In Bloomington, community engagement now comes on four wheels.
The city unveiled its Bloomington Engagement Vehicle last month at the Heritage Days festival. The repurposed 2009 Chevy Tahoe, already in the city’s fleet, is now bright blue and covered with words that read “Hi, Neighbor” in eight languages: English, Spanish, Somali, Vietnamese, Chinese, Russian, Hmong and Urdu.
Inside the vehicle are games and activities that city staffers can use to create a fun space for residents to engage with officials and each other.
“It draws people in and gives us a chance to connect with different communities. Our goal is to take it to where people are at,” said Melissa Wurst-Persaud, manager of Bloomington’s Community Outreach and Engagement Division, which was created earlier this year.
The vehicle can be used by each city department to collect community input or reach residents who may be underrepresented in city decisions.
Attending a City Council meeting or a public forum can be intimidating and requires transportation and child care, Wurst-Persaud said. The vehicle, nicknamed BEV, works to remove those barriers.
The model has worked well in St. Louis Park, which has used its community engagement vehicle since 2018. St. Louis Park’s vehicle is stocked with games and equipped with a sound system to play music. Once it’s parked at a community event or even the parking lot of an apartment complex, residents and their families can chat with city staffers or just enjoy a game of checkers or Jenga.
Mobile voting project
In the last year, several neighborhood associations have requested visits from the vehicle, said Darius Gray, a community organizer for St. Louis Park.
The city’s elections team also used the vehicle to test a mobile voting pilot project. This month, it stopped at the Recreation Outdoor Center and at Louisiana Court Apartments.
“Some folks have never really interacted with the government before,” Gray said. “But this makes it fun. I feel like government can lose out on hearing from people because it’s not fun. People think, ‘Why would I go to some event in the basement of a church or at City Hall? I don’t want to sit there; it’s boring.’ ”
But a brightly colored vehicle with music playing and chalk and bubbles for the kids?
“That makes people curious,” Gray said.
Over the summer, the St. Louis Park vehicle was out in the community at least once a week, Gray said. Families often were drawn to it, and it offered a way that parents could engage in city services while their kids played games or blew bubbles nearby.
There’s still a learning curve for city departments to find the best ways to use the vehicle, Gray said, but it’s inspired a new wave of thinking creatively about how to meet residents where they are.
Wurst-Persaud in Bloomington agreed.
“Right now, it’s about more visibility,” she said. “We want people to see their city wants to hear from them, wants to know they care and we’re thinking about ways to include them.”