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20+ Ways Leaders Can Connect With Their Community

We asked AARP staff and volunteers to tell us about the outreach and engagement efforts they see working in towns, cities and communities nationwide

Whether it's connecting during a walk through town, spending time at a local coffee shop or stepping into someone's job for the day, being a successful mayor, legislator, appointee or municipal staffer requires spending a lot of time outside of city hall, or town hall, or a capital building. 

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Community leaders throughout the United States are finding creative ways to connect with their constituents. Here's a sampling of what's being noticed by AARP staff and volunteers — as well as some words of wisdom for leaders who want to effectively represent the people they serve. 


Congresswoman Cheri Bustos, left, and a shopper during a Supermarket Saturday event.

Photo from Facebook@RepCheri

U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois (left) goes to supermarkets on Saturdays for impromptu visits with voters.


COFFEE TALK

"Grab a coffee at the local diner early in the morning. There's no better way to take the pulse of the community. Diners attract an eclectic mix of customers, so they're an excellent location for interacting with a cross-section of the community. Since many customers are regulars, a diner counter is like a community kitchen table!"
    — Claudio Gualtieri, associate state director/advocacy, AARP Connecticut

"I love the idea of city employees randomly inviting community members to coffee."
    — Nancy Andersen, director of public engagement, AARP Nevada

"Host a monthly 'Breakfast with the Mayor' in which, say, 50 constituents are randomly invited. The result can be an intimate listening opportunity with a dozen or so community members."
    — Bob Murphy, state director, AARP Colorado 


Anne Arundel County Councilman Pete Smith, far right, and two people he met while do research about homelessness.

Photo courtesy Pete Smith

Pete Smith (right), a county councilman in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, with people he met while spending on night on the streets to learn more about homelessness.

WALKING A MILE IN SOMEONE'S SHOES

"Pete Smith, a county council member in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, spent a night sleeping on the streets to better understand the hazards and hardships of homelessness. In an article he later wrote about the experiment, Smith, a former Marine who's now a captain in the Marine Corps Reserves, said 'My experience by no means qualifies me as an expert on homelessness, but it did provide insight into the lives of those who live on the streets of our communities. What I couldn't replicate is the emotional toll that comes with being homeless, because I knew that by the end of the next morning I would go back to a warm home.' About a homeless man who helped him out by providing advice and some money, Smith wrote: 'I was blown away. A guy who literally had nothing was helping a complete stranger find shelter. This was a true act of kindness that I will never forget.'"
    — Melissa Stanton, advisor/editor, AARP Livable Communities

"It's important and effective for mayors and other elected and non-elected community leaders to do things like live off of a Social Security check for a week, travel only by bus or bicycle, or spend a week eating only at congregate meal sites or through programs like Meals on Wheels."
    — Sarah Jennings, AARP regional vice president

"From time to time, one of our local supermarkets invites elected and appointed officials to bag groceries during the store's annual food drives. It's always been a positive experience for the officials and the public enjoys seeing local leaders give back."
      — Tammy Bresnahan, associate state director/advocacy, AARP Maryland

"Former U.S. Representative Gwen Graham of Florida copied an idea used by her father, former Florida Governor Bob Graham, of working in a job alongside constituents. Rep. Graham's 'Workdays,' which is what she and her father called these days on the job, included working on a peanut farm, participating in controlled forest burns, delivering packages for UPS, working as a cashier in a food truck and even shadowing a fighter pilot." 
     — Dave Bruns, communication manager, AARP Florida

Photo from GwenGraham.com

As a member of Congress from Florida, Gwen Graham spent time in the field (sometimes literally) to work alongside some of her constituents.


