Podcast: Building Socially Connected Communities with Oswaldo Mestre & Risa Wilkerson

Posted on July 2, 2021

Building Socially Connected Communities - GovLove

oswaldo mestre risa wilkerson
 Oswaldo Mestre
Chief Service Officer & Director of Citizen Services
City of Buffalo, NY
Bio | LinkedIn | Twitter
Risa Wilkerson
Executive Director
Healthy Places by Design
Bio | LinkedIn | Twitter

Solutions for social isolation. Oswaldo Mestre, Chief Service Officer & Director of Citizen Services for the City of Buffalo, NY, and Risa Wilkerson, Executive Director of Healthy Places by Design, discussed a new report on creating socially connected communities. They shared why social isolation is an issue that cities need to pay attention to as well as strategies to address it. Oswaldo shared what the City of Buffalo did to create community, even during hard winters, and Risa talked about the work of Healthy Places by Design and the different aspects that contribute to social isolation.

Host: Ben Kittelson

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Keep Reading

Socially Connected Communities: Solutions for Social Isolation

City of Buffalo Division of Citizen Services Website

Healthy Places by Design Website

Socially Connected Communities: Solutions for Social Isolation

Socially Connected Communities: Action Guide for Local Government and Community Leaders

Neighbors Helping Neighbors in Buffalo

Top 25 Doers, Dreamers & Drivers: Oswaldo Mestre Jr.

Episode Transcript

Ben Kittelson  00:09

Hey y’all, coming to you from Jacksonville, Florida, this is Gov Love, a podcast about local government brought to you by Engaging Local Government Leaders. I’m Ben Kittelson, consultant at Raftelis and Gov Love co-host. We have a great episode for you today, we are talking about healthy places and social isolation. But first, the best way to support Gov Love is to become an ELGL member. ELGL is a professional association engaging the brightest minds in local government.

Message  00:32

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Ben Kittelson  01:02

Now let me introduce today’s guest. Oswaldo Mestre is the Chief Service Officer and Director of Citizen Services for the City of Buffalo, New York. He’s been with the city since 2007. He’s also the founder of Donald, of the Donald M. Dave Learning Through Service Initiative and develop the city’s 311 call center. Risa Wilkerson is the Executive Director of Healthy Places by Design, a position she’s been in since 2015. Healthy Places by Design is a nonprofit consulting group that advances community led action and proven place based strategies to ensure health and wellbeing for all. With that, welcome to Gov Love both of you. Thank you so much for joining us. 

Risa Wilkerson  01:37

Thank you. 

Oswaldo Mestre  01:38

Thank you. 

Ben Kittelson  01:40

Alright, so we have a tradition on the podcast to do a lightning round so our listeners can get to know you a little better and help everybody kind of warm up. So my first question and maybe Oswaldo, we’ll start with you, what book are you currently reading?

Oswaldo Mestre  01:53

Well, an exciting book it’s called the Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz, four impeccable agreements that I try to live by. But being in public policy, you want to make sure that your word is something, you don’t take things too personally, you don’t want to make assumptions, but you always want to be your best.

Ben Kittelson  02:14

Nice, nice. Risa, what about you?

Risa Wilkerson  02:18

Well, I’ve got a stack of books that I’m never ever getting to. I’m almost always reading a couple of them at a time. 

Ben Kittelson  02:24

I’m in the same boat. Yeah. 

Risa Wilkerson  02:26

So right now I’m kind of finishing two books. One is called The Brave New Home by Diana Lind, talking about housing trends and the corresponding sort of national narrative around housing and socialization actually. And the other is The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee, What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. But I’m usually try to have some kind of a novel or something going to just veg out at the same time.

Ben Kittelson  02:51

Yeah, that’s fair. I do the same thing. I gotta balance out my, my learning with my fun, I think. Alright, and then Risa, we will make you start on this one. What was the first album that you bought?

Risa Wilkerson  03:05

Album? Well, you’re dating us on album. Is that an LP or an eight track? I don’t know, It was a long time ago. It’s probably Bread or Boston or some some group like that.

Ben Kittelson  03:19

Awesome, Oswaldo, what about you?

Oswaldo Mestre  03:21

Well, you know what, I think I’m a hip hop type of guy when I was growing up. And so there was a few. If I had to kind of go with one, I would do, like Run-D.M.C. Rockbox. But then you can’t do Run-D.M.C. without doing Beastie Boys. Then I was, so I kind of look at those two, and, you know, how do you start from Run-D.M.C., Beastie Boys, and if I can weave in a little bit of Public Enemy in there, and then that’s [unintelligable] in terms of working for a city, you know, so that’s my base, and that’s my foundation. I’m sticking to it.

Ben Kittelson  03:57

That’s perfect. And, and a bunch of artists, like spoken as a true New Yorker, so the East Coast route. So 

Oswaldo Mestre  04:04

There you go. 

Ben Kittelson  04:06

Alright, my last question, and Oz, we’ll make you go first over here first, where do you go for inspiration?

