Neighborhood leaders share tips for engaging residents

It takes more than community spirit to make a community association effective and popular.

That's the advice several speakers gave to an audience of more than 30 people at the Neighborhood Leaders Forum on Thursday.

"You need organizational committee structure," said Sharon Guida, who chairs all but three committees of the Charles Village association.

"As much as people want to have fun in your neighborhood, it's a protocol," said Guida, who was one of several presenters at the two-hour forum. "First, you need a structure that works. Then you can steer issues to the right place."

In Charles Village, "if people have a safety complaint, they're going to get a safety answer," said Guida, who chairs the association's safety committee, among others.

The Neighborhood Leaders Forum was sponsored by the Greater Homewood Community Corp,. based in Charles Village. It's theme was "What Does Your Neighborhood Do Best?"

Other communities represented at the forum included Waverly, Radnor-Winston, Abell, Old Goucher, Mid-Govans, Lake Walker, Richnor Springs, Wilson Park and other neighborhoods in the York Road corridor.

Being organized as an association goes a long way in making the group a valued community resource, Guida and other speakers stressed.

"It's OK if you miss a grant (application) opportunity — although it's really not," Guida said. But she said community leaders can't miss public hearings about zoning changes or businesses that might be bad for the neighborhood, for example.

And she said it helps city officials if the communities they represent are well-organized.

"Nothing upsets the city more than when we don't have a protocol that respects the things they deal with day in and day out," Guida said. She said structure is especially important in dealing with thorny, complicated issues such as comprehensive rezoning, which the city is doing for the first time in 40 years, or the controversial 25th Street Station shopping center that is planned in Remington and would be anchored byWal-Mart.

In Charles Village, "we've been building clout with the city in terms of things not falling through the cracks."

Hot dogs for all

Being organized also means having amenities that make people more likely to attended association meetings, several community leaders said.

For example, separate child care areas during meetings will help attract young families, said Baltimore City Councilman Bill Henry, of Radnor-Winston — or as his wife, Ruth put it, "Have (the meeting) be child-friendly to begin with."

Sandi McFadden, secretary to the Mid-Govans Community Association, stressed the importance of having association officers, calling it "the key to visioning."

And McFadden said she comes prepared with printed, typewritten agendas for each monthly meeting of the association, as well as typewritten minutes of the previous meeting. And she said she sends out email blasts to the community's more than 800 residents four or five days before each meeting as a reminder. If residents don't have access to email, "I call them personally," she said.

McFadden said she and association president Irvin Johns also hand out fliers in the Mind-Govans neighborhood.

Organization also means being opportunistic at festivals and other community event, McFadden said.

The community's most recent National Night Out Against Crime was successful in part because, "We had plenty of food and we planned a very strong agenda," McFadden said. The association even partnered with the Northeast Football League, which practices at a city recreation center in the area, to cook hot dogs and other food during the National Night Out. There were also art projects and other activities for children and fire trucks on hand, she said.

McFadden's enthusiasm rubs off on residents, said Maggie Porter, an AmeriCorps VISTA worker and community organizer at Greater Homewood, and a liaison to the York Road Partnership. Porter served as moderator for the forum.

"When Sandy calls people up and asks them to do something, they do, because she has built up a level of trust," Porter said.

Hitting the pavement

Along with organization, perseverance pays, too.

In Waverly, Nayeli Garcia Mowbray and her husband, Douglas, constantly promote Waverly Walkers. The group will meet Wednesdays at 6 p.m., starting Feb. 1, at the corner of 35th Street and Old York Road, according to the website http://waverlywalkers.blogspot.com.

The website states, "Community. Connection. Exercise. Waverly Walkers are neighborhood folks connecting on what matters most in their community. Share a favorite spot, like a community garden; discuss improvement plans; point out areas of concern, such as abandoned houses or litter. Tell your personal story; volunteer to help. Each resident of Waverly is a unique contributor to this welcoming and thriving community."

At the forum, Nayeli Mowbray said she constantly tells people about the walk, and that she and her husband walk even if it's only the two of them who show up. They walk in the rain, and last Halloween, she walked and handed out candy while wearing a mask.

When people ask, "Is it a crime walk?" she tells them that it's whatever kind of walk the people who come decide they want it to be.

The walk has had as many as 20 people show up in the summer months, and In it's small way, the walk has done some good in the community, because walkers have been able to gather information about tire slashings and once alerted a resident that the front door of a vacant house next door was wide open. They've also taken photos of street art while walking and posted it on the blog site, Mowbray said.

She said she also hears complaints from residents during the walk and makes sure she follows up on the complaints

"If you don't follow through, people say, "Oh, she forgot about me,' Mowbray said.

"Really hitting the pavement has been invaluable," she said. Her only concern nowadays is that the couple is expecting a baby this summer.

"I'm hoping I'll find a leader for the summer, while we're learning how to be parents," she said.

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