Brooklyn Park is gaining a national reputation for embracing its diversity and working to help its many immigrant and ethnic groups get involved in their neighborhoods and city government.

Several top city officials gave a presentation on community engagement programs at a Transforming Local Government conference in Atlanta last month. The city, which is about 48 percent nonwhite, also has won the National League of Cities' top Cultural Diversity Award.

"We do a lot of events and direct outreach to get to know people and build trust with government," said Elizabeth Tolzmann, community engagement coordinator for the city of 77,000, of whom 21 percent are foreign born. "We are changing the role of city government, going from being a service provider to a facilitator that connects people at the neighborhood level, invests in youth and works with our diverse populations."

Brooklyn Park began its five-year engagement initiative in December 2009 with a citywide strategic planning process that took several months with assistance from a consultant.

The city formed a core planning team, composed of 15 community leaders and residents, and a dozen city leaders, including the mayor, two other City Council members, the police chief and city manager. The group agreed on goals, core values and a new city mission statement:

"Brooklyn Park, a thriving community inspiring pride where opportunities exist for all."

Cities historically have relied on one-way communication, such as informing citizens, asking for their input on projects and responding to resident concerns, said James Svara, a research professor at Arizona State University. He has been director of the Center for Urban Innovation in Phoenix and co-authored a conference white paper on citizen engagement in 2010 when he said the engagement movement was gaining clarity and acceptance.

"Citizen engagement focuses on a higher quality of interaction so people are actually talking to each other," Svara said. "It tries to bring citizens in, not just in defining issues, but as partners in solutions. It takes a change in attitudes of officials and requires citizens to come to meetings, or online engagement forums. They must be committed to not just speak their minds, but to listen to others and come to shared conclusions about approaches."

Community Cafes

Brooklyn Park began its outreach process with wide publicity that attracted about 400 people to Community Cafes around the city. They broke into small groups to discuss goals and concerns. Such discussions help a community "develop priorities, broaden perspectives and, in Brooklyn Park, often lead to shared commitments, even consensus on goals, plans and methods to use," said Svara, who has heard the city's presentations at national conferences.

"We view what they are doing as being exemplary and representing a leading example of what many cities and counties are doing to expand citizen engagement," he said. Other leading cities include San Jose, Calif.; Grand Rapids, Mich., and Decatur, Ga., Svara said.

Brooklyn Park's City Council has approved an annual engagement budget of $132,000, less than 1 percent of the city's total budget, Tolzmann said. That covers her salary, resident surveys and several other part-time outreach positions that she expects will be filled by June. The city also provides meeting space, facilitator training for residents, food and supplies for meetings and tools for neighborhood cleanups, Tolzmann said.

Measuring goals

The core team set up a handful of groups to oversee outreach events and progress. A measurement group reviews periodic random surveys of residents to see if attitudinal goals are being met.

The main goal is that within five years, 90 percent of residents surveyed would be proud of their town, believe it is thriving and say they have opportunities to succeed, Tolzmann said. She said the last survey in 2011 found more than 70 percent of residents agreed with the three-pronged mission statement.

"We have to change the way we do business as city employees," said City Manager Jamie Verbrugge, a core team member. The role of future urban leaders will be to help more diverse residents connect to each other and school, business, city, nonprofit and other resources, he said.

City services still will be provided, but cohesive neighborhoods, where residents know each other, can resolve some issues themselves. For example, Verbrugge said, instead of asking a city inspector to check on a home's code violation, a neighbor would have enough of a relationship with the offending homeowner to talk about the problem and ask him to correct it.

Community input

Community events, like an upcoming forum for new immigrants and other minorities, are aimed at "shifting people from being observers to active leaders," said Abdullah Kiatamba, executive director of the nonprofit African Immigrant Service, which will co-host the forum. He said one challenge is helping newcomers overcome their hesitance to get involved with city outreach and planning efforts.

Resident Brenda Reeves co-chairs the city's diversity committee. After three years of monthly meetings, the group is now comfortable enough to talk about issues like domestic abuse and barriers faced by minorities who would like city jobs, she said.

"So many barriers are being broken down," Reeves added. "It makes me feel good to see so many relationships being built. And because of that, problems [are] being solved."

Jim Adams • 612-673-7658