Oswaldo Mestre  04:11

Well, being from Western New York or not, while living in Western New York in Buffalo. I guess I’m cheating a little bit. I have one of the seven wonders of the world. And so where do I go for inspiration is about 20 minutes away from us. I go to Niagara Falls, you know, it is a wonder. People’s like, Oh, this it’s just water going over, but there is something to do with the roar of water and the powerfulness of this river, going to one lake to another. I’m also a big lover of everything architecture. And so if I just want to wander, you know Buffalo has great architecture. I’m a big Frank Lloyd Wright fan. And so we have the Darwin Martin house. And so for inspiration, you know, I just kind of roam around there. But, and lastly, all else fails. I’m in my backyard, you know, kind of vegging and this, you know, I’m an urban kid, but you know something about me some grass or trees and this being around nature does something for me.

Risa Wilkerson  05:16

Yeah, I can completely relate as I, because I was thinking the same nature. Absolutely. Anytime I can be near water, I grew up on a lake and my husband grew up on a chain of lakes. And so anytime I can be near water, go to the ocean, or go to a river or falls like yours. That’s definitely a big plus for me. The kind of beautiful landscape helps me to feel inspired. And I think the other is really, I get a lot of energy and inspiration talking to other people. And so like you Oz or like you Ben. Whenever we get into, you know, really great conversations, and I hear what other people’s passion is and how it plays out. That’s that’s inspiring to me.

Ben Kittelson  06:03

Yeah, I definitely echo that the just doing these podcasts. I feel like I get inspired from from talking with folks that I can definitely relate 

Oswaldo Mestre  06:12

And some people have a story, you know, 

Ben Kittelson  06:14

Yeah, exactly. Yeah. So one thing I, long time listeners of the podcast will know is that I like to hear how folks ended up in their role. And one of the themes is that, you know, there’s no one path to any of the positions kind of the that work in or with local government. So maybe Risa, we can start with you on this one, how did you end up in your current role, what’s been your career path to Healthy Places by Design?

Risa Wilkerson  06:39

Well it was very serendipitous, because I thought I was going to start out and be an editor of a magazine or some kind of journalist or something. And just, you know, serendipity brought me you know, along into this healthy communities role. But how I really became came to Healthy Places by Design, we’re an intermediary organization, which means that we provide strategic support to philanthropic leaders who invest in local community change makers, while at the same time supporting those local leaders. And I happened to be the recipient of our organization’s services when I lived in Michigan and led some community level work there. And having experienced our service model, I just became a really strong believer of it. And so when an opportunity arose to join our team, I jumped at it. So that’s how I ended up at Healthy Places by Design.

Ben Kittelson  07:28

Very nice. And Oz, what about you? What’s been your path to the City of Buffalo?

Oswaldo Mestre  07:33

Well, it’s, it’s been a path, I’m not gonna lie to you. I am a native New Yorker, New York City and had the opportunity to go to college, went to University of Buffalo. But I was gonna run back to New York City, I think I drank the water, I felt the cool breeze experienced snow. And I fell in love with the city. In college, I, you know, and I encourage this to folks, you know, don’t look at the four walls of the university go beyond that. I had an internship working for a not for profit and kind of just found my place, you know, and I was always volunteering. And I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. But I was always, every semester, I said, I wanted to do an external type of volunteering. And so as I started doing that, I thought I was going to be a teacher, I actually came to school to go to be an architect. And look where I’m at now. UB was one of the few schools that had a great architecture program. And as things evolved, I said, you know, architecture is in the process of designing and looking at spaces for people. And getting my degree in Public Policy and Administration and with a minor focus within planning and architecture. And so I just felt like those things married well, working for not for profit, I actually ran a not for profit. Never thought I would work for the city. Right? I actually taught for a little bit and case worked then did a whole bunch of community engagement work, you know, on the other side, and an opportunity presented itself to work for the city. I jumped at it. And I said, Okay, you know, this should be interesting. One of my first jobs, I went to a community meeting, and I was advocating because I was that community advocate, a community activist, and I’ve said this and everyone started looking at me, and said, Why aren’t you speaking, I said well you work for the city. I’m like, whoa. And I said, Well, you know what, I have to change that dynamic because the place that I worked for should not define my advocacy. And so I was very grateful for the mayor that I worked at that time. allowed me license to engage communities, but to report back to him. But all things change, you know, as administration’s change a new Mayor came in, and I thank the mayor, and this new mayor invited me to be a part of the administration, he said well, but you got to interview you know, I don’t which one is best. Well, you know, I went, I said, I knew what I wanted, you know, and, and went through different process, it was a panel and gave my stuff and kept on going up and up. And it became between me and another person for this one position that I wanted, because I didn’t want anything else. And I remember getting a phone call from the new mayor. And he said, Wow Oswaldo, wow, you’re doing pretty good here. Right? You know, you’re gonna, you know, I was like, okay. He says, Well, I mean, a lot of people speak very nicely of you. And I say, Well, thank you, Mayor elect, you know. He says, Well, I’m gonna go with somebody else. And I do appreciate that. And you really, you know, and I said, Well, Mayor, you know, well, thank you for the opportunity. It was really an honor. You know, and we understand new administration, new focus, new changes. And as I said, Thank you. He said, oh, no, no, you don’t understand, wait a second Oswaldo, no, no, I don’t want you for that position, I really want you for something else. And I said oh. He said, This is what I want, and I said ugh, and I say, man, I don’t know if I want that you know? And I did, this is a true story. And I was like ugh because I was already in that department. He said no, no, no, no, I really want you, I need you to think about it, you are the best person for this, matter of fact, I’m going to elevate this position to a departmental status, you’ll report to me, you will have this portfolio to do this, and that, and that. And I kind of looked at and I said, Well, you know, I think I like it, and I don’t really have any other opportunity. And I really had my sights set on that other position, I say all that to say that, I took the new position. And to be quite honest, it was the best thing that could have ever happened, because it gave me the portfolio to create, to engage with communities, because he saw my strength. The other position with a little rigid, you know, and so more or less story here that sometimes people see something in you that you don’t see. And that you know, given the right opportunity, you can be able to express that. So that’s my story. That’s how I got here, as the director of Citizen Services, and first chief Service Officer for the City of Buffalo.