WALKING, TALKING, EATING — AND LISTENING

"AARP Louisiana and its long-time community partner, the Center for Planning Excellence, collaborated to conduct district tours in Baton Rouge with city council members — and planning, public works and public transit officials — to assess pedestrian and bicycle safety. As a result, all of the concerns identified on the tours are being addressed. At the conclusion of the tour, a potluck style dinner is held. The idea is that by breaking bread, and challenging our perceptions about neighborhoods and the residents who call them home, we help break down cultural and socioeconomic barriers that have existed for decades."
     — Denise Bottcher, state director, AARP Louisiana

"Chuck Cahn, the mayor of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, sometimes hosts a two-mile walk within the Cherry Hill Mall. The walks are held in a mall so residents of all ages can stay active in a setting that has even-footing and isn't affected by weather conditions. The walks provide a way for community members to meet the mayor and other township department heads in a relaxed and inviting setting.
      — Jim Dieterle, volunteer, AARP New Jersey

"Since 2014, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray has led Find It, Fix It Community Walks to 'improve neighborhoods one block at a time.' During these walks, neighbors, police, and city officials walk together to identify physical elements in the neighborhood that make it feel unsafe or poorly maintained. Examples include overgrown trees, graffiti, street light outages and litter. Once the elements are identified, the city and community work together to fix the problems."
     — Jason Erskine, communications director, AARP Washington

"The simple act of sharing a meal is an easy way to connect and get to know one another, constituents or otherwise. I recall professors in law school who would have lunch with a few students at a time, and some who invited small groups of students to their home for dinner. Both of these experiences are ones I remember fondly, and they were instances in which I got to know fellow students and the hosts better."
     — Bob Jackson, state director, AARP Texas


Community Chitchat

"Host a speed listening event, in which local officials meet with individual members of the community for two minutes at a time to hear about their community concerns."

— Heather Tinsley-Fix, senior advisor, AARP Financial Resilience Programs

THERE'S AN APP (OR WEBSITE) FOR THAT!

"After the stock market crash in 2008, a town near where I lived in North Carolina invited people to use an interactive website where they could take a stab at building a balanced budget. The online tool basically represented the city's total budget as being $100 and asked people to increase or decrease the budget accordingly."

     — Mike Watson, manager, AARP Livable Communities

"Using Periscope and Facebook Live to interact and share information with constituents could be really useful. Both would allow folks to interact with elected officials from the comfort of their homes or while on the go without having to travel to a formal meeting location. These tools could also allow officials to be more spontaneous in sharing information. The recordings are archived for a period of time, so people can watch (or replay) the broadcasts when convenient."
     — Coralette Hannon, senior legislative representative, AARP Government Affairs


FIELD TRIPS

"When U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York visited our almost exclusively Asian-American senior center in Flushing, Queens, she interrupted the intense mahjongg games by addressing the players in perfect Mandarin, much to their surprise and delight. Other elected officials have visited our programs, and not just around election season. Having hosted many of these visits, I can say that nothing tops the perspective an elected official gains by hearing about and seeing people's challenges and struggles at the local level."
      — Leo Asen, state president, AARP New York 

"U.S. Representative Cheri Bustos of Illinois (pictured above) does what she calls Supermarket Saturdays, during which she literally walks the aisles of supermarkets in her district to introduce herself to shoppers, ask them questions and listen to their needs."

     — Ana Hervada, consultant, AARP Livable Communities

"Indianapolis recently passed a referendum allowing the city-county council to approve a tax increase for creating a dedicated transit fund to improve IndyGo, our local bus system. While the mayor, Joe Hogsett, didn't take a direct position on the referendum, he showed support for transit by actively riding the bus once a week and chatting with riders about their experiences on IndyGo."
     — Ambre L. Marr, state legislative director, AARP Indiana

"A town I lived in encouraged neighborhoods to hold block parties during its Harvest Days celebration in August, and register with the city to get visits from the mayor, city council members, fire trucks, police, etc. The visits gave residents a chance to meet local leaders and ask questions about issues."
     — Danny Harris, associate state director/advocacy, AARP Utah


Words of Wisdom

"Local officials need to go where their constituents are, versus announcing a location that's only meaningful to the official. This is true for any client outreach."

