. Relationship building and recognition of neighborhoods as building blocks should inform future action.

As Richmond’s Arthur Ashe said, “Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.”

This brings us to Mayor Stoney’s proposed Compact (PDF). In a best case scenario, this is the central vehicle to achieve our education facilities goal by “getting our house in order” by improving transparency, cooperation, and efficiency between the Mayor, School Board, and City Council. The Compact’s Education Compact team (see drawing) would be active in leading the charge on stalled efforts of education facilities funding, multi-year school operational funding, community schools, and accountability measures for wealth building and poverty reduction.

But lately, the Compact’s journey has been a bumpy one.

Criticisms raised about the poor quality of community engagement have been lobbed by a group of community advocates (Style, RTD, WTVR, and Facebook), and the RTD’s own Michael Paul Williams (MPW). Additionally, the Superintendent search and late night hiring drew the ire of the RTD’s MPW and Katy Burnell Evans (KBE).

Personally, this criticism led to conflicting feelings that were best articulated by Ross Catrow. For the same reasons as Ross, I don’t understand the call for delaying the Compact for a new Superintendent or school privatization conspiracy, but I can clearly see the need for improved community engagement.

I was one of 8 people who attended the Westover Hills Compact meeting, and what happened was captured in Style’s picture. A really nice man, a well-intentioned politician, and 30-minutes of powerpoint followed by small group Q&A. Although I didn’t attend a Superintendent search meeting, Brionna Nomi’s Facebook post shows that at least markers and charts were used to capture input.

Photo: Scott Elmquist, Style Weekly

Photo: Scott Elmquist, Style Weekly

I understand that both of these efforts were well-intentioned by School Board and Mayor Stoney, but they fall drastically low on the scale of quality community engagement.  

Arnstein's Ladder 

To explain what I mean, and share with you - for FREE - urban planning knowledge I paid a hefty price to VCU to learn about, I’m going to introduce you to Sherry Arnstein’s “Ladder of Citizen Participation.” It’s my hope that by examining her levels of citizen engagement we can improve practices to grow as ONE Richmond.

Written in 1969, Arnstein’s ladder developed from time spent administering Housing and Urban Development (HUD) programs. She recognizes that participation is a cornerstone of democracy, but that it must be seen in terms of power. To grow as an equitable society, she states that, “it is the redistribution of power that enables the have-not citizens, presently excluded from the political and economic processes, to be deliberately included in the future.” Without this redistribution of power, she calls participation efforts “an empty and frustrating process for the powerless.”

She classifies society into two groups, recognizing that neither are homogeneous, the have-nots or powerholders.

Arnstein describes the levels as follows:

(1) Manipulation and (2) Therapy: Real objective is not to enable people to participate, but to enable powerholders to “educate” or “cure” participants.

(3) Informing and (4) Consultation: Citizens may hear and be beard, but lack power to ensure that their views will be headed by the powerful.

(5) Placation: Allows have-nots to advise, but retain for the powerholders the right to decide.

(6) Partnership: Have-nots enabled to negotiate and engage in trade-offs with traditional powerholders.

(7) Delegated Power and (8) Citizen Control: Have-not citizens obtain the majority of decision-making seats or full managerial power.

Arnstein provides detailed examples of actions and their place on the ladder. Information shared but no follow up? Level 3. Surveys conducted with no action from results? Level 4. Hand picked “have-not representatives” to serve on a board where they are in the minority of votes or recommendation only? Level 5.   

It’s not until have-not citizens are organized, provided resources, and decision making or negotiation power that we reach levels 6, 7, or 8.

Back to the Compact

I fully believe that Mayor Stoney wants to build ONE Richmond (as stated on Top Billin’) and that the Compact is an essential step to move Richmond forward.

But as the Compact goes to vote in July, there are three changes to document and future community engagement practices I would recommend in light of Arnstein's ladder:

1. Community engagement essentials. Transportation, food, water, childcare, and translators should be available at any community meeting. For my planning work in Ashland, I heavily rely on Alexandria's Handbook for Civic Engagement. Adopted in 2012, this requires any public engagement efforts to follow minimum protocol and practices.

2. Education Compact composition should include more “have-nots” and committed resources. Of the 11 proposed members, only 3 would Arnstein define as have-nots. A better model to follow would be the Maggie L. Walker Initiative Citizens Advisory Board. Although this board lacks the authority needed to fully transfer power, it at least provides a platform to raise voices of those directly impacted. Additionally, for these representatives to be held accountable, pursue training on technical documents, and communicate with groups they represent, staff or monetary resources (to hire groups like TMI or Storefront) should be provided to support these efforts.

3. Timeline for deliverables on the education facilities plan, multi-year operational funding, and community schools.  Activating the Education Compact by setting a timeline for future goals is essential to achieving progress. This could be accomplished by adopting a detailed 24-month timeline or by setting year 1 and 2 priorities. Here are my thoughts:

Year 1

  • 3-year immediate education facilities plan and funding with accountability measures. Identify actions required by the Mayor, City Council, School Board, and community.
  • Multi-year funding for RPS operating with accountability measures.
  • Community schools and strategic public-private partnerships to further capital investment.

Year 2

  • RPS Strategic Plan and OCWB Plan goal alignment.
  • Shared resources strategy to improve efficiency of operational dollars.
  • 10-year long-term education facilities plan and funding with accountability measures. Identify actions required by the Mayor, City Council, School Board, and community.

Community engagement needs to be more than tokenism if we’re ever going to build ONE Richmond. With all the important decisions to be made now and with the upcoming Master Plan, we need to get serious and smarter about community collaboration today!  

Call to Action!

Before July, contact the School Board, City Council, and Mayor, with your thoughts on the Compact (one-click email on RF homepage). Talk with others about the Compact, share articles, and pose questions/comments to social media. If you’ve worked up enough gumption, meet with your elected representatives or attend “Office Hours” with Mayor Stoney.

If you need further background on the Compact, check out our past updates (one and two).

We believe that if the questions raised here can be addressed, the Compact can climb the ladder of success!

Extra points because I ended with a pun.