Ben Kittelson  12:13

Well, I have to ask, because those are pretty unique titles, what what is like that entail? What is like a day to day? or What does your portfolio of kind of responsibility? What is that under? The director of Citizen Services? Our chief service? Yeah, well,

Oswaldo Mestre  12:26

my commodity my chief commodity citizens and residents in the community, right. And so we have different departments that will focus on different things, public works, and you know, those guys and gals, they like to play with tonka trucks and work on stuff. And, you know, you have, you know, law enforcement and police, and you know, about safety and fire, but my commodity is citizens. And so, we have a call center at 311 call center where I listen, and address citizens concerns, compliments, I look at every time somebody calls is an opportunity, an opportunity to listen, and to address. And so we take that information and data, you know, as director Citizen Services, not only to help, but also how do we are how best can we quantify those things, those concerns, and best addresses it, using data to make hardline decisions in the community, while looking at it. Now from an equity lens, but also from a restorative approach is very, very important. So that’s that piece, this is the chief service officer, is that I also work with communities and neighborhoods, and do a lot of placemaking type of initiative, based upon, you know, our engagement, volunteerism, trusting and working with community based organizations block clubs. And so, you know, I report to the mayor regarding that. And so it’s a combination of both, I’m listening to one side, when I’m able to infer, looking at that information, the data making programs actionable at that time. So I’m able to pivot and say, Well, you know, what, what’s going on? And you say, well, let’s, let’s look at the information. And so let’s come up and create and, you know, that’s what led my work to, with Risa to do on what we’re doing in terms of social isolation, and I know she’s going to talk a little bit about that.

Ben Kittelson  14:25

Okay, I was gonna say, that portfolio makes a ton of sense for why you’re on why you’re connected with the healthy place by design, folks. So maybe Risa, before we dive into the social isolation piece, and I’m going to struggle, I’m just gonna keep blurring those two words here, this whole conversation, but can you talk a little bit about some of the examples of work that healthy place by design as has has done just so our, our listeners maybe have an idea of kind of your company’s work?

Risa Wilkerson  14:50

Absolutely. Yeah. First let me say though, don’t don’t we all need Oswaldo, in our cities. You know, that’s beautiful. Yeah, exactly. It’s such a beautiful role, and every government agency should have it. And then I mean, I just I love listening to him talk about it. I mean, it’s this notion of, you know, really, really trusting that people know what they need, and providing those services and creating trust again, you know, and respect is just it’s beautiful. Okay, so healthy place by design, yeah, we work at the local, state and national levels, that really depends on the project. And so there’s a whole variety of ways in which we, you know, come come into partnership with folks and work collaboratively. But I’ll share a couple examples. So for example, at the local level we we can provide support to Coalition’s or partnerships that are really working to improve quality of life. One example is there’s a health collaborative and the Dan, the Dan river region of Virginia, and North Carolina. And this is a health collaborative, it’s a group of passionate multi sector community leaders who are committed to improving health in the region. And they they’re implementing community led plans that prioritize equity and sustainability. And our team helps facilitate workshops and conversations, we offer thought partnership as they prioritize Healthy Living strategies that will work in their their context. And we share relevant evidence based examples for impact, we collaborate with their committees to create evaluation plans for their five goal areas, we also worked with some of those partners to help create quality of life neighborhood plans. And so that was a series of conversations with residents and it was resident led to really see what did they feel they needed to improve quality of life, what do the formal, you know, organizational partners need to be aware of and be bringing to them and you know, prioritizing for their, for their the goals that they have for their own neighborhoods. So that’s one example. You know, we work at, at the state level, sometimes there’s funding for cohorts at the across the state, and we help with collaborative learning, or providing coaching to those local leaders, bringing resources, you know, meaning like, you know, different types of tools that might be useful and that kind of thing. And at the national level, similarly, often, we’re called in to help enhance learning across a cohort and build, you know, help to build leadership capacity to, we work with APHA to support a national Learning Network for the healthiest cities and counties challenge funded by the Aetna foundation. This is a cohort of city and county level teams that are advancing health equity within their communities. And, you know, we we’ve kind of worked to look at what are some common sort of themes that they’re working on, or challenges that they’re having, and then link them to, you know, folks who’ve got experience in those areas and help, you know, to really create robust discussions that help them to go back and do their work.