— Jennifer Berger, manager/attorney, Legal Counsel for the Elderly

OUT AND ABOUT SUGGESTIONS

"How about a roving location for city council meetings? So throughout the year, the council meets at a different community center, school or public location and members of the community host the meeting. The community might also showcase something it's particularly proud of, and highlight an area or issue that needs attention."
     — Ann Black, associate state director/communications, AARP Iowa

"Florida used to have a Capitol for a Day program during which state cabinet members and their staffs would spend time in a community far from Tallahassee. It was a good platform. I haven't yet seen a mayor do a City Hall for a Day outreach program, but it would make sense for them to do so, particularly in neighborhoods that feel underserved or disconnected from political power."
     — Jeff Johnson, state director, AARP Florida

"To increase engagement between community leaders and the community, I suggest having an informal weekend afternoon community kickball game that rotates among different locations. The teams can be put together by mixing elected officials, law enforcement, other local leaders and community members. This approach addresses access issues that community members sometimes complain about, and it provides time to discuss community issues in a pleasant environment for building relationships — which are an essential and often the most fundamental component for making progress."
     — Charmaine S. Fuller Cooper, associate state director/advocacy, AARP North Carolina


Meet and Greet

"Local leaders can partner with a person in the community to hold an open house so area residents can meet with them and discuss their concerns." 

— David Certner, director/legislative policy, AARP Government Affairs

PEOPLE POWER

"Pittsburgh has lost more than half of its population in the past 50 years, resulting in 20,000 blighted and vacant lots. So in 2011, the city launched Love Your Block — now called Love Your [Resilient] Block — to provide volunteers with some funding and the support of key city services to carry out block beautification and repair projects. The program, which is continuing to grow under Pittsburgh's current mayor, William Peduto, has enhanced more than 400 blocks by collecting 35,000 pounds of litter, engaging more than 5,000 volunteers and leveraging nearly $500,000 in donations. It's guided by the Cities of Service Love Your Block blueprint."

— Rebecca Delphia, advisor, AARP Livable Communities


LISTENING AND LEARNING

"As a former radio host, Danny Jones, mayor of Charleston, West Virginia, hosts a daily town hall on his popular morning program on WCHS-580 AM. In this forum, Mayor Jones connects with constituents who — have no qualms about requesting more police patrols, street repairs and maintenance, longer times at crosswalks and traffic lights, or the mayor's presence at a community event. Through the complaints, compliments, and vents shared by callers live on the air, the mayor takes all the feedback in and often connects callers instantly and directly to resources within his city's departments to offer assistance.”
     — Linda Bunn, associate state director, AARP West Virginia

"Bob Miller, the mayor of Monona, Wisconsin, has a regular booth at the Farmers' Market. He brings his guitar and sings and then takes comments in-between sets.   
     —  Sam Wilson, state director, AARP Wisconsin

"When I was an associate state director in Alabama, I worked with several mayors on a series of listening campaigns to improve the built environment. Among the things we did was host a scavenger hunt during which teams had to take photos in various locations around the city. The photos showed that some communities didn't have a grocery store or pharmacy, and that others only had fast food restaurants.
     In Bessemer, Alabama, the AARP chapter president invited her city councilman to dinner but asked that he arrive using public transportation. He ended up being an hour late, which helped illuminate to him some of the community's needs around coordinated transportation.
     Similarly, the Huntsville chapter held a meeting four blocks from the mayor's office. We sent a chapter member to meet him at his office so they could walk together to the luncheon. He soon saw how it was impossible to walk the short distance to the lunch we were holding in his honor. The street was very busy and there were no crosswalks, so it was impossible for them to get to the location by foot. He and the volunteer walked back to his office and drove to the event. After the demonstration he helped us install several crosswalks and other traffic calming designs throughout the city."
     — Deidra Lemons Johnson, director, Operations Strategy and Analytics-Strategic Services | AARP Community, States and National Affairs

 

Article published March 2017 | Curated by Ana Hervada, edited by Melissa Stanton


Learn More

"It's important to study cities everywhere to better understand your own city. And always listen to people — especially the people who are saying things you don't want to hear. When I was first mayor, Moon Landrieu was mayor of New Orleans — now his son Mitch is mayor — and he told me, 'As mayor, your most important job is to listen.' I've always remembered that." 

— From "5 Questions for Joe Reilly"