Friends in High Places

Maybe not the highest places, but high enough to be of great help.

I am talking about Community Boards. Not all cities have them, but most have some kind of equivalent.* Other powerful groups that can play a similar role are Business Improvement Districts (BID’s), park support groups (Conservancies or “Friends of…”), Parent-Teacher groups or other neighborhood organizations. All of these organizations share similar traits:

  1. For many of the members this is a second job (you will see why this is important later).
  2. They are all looking out for their groups best interest.
  3. They are often a diverse, well connected and powerful group.

I will speak generally about approaching these groups and the benefits of working with them, then talk a little more specifically about the NYC CB’s.

These groups can pay a potentially strong role in helping your project succeed, especially if an individual, or better yet the whole group, really likes your idea and can help shepherd it along. Neighborhood groups can help:

  • make connections for you, getting you meetings with important people, getting your project publicity, or helping with in- kind donations.
  • get permits. They have prior experience and knowledge and may be able to help with the process.
  • notify local businesses and schools about your project.
  • if needed get you in touch with the local precinct community affairs officer for project support.
  • write “official letters of support” sanctioning your project.

So as you can see, a little effort can go a long way with neighborhood organizations. And while you are at it you can witness the beauty of the civic process in all its raw glory.

One of the important keys to establishing a succesful relationship with a nabe-o (tired of writing neighborhood organization) is having the right approach and being prepared. The following are things I have learned in my experience.

  1. Do you research. This will help with all of the following tips. Know whols who, what their focus is, when and where they meet.
  2. Find the initial contact (in the case of the CB’s there is a “manager” who handles all of the schedules).
  3. Have a plan in mind, but be willing to be flexible. Do you need to present at a meeting that is open to the public? Or just a subcommittee? How much time do you need? What specifically are you seeking from them?
  4. First contact you should “briefly” (remember this is often a second job for them they don’t have the luxury of time) introduce yourself and your project (if you have a special connection to the nabe-o, mention that) and tell them what you are seeking from them. Preferably you could do this in a * short* email, but prepare what you want to say if you have to call.
  5. If you are allowed/invited to speak to the nabe-o bring materials to support your project and the request you are making of the committee. Bring enough copies for everyone.
  6. Once you are there be open to other suggestions the nabe-o has, they know their community well and may have a different and insider way of looking at things.
  7. Follow up. Send a thank you with additional information if they asked for it or if it is pertinent. Make the connections they suggested.
  8. Be patient, the meetings can be long & tedious or interesting and informative (depending on your interests and point of view – I find them fascinating).
I think that is it, if I think of more I will add them.
Now, specifics about the NYC CB’s. The CB board is appointed by local politicians and the Mayor, for that reason alone they have a lot of power. Legally they have no standing with in the city beauracracy, but they do carry a lot of weight. A letter from a CB can open doors and get you the permits you are having trouble getting approved. Many of the CB’s have a ton of subcommittees (education, parks & rec, streets & transportation, etc) figure out if you need to get in front of any of these, or be open to presenting your project many times to different subcommittees. Make sure your materials are tailored for each one.
I found the CB’s to have a lot of good ideas and resources and went in with an open mind. A couple of the CB’s wouldn’t even let me speak (although they cannot bar you from speaking during the public comment session at the required monthly public meeting) to them directly, but most of them were unbelievably supportive and loved the project. It can be a lot to take on, but the rewards can be plenty. You can also find press attending the meetings or reading the minutes, so it could lead to a story or two!
Most of all, this is your civic process at work. Have fun!
*If you want to let me know what you have in your city that is like a CB, please add it to the comments!

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