Ben Kittelson  18:06

Very cool. One, and we’ve already hinted at this, but one of the areas they work in is around social isolation. So maybe, for our listeners, that that’s a new phrase, or they may have some inkling of what that means. Can Can you give us maybe a little background on, on what that is? And kind of? Yeah, just tell us a little about that, I guess. 

Risa Wilkerson  18:26

Yeah, sure. So social isolation, you know, the short definition of that is basically the lack of significant social connections interpersonally and within a community that, you know, creates, it’s a real health crisis, social isolation, and there’s some very serious health risks associated with being so socially isolated. Some research puts the equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, or it’s twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity is it’s linked to depression, poor sleep quality, life expectancy is reduced as well, from social isolation. And we, you know, I think we as a country have been thinking about that, as, you know, sort of an individual issue area, something that, you know, is a point in time for people, maybe something to do with life cycle or some choice people are making, but that’s not the case. And so, back in 20, I think it was 2017, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s global team had been talking with other leaders from across the world about what are some common issues that everyone is struggling with and social isolation came up even before the COVID-19 pandemic as a global issue, a global public health crisis. And so their global team decided to you know, put out a call for proposal invite people to talk with, you know, peers from other countries. and borrow ideas and work together in partnership to try to implement some of those ideas in the US and see how they worked out. And they funded six grantees to do that. And they had been working for a little while. And in late 2019, part of JF said, you know, we’d love to enhance their learning and our learning by, you know, really having some opportunities for them to come together and have some discussions. And they brought Healthy Places by design into lead, social isolation Learning Network throughout the year of 2020. COVID, of course, created some havoc kind of all of that, but it ended up creating also some quite deep and meaningful conversations about what the problem is and how it’s currently being talked about, and how it needs to be talked about. And so, yeah, and Oswaldo was part of that group, yeah. And Oz what, what made the city want to be part of that group? Was there something that you were seeing, as you know, in interacting with citizens or with community groups? Or was it something that the policymakers in the city were interested in? Or I guess what, what led buffalo to want to pursue that? 

Oswaldo Mestre  21:12

Well, I know, this is important for your members. Cities are very unique places, very unique mosaics of peoples and places and, and so some people call them laboratories or these big experiments, but you know, real life, things happen on a very local level, we, City of Buffalo wanted to be involved, right to talk about social isolation. And sometimes we talk about that as if it’s a personal choice or individual problem. But a lot of it, you know, is rooted. When we talk about community design, or our social norms, or even systemic injustices in Buffalo, like many of the cities to, you know, has deep roots, blue collar, it’s a legacy city, many people would call it the Rust Belt city, always, you know, trying to look to see how we are looking to redesign, you know, and then there’s rebirth. And before the pandemic, we were doing a great job of it, and we continue to do it. And so buffalo amongst other cities, looked at its communities and saw that there were places us, you know, the part that we took about this was the issue in terms of winter. And its effect on different communities in different neighborhoods and different people. And so we engaged in one of the first things when we worked with the Foundation, when they identified three cities and made them winter Vanguard cities, cities that deal uniquely with winter, and snow and all things that make winter. Obviously, at the city, we still have to continue to move, whether it be kids going to school or jobs. But again, winter does something in different ways in different communities. And sometimes it reinforces on those things that marginalize some communities more so than others. And so kind of programming can we do? What can we look to do? And so, on what we did when I went to mission is that we engaged it, we the we we talked about, it’s like, What does winter look like you and we didn’t just go into we went into those communities that may be disproportionately impacted, not by the wet weather, by issues of transportation, other systemic issues, and we asked those questions, you know, what does went to look like until we got that? And some people said, It’s beautiful. Some people said, it’s harsh. Some people said, you know, what, what can we do to change that? And so the engagement part was was was very important. And then we processed then we had some limited dollars and said, What can we do in terms of an impact project, a demonstration project to look at that? How can we prioritize those things and so on winter snow clearance was important. And so you would think that’s obvious, but know that that snow clearance to some people is important. More specifically, you know, if you are a single mother, and you’re trying to get one place to another, and you’re trying to access transportation, that’s the challenge, right, you know, winter warmth and making sure that the cohesiveness of families and folks have secured places to live in terms of that inclusivity you know, and how we get together the neighborhood, and then programming, then we bet it and we believe on people that residents knew what was best in their communities. And so we work, block clubs and neighborhood watches in many cities have these these are institutions, community based agencies, faith based institutions that determine and they know because they’re already dealing with people. And so we worked with them. We had an AmeriCorps program and we teamed them up with an AmeriCorps member. We teamed them up and we did mini grants. And we said okay, tell us what you want in your community that some communities responded. Right. They said, You know what, there was one community that wanted to build the shed a community tool shed and leave shovels, and then along the way, build pods where they had salt. And so when you went on that block, because they wanted to clear the walkway, it was something that’s simple. And that we end the day, the processes, we work with them to develop that. And so those are some of the things when we’re talking about isolation, but it’s really the root. And then lastly, access to parks, which is important. Many residents who live right near parks and you know, winter time, there’s a closed sign, nobody goes in there, because it’s that you have this big, beautiful asset right in front of you. How do we make those words actionable? You know, maybe it’s lighting, maybe it’s programming, right, you know, and so we would do winter port sports. And we call that and until we be engaged folks, and we had different community based agencies come out and we did a winter fair. And so we have a burgeoning downtown is great as one of the best places to ice skate, I think in the whole country. We call it canalside is beautiful. And you want to make that investment. We said, Why can’t we bring canalside to some of the community that can’t get there? Let’s create their own canal side, right? So we asked those folks who, who were vendors, and those people who work with people in one place, let’s go into these communities and show them that you know, what they can be a part of, and we can kind of create that. And so, again, I’m mentioning Buffalo, many other cities can do that. It’s really about a heart and will of listening to people Risa talked about that. Risa talked about that. It’s really about putting them first and then putting, and then saying, Okay, what are these barriers that that were there that you can overcome? Right? Well, and Risa I heard a lot of in kind of the specific example from Buffalo, a lot of echoes from the action guide that y’all published around building socially connected communities, can you can you maybe talk a little bit about what’s in what’s in that? And maybe what you heard from what Oswaldo was describing and buffalo? And what are the other lessons that governments can take more generally?

Risa Wilkerson  27:14

Thank you, Ben. Yeah. So hopefully, you know, you and listeners are hearing from the buffalo examples, you know, some hints at sort of the direction of that social isolation Learning Network last year, which was y’know folks, folks from all the different projects, not just those funded by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, but others who’ve joined our group, you know, really talked about how we needed to get away from sort of the conversation about socially isolated people are hermits or loners are, you know, really labeling them as if it’s an individual choice or failure or trait, but really looking at what are the causes of people not having connections with other people, and is, as Oz was defining often it’s the environments themselves. It’s, you know, histories of disinvestments in communities that have, you know, not enabled there to be sort of environmental supports for being socially connected together, and so on. So, you know, I really want to emphasize that the group that that gathered last year, really, it was a collective effort to really recognize that it’s, it is a you know, problem that’s rooted in community design in social norms, and systemic injustices. And the we said, you know, okay, where do we start? You know, and what are we going to write about? What are we going to emphasize? Because there’s so much here, I mean, you could talk about the educational systems, healthcare systems. And we don’t, you know, we’re not writing the, you know, the encyclopedia here. So, they they agreed collectively, that if we think about how people anchor their lives, you know, we think about housing, where do you live, you come home to an environment, is it safe, you know, are you welcome in your own, you know, street that you live on and in your neighborhood. So housing became important. Transportation is what connects us to, you know, all the other aspects of our lives from housing, and public spaces are the prime opportunity to really, you know, bridge neighborhoods and, and help us to kind of come together in very, in very sort of organic ways, as well as you know, the opportunities to program those spaces to bring people together. So we emphasized designing and maintaining inclusive public spaces, prioritizing connection and transportation systems, constructing housing environments that actually build community and you know, strengthen our our sense of belonging. The fourth recommendation is around investing in inclusive practices and community led solutions. And so none of these things that we describe, can be designed, you know, just sort of in a bubble. I mean, we need to make sure that all people have a say in how how the how their communities look and feel and and welcome them what, you know, they’re that they’re represented there they see themselves there they feel that they are heard. And Oz’s role is a perfect example of that. And then the fifth recommendation is around making social connectedness a community norms, so really just lifting it up as a high priority, declaring it as a value, implementing practices like trauma and resilience informed practices that really, you know, recognize the history of the systemic injustices and begin the healing process. So those are the five recommendations in the report that we that we outline, and you know, it’s really just the beginning of a conversation. It’s intended to kickstart ideas and help people to really sort of think about how to integrate this into work they’re already doing, it’s not an independent lane that we have to work in. It’s really a multi solver approach.

Ben Kittelson  30:58

Yeah, it’s, it’s another layer, right? It’s not something new, yeah. And Oz,  just kind of hearing some of those recommendations is that kind of, does that line up with the experience of implementing in Buffalo that, you know, hey, we had to figure out what this looks like here. But obviously, those the same kind of general action steps sort of sort of got got to y’all as well.

Oswaldo Mestre  31:23

It definitely did. You know, I think, you know, if I can add to, when we put this document together, and it was able to great, you know, some of folks and Risa in understanding a role in terms of this kind of corralling us. We all had different perspectives. And we wanted to make sure that we left some not just a document, but some kind of creed or or guide to say, you know, what, let’s focus on this, as you talked about the five recommendations, you know, the social well being in terms of organizations and cultures. So, from a government perspective, we can’t talk about it, we have to look at that in our policies. And we also have to look at it in terms of types of programming. The other thing that we looked at as terms of that I talked about this about honoring community assets. So what do I mean by that? You know, inherently, you know, if you’re not in communities and don’t see, you know, you know, the community mothers, you know, I call we have mama Charlene and, and Mrs. Triggs, these are the people who see us come and go. But these are those, those are the real mayors, right? Those are the people who understand those communities. And if we can honor them to understand about programming, and looking at that post was one of the things we did in Buffalo. And so, and then, Risa talked about this, not to forget the way that we look at things from a systems perspective from a system and yeah, very, very important. That’s how we are able to look at this from a restorative approach, and from a result of that aspect, but also how we look at equity too. You know, whether it is, you know, we talk about redlining, or and how some cities, you know, we all have that highway that this cuts up through something, or systems and where some transportation as government officials, you know, that’s there, what can we do to influence that, to impact upon that, and sometimes we do that with programming. But it’s really about how we allocate resources. I just talked about some of those programming. It took a lot for us to say, when I say a lot, for some folks that trust people say, Listen, I’m gonna give you the money, you tell me what you want to do, and how can we help you? Right, you know, and and I’m not talking about but but shape that and come up with some ideas and thoughts. And you know, that I have to, I can’t, I can’t identify to say that this park is not being used to this capacity, if I don’t go to the park, right. You know, if my if I’m not sitting down, and I’m not looking at it, you know, so those are some of the things until we’re very proud to be about about that.

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Ben Kittelson  34:55

Well, I wanted to ask about the systematic issues and maybe Rsza  we can start with you There may be a general approach for all governments that want to undertake this work that they need to, like, how should they think about the systematic, you know, issues that exist in cities across the country when it comes to social isolation?

Risa Wilkerson  35:13

Yeah, well, I think like anything, when your eyes kind of get opened up to an aspect of healthy community, I mean, you begin to see it. And so you do you just like, oh, okay, I’ll never see it in different way. And it’s just this is, you know, a great way to think about it. And so, you know, in addition to the report, with the five action guide, five recommendations, we have very short action guides for people to consider as well. And so the one for local government and community leaders, the first action, and I think this is, perhaps the best place to start, is to think about how you weave social wellbeing into your organizational and community cultures. So you have to start internally, so really thinking with your own team, about, you know, their experiences of social connection, or social isolation, what they’re seeing, but also just, you know, kind of what, you know, each person plays a role. So if they were to prioritize people’s relationships with each other, and building trust, you know, between people and their government, people and you know, their neighbors neighborhoods with other neighborhoods, what would we do? So look at the community level policies, systems, environments that contribute to social well being, if you put that up high as No, like a health in all policies, approach, you think about sort of social and all policies, what would that look like and, you know, work partner with nonprofit organizations and foundations and others, to host community wide conversations about the benefits of social connection and explore how to infuse that into really every aspect of life, I think that’s a great place to start.

Ben Kittelson  36:53

Yeah, and we’ll be sure to link to the the action plan, and your guys’s work on the social isolation, because I think it’s a, it’s a great resource for folks that they’re trying to learn more. 

Oswaldo Mestre  37:02

It’s a tremendous resource, I just thought about, you know, even with that first action, you can think big, or you can think small, you know, I have a staff and we have weekly meetings, and one of the agenda items that we talk about here is social well being it’s top, you know, and so, as I’m reporting out on other different things, I want staff members and department heads to talk to me about what is the capacity building that you’re doing. So if you make it a priority, whether it is on your budget or not, when you make it a priority, when you are managing people, it becomes a priority to other people, you know, so I use that example. Because sometimes we’d like where do we start, you know, you know, we I call it like, you know, you want you want to bring the circus, and we’re all somebody must have to do is get to my screen. Right? You know, and so at some point in time, you start somewhere, and people are like, I don’t have the money to send that start with you’re own staff, start with, you know, the people that are in front of you get them to start to think about that. And then sit back and say, You know what, let me see where this is going at. And we’ve been able to do that. Well, and this might be more of a nitty gritty, public admin question for you, Oz. But I when you were talking about the the winter mission project in Buffalo, it sounded like there was a fair amount of work needed from park staff and Public Works staff in order to achieve some of the, you know, the goals of making the city more, more socially connected and create some spaces for folks. So what was it like kind of bringing those other departments along? Like, how did you persuade them, convince them cajole them into, into into being part of this effort? I love that you said the nitty gritty. Because you know what it is, you know, we talk about we romanticize Oh, it’s great partnerships, and life is good, this and that, you know, what we taught that we have to build capacity within our own departments, you have to change the way sometimes things are done, you know, and that took a second is to talk to people to talk to, you know, the folks in public works with the tanka trucks and say, listen, we do something different even doing something in a park. Right? Yeah, we wanted to do some programming. There was a policy said that we couldn’t do, we couldn’t do a the the bonfire is not a bonfires, but it’s an open air, of Park pits, right. And I said, Why can’t we do that? And so this one policy was preventing people from warming and creating warming stations and a park. And so I invited the fire department and invited folks, I said, Let’s do this. I was like, it was like, you can do it. I got the fire department here. And all you had to do was ask, right? And all of a sudden, we had about hundreds of people come out roasting marshmallows, playing kickball in the snow. And that one thing about creating these pits, no and so we were able to change policy that you know is no longer you can’t do it. Now. You have to have some fun. You know, you don’t want people to burn the park up In that respect, but that simple piece is important to overcome. So we talked about nitty gritties, the same way that you work with people, you have to work within your own department and build capacity. So that change can happen. Because if you don’t do that, you’ll be by yourself. And you’ll be leading, you know, the team of one, as opposed to building the team of many.

Risa Wilkerson  40:21

I think you know, residents know, I mean that just ask them how do you want to use this space? How what would bring you to it more? What would help you to feel safe and comfortable and welcome here and talking with others in the community, and they know, they’ll help

Oswaldo Mestre  40:39

listen to fire pits, and the hot cocoa was a hit. And, and you know what, and later on, instead of people saying, Hey, can you help us? People started calling us can we do it? Instead of, Hey, can you help us? Hey, we’re gonna do it. Not a problem, you know. So that’s the part that we have to kind of leave and listen, I mean, listen, and then, you know, allow folks to lead. And that’s very, very important.

Ben Kittelson  41:10

Yeah, I mean fire pits and Coco in the park, I’m ready for a buffalo winner right now. 

Oswaldo Mestre  41:15

Right you know, but the idea here is that we are a four season city, you can’t duck and run, you know, and then we’ll we’ll lift embrace it. Yeah, looking at the issue of isolation. And again, weathers is one of the aspects of it. We just went through a pandemic, we talked about isolation, but even without that, too, some people tend to self isolate. And we talked about different communities, communities of immigrants or refugees, we’re talking about communities that are in traditionally African American communities and black and brown communities, and how we deal with isolation a little bit different than that, you have to know that right? You know, the understand that right? How some we talked about transportation, you know, it feels like well, they’re on a bus, so you know, if you’re on a bus two three buses all the time, it takes you two hours to get to work, you know, and in essence, while you’re getting there, you’re isolated, right? Oh, you haven’t explained it yourself? Because, you know, so there’s a lot of things here. And so I, I want to encourage people to get to the report. It’s a it’s not because I was a part of it. But maybe because I was it really detailed recommendations. I know, the public policy, you know, kind of, you know, savant, or guru or something like that, you know, I love to read about what’s happening in other places. And it’s always good to have a guide, we have a guide in there for government, but also for philanthropic organizations as well. You know, so again, that’s a shameless plug in please go head and go to that.

Ben Kittelson  42:48

Yeah, definitely. Well, so it sounds like engagement kind of drives this work in order to know what, what what can connect residents better and make a less socially isolated place, you need to kind of understand what’s, what are their barriers, but at the same time, that’s a bit of a catch 22, right, these are folks that aren’t going to come out maybe necessarily to a public meeting on their own, or, you know, they’re, they tend to be more socially isolated, the ones you’re trying to engage. So what does the engagement look like for a project like this or for, Risa, they’re kind of examples from other other places that you can share? And then and then Oz if there’s a kind of specific what the engagement looks like, in Buffalo. I’m curious how you how you approach, you know, the going out and hearing from folks related to this topic, since it does seem like, you know, you can’t you can’t just assume people will show up for, you know, a session on how to make a place less socially isolated.

Risa Wilkerson  43:38

Yeah, I mean, I think it’s not unlike sort of the best practices around meaningful community engagement for anything that you want to do. I mean, you never, you know, you never just say oh, come to us if you’re interested. That’s that’s poor form, actually. Now, um, you know, and it’s really disrespectful for people’s lived experiences and lives. You know, the the trust that sometimes is, you know, disintegrates between neighborhoods and government, for good reason, historic reasons, or, you know, folks lives where like, like Oz said, if you’re having to take two buses to get somewhere type thing, or you’ve got childcare issues, or you know, you’re working a couple of jobs and it’s odd hours, it’s it’s, it’s really understanding what people are experiencing and living with and making sure that you’re really addressing those challenges toward civic participation if you really want meaningful engagement. And so each of the folks who were part of the Learning Network last year, have different stories about how how they engaged people. There’s a group in Baltimore, the project called belong to Baltimore, after Ogg Balu, from the University of Maryland, Baltimore is is working with black mothers in a West Baltimore neighborhood and just makes it super easy for them to be engaged with each other Host host groups for them to come and talk with each other and feel that kind of support and learn more about, you know why, what they call it as situational isolation, not self isolation, because they’re not choosing isolate, it’s a situation that’s causing them to isolate. There’s, you know, disinvestment in the neighborhood, a lot of empty homes on the street, and, you know, it doesn’t feel safe to send their children out to play. So it’s a situational isolation. And so they bring, you know, she brings these mothers together once a month, and they, you know, share their stories, and they, you know, inspire each other and motivate each other. And then they also are connected to some resources to help them, you know, navigate. So it’s going to look different depending on who we’re talking about, and what neighborhood you’re in, or what community you’re in. But Oz I would ask for you to chime in here,

Oswaldo Mestre  45:50

no, I think you’ve mentioned it, you know, many of us have different things I think in buffalo. We went to communities, I think you’re right. The days of asking people to come into city all come to, especially right now, you know, not just in a pandemic, what’s important, we did pop ups, and so we would go to them, and we would set up and I joked around, we would have hot cocoa, and we would just have conversations, that’s the other thing. And so having structured or unstructured conversations is important, because through conversations, you get so much more, right, the focus groups, knowing the community that the focus group, so it’s not, you can’t, every community is different, you know, language barriers, you know, speaking and the right language or getting the right surrogates to do that, too, is important and being respectful and honoring those community assets are important. So many cities have this in terms of that, you know, and then this intergenerational piece I, I have this value, AmeriCorps crew, who love to engage folks, and so intergenerationaly, I would just send them in the community, right. And they will come back and they will come back with the stories. But the stories were part of the the work that we needed to do, you know, so this kind of mimicking what Risa said.

Ben Kittelson  47:18

And now we are approaching the end of our time together. Since we kind of came up at the beginning of our conversation, I’m gonna hear a little bit about the, what do you think the impact of COVID-19 is on on this? And I know it sounds like this project was was mostly during that time. So I’m just curious what you think the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will be on kind of efforts around improving or, or maybe not, social isolation in different cities, Risa and then Oz, if there’s any kind of lessons learned from, from your perspective on how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted Buffalo and from the lens of social isolation?

Risa Wilkerson  47:58

Yeah, thanks. That’s a great question, then I you know, I think that the the pandemic made social isolation, a household topic. Yeah. So you know, where before, I feel like people thought, oh, elderly, elderly people are socially isolated, or they had a very specific impression of who is isolated, I think the pandemic made it really clear that what it feels like to be isolated, why, why it’s a particular issue, and that it is a global one, and we need to work together globally to solve it. That that I would think is maybe a bright spot, if you will, because now, if we talk about social isolation, people have a visceral, you know, response, they, they at least have a personal touch point with it. They know, an older person who was, you know, stuck at home alone, or someone who had health issues, who was stuck. The other part part of it is really understanding the challenge of broadband access, because during the pandemic, you know, virtual connecting virtually was so important to many of us. And there’s a huge issue with broadband access disparities across the country, in fact, across the world, and so that, you know, kind of brought us to these innovative solutions to helping to sort of, you know, bridge the challenges there may be during a pandemic. You know, I think there’s just a lot more conversation that’s becoming much more creative. All of the folks that were part of the Learning Network last year, had to come up with innovative approaches to continue the work during the pandemic in a more virtual way or otherwise. And that really made for some rich conversation as well. So I think thinking outside of the box, people really having an understanding of social isolation from a visceral point of view, and then just understanding it’s a long term, it’s a long term work and that we have to work together globally I think is one of the outcomes of that. 

Oswaldo Mestre  50:04

I would agree, I think what Risa talked about is I mean, it’s, it’s no secret that the areas that were disproportionately affected by the pandemic are areas that have, we’ve had significant lack of significant investment in, right. And I think the pandemic has helped identify that, or highlighted that. So that we talk about doing things different, looking at innovation, and how we are looking at our budgets, how we looking at programming, and how we look at folks in those communities. And so we hope for a change, often say, people say, Well, you know, I can’t wait till we get back to normal, I can’t wait to whatever. And I often say, I said, you know, and I, I try not to bash that, but I come to reframe that, I say, well, Normal is what got us here, ahead of desire to normal I wanna learn from that, and get better, you know, and so it’s an important piece for us to take a look at, you know, what, are we dealing with source isolate? I agree, it’s a common term. I think there are other things that are associated with it, you know, some people have associated, you know, this systemic and dealing with issues of trauma or, you know, the different determinants of health, not as a name to it. And so when there’s a name to it as it’s something is, it’s like, you know, we’re not alone, right. Although isolation by itself is saying that we are alone, right? And so how can we not this individually, but as communities help along that way, and address that, too, and I think many cities are looking at that they’re highlighting that. I know, in Buffalo, we are, that’s an important thing. It’s part of community building, and an asset building, as we look at that, it’s not, you know, something that we look at last is something that we’ve put in the forefront, because when we make that investment, and say, how community living, you know, how, how neighborhoods are being driven. And when we look at that, from that lens, you start to see different things that intersectionality of different things. You know, and I think that’s what drives us. And I think that’s what should drive us all as public officials, you know, no matter where you at in that spectrum, but it should drive us to make that difference for residents in those communities.

Ben Kittelson  52:34

Yeah, well, well said Well said. So we have a traditional last question on GovLove. And it’s usually the hardest one for our guests. And with two guests, you guys can either battle it out, or maybe you guys can come to a consensus. But if you could be the GovLove DJ, what song would you pick as the music for this episode?

Risa Wilkerson  52:56

Oz, you’re the music guy. You can answer this. 

Oswaldo Mestre  53:00

You know what, I think you would like this one. I think I’m kind of channeling my, Riza. You know, I’m gonna channel this whole group and put this together. And I’m gonna say Andrea de Ryza. I’m feeling that kind of, you know, I’m feeling that.

Risa Wilkerson  53:19

 I love that. Yeah. That is perfect.

Ben Kittelson  53:23

Well, that ends the day. We’ll get that song queued up Oz, Risa, thank you so much for coming on and talk with me and sharing your expertise and experience. I really appreciate it.

Oswaldo Mestre  53:32

Well, thank you.

Risa Wilkerson  53:33

Thank you. 

Ben Kittelson  53:36

And for our listeners GovLove is brought to you by Engaging Local Government Leaders. You can reach us online at ELGL.org/GovLove on twitter at the handle @GovLovePodcast. You can support level up by joining ELGL. Membership is just $50 for an individual $25 students and you can even sign up your organization. Subscribe to Gov Love on your favorite podcast app. If you’re already subscribed, go tell a friend or colleague about this podcast help us spread the word that Gov Love is the go to place for local government stories. With that, thank you for listening. This has been Gov Love, a podcast about local government. 

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