Podcast: Community Engagement During COVID-19 with Ashley Traynum-Carson & Jay Dawkins

Posted on January 26, 2021

Ashley Traynum-Carter Jay Dawkins
Ashley Traynum-Carson
Communication Specialist
City of Asheville, NC
Jay Dawkins
Public Input
LinkedIn | Twitter

From public meetings to communications. Two guests joined the podcast to talk about how communication and engagement has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ashley Traynum-Carson, Communication Specialist for the City of Asheville, North Carolina, and Jay Dawkins, CEO of Public Input, shared their perspectives and lessons learned. They discussed how receiving comments changed and how local governments are using technology. They also shared how the changes made make participation more accessible for residents.

Host: Kirsten Wyatt

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Episode Transcription


Kirsten Wyatt  00:06

Coming to you from Portland, Oregon, this is Gov Love, a podcast about local government. Gov Love is produced by ELGL, the Engaging Local Government Leaders network, and we engage the brightest minds in local government. I’m Kirsten Wyatt, the ELGL co founder and executive director, and today I’m joined by Ashley Traynum-Carson from the city of Asheville, North Carolina, and Jay Dawkins from Public Input. Ashley, Jay, welcome to Gov Love.

Ashley Traynum-Carson  00:34

Hey, thanks for having us.

Kirsten Wyatt  00:36

Today, we’ll talk about community engagement during COVID-19 and the future of public meetings. But first, let’s get started with a lightning round. So Ashley, you’re up first. And Jay, you can go second on this first question. What is your most controversial non political opinion?

Ashley Traynum-Carson  00:54

So I’m a native of Ohio. So mine is going to be that LeBron James is the greatest of all times. He’s better than Jordan, on the court and off the court. So that’s my controversial opinion.

Kirsten Wyatt  01:07

Oh, wow. Did you know that my dog’s name is Michael Jordan?

Ashley Traynum-Carson  01:10

Oh, no, I didn’t. You know, you should probably get a dog named LeBron. 

Kirsten Wyatt  01:14

No, no. 

Ashley Traynum-Carson  01:17

So he could feel bad about himself. But yes, that’s so that’s my non controversial and I had to ask friends about this. I was like, what would be mine? Because, you know, some everything so political nowadays. But that’s, that’s what I’m sticking with. LeBron is the man.

Kirsten Wyatt  01:31

All right. Well, I respectfully disagree. But I respect you. Okay, Jay, what about you?

Jay Dawkins  01:38

All right, I gotta stay consistent with my last ELGL Gov Love episode. And I said that I don’t think the US has an apathy problem. You know, a lot has changed in the last two years. But I think a lot of people still disagree with me that there’s a lot of apathy out there. But I think the whole point is that there’s a lot of people that care about a lot of stuff. It’s just we got to get better at becoming more relevant and making sure we’re speaking to what they care about.

Kirsten Wyatt  02:02

And very relevant. Yes. very relevant to our conversation today, for sure. All right, what book are you currently reading? And would you recommend it? and Jay, why don’t you go first this time?

Jay Dawkins  02:14

Cool. Yeah. I’m currently reading a book by another entrepreneur, Todd Olson from Pendo. It’s called the Product-Led organization. It’s it’s all about like shifting from being kind of sales oriented, and being more leaning in on products that people use, and making them more intuitive and really focusing everything a company does around how the product operates. It’s pretty cool for public inputs work.

Kirsten Wyatt  02:38

Wonderful, great. And Ashley, what about you?

Ashley Traynum-Carson  02:41

So I am currently reading the body is not an apology. And it’s by Sonya Renee Taylor. And so I’ve got the book thinking it was like this, about radical self love, but I was thinking it was going to be kind of like this personal journey for the new year. But instead, it’s looking at systems and how those systems impact the way that we see each other, and how we walk through the world. So it’s a great book for men and women. I think that if you see the cover, if people see the cover, you’ll think it’s a book for women, because it’s like a very voluptuous woman on the cover. But it really is about the systems that impact us and our ability. And one of the quotes she has in the book is that we have to love ourselves enough so that we shine through the world and we get the world that we want to see we get that love back. And so I think it’s a really beautiful message for everything that’s been going on in our world with COVID and the political unrest and just how we even engage our community, we have to shine that love and that light to the communities that we serve.

Kirsten Wyatt  03:39

I love that. And what a great message too, for our local government public service audience on this on this podcast today. All right, Ashley, you’re up. What was the first concert that you ever attended?

Ashley Traynum-Carson  03:53

My first concert was a Jay Z concert. And it was actually at our yard fest at Howard University homecoming. So that’s like the first live artists that I saw. And I saw him again, later in life in Detroit, him and Kanye, so I’m a Jay Z fan. So that’s my first concert.

Kirsten Wyatt  04:10

That’s great. Okay, Jay, what about you your first concert?

Jay Dawkins  04:13

That is way cooler than mine. In North Carolina, we attract some really big artists. I’m thinking Actually, it’s my mom was part of this group called the community concerts. And she was like the bookkeeper for the local community concerts. Three Dog Night came out late 90s I’m pretty sure and yeah, it’s a great way to get started.

Kirsten Wyatt  04:38

Okay, and last one. Oh, go ahead. 

Jay Dawkins  04:41

Oh, yeah, they had others like Wayne Newton. So really, you know, community concerts, something like Jay Z I’d say.

Kirsten Wyatt  04:51

All right, and last lightning round question. If you could only eat the same thing for lunch every day for the rest of this year. What would you choose? Jay, you’re up first. 

Jay Dawkins  05:02

Hands down nachos, that that really needs no explanation. Nachos have never needed justification.

Kirsten Wyatt  05:09

Well, they’re very versatile. You can put lots of different protein and toppings on them. So good job. Ashley, what about you?

Ashley Traynum-Carson  05:17

So in the same vein, I’m saying tacos. Oh, I can have tacos, technically breakfast, lunch and dinner, you have so many options.

Kirsten Wyatt  05:26

Good point. All right, well, let’s dive in to a little bit more substance for our discussion today. But first, I’d love for you each to give us the kind of back of the book cover short version of your career paths, and how you got to where you are today. And so Ashley, why don’t you get us started?

Ashley Traynum-Carson  05:47

Yeah, so I, right out of college, I have a bachelor’s in communications from Howard University. And so I worked in communications in media. So I worked as an assignment editor for WJZ, in Baltimore. And then I started reporting, television news reporting back in Ohio, in Lima. And then, because I’m of the age where I had, I had my first recession right out of college in 2008, the station that I was at closed, and so after probably about a year, and some change of kind of looking and trying to figure out the next move, I went back to school for my Masters of Public Administration. And after that, I was lucky enough to get a fellowship in DC government, with their capital city Fellows Program working in the Executive Office of the mayor. And through some moves because of marriage and relationships I am now in Nashville, where I work as the communication and public engagement specialist. So I really enjoy, the communications part is great, but what I’ve really enjoyed and what I think communications as a whole in terms of government and public service is really moving and shaping to really have a lot more input from the community. So I’m really enjoying this time in my career of being able to engage the public because I feel like that’s where my strong suit is. I’m definitely an extrovert. And so talking to the public and hearing from the public is where I get energized. So that’s kind of my short snippet of how I got here.

Kirsten Wyatt  07:17

And as a Howard, alumna, on a scale of one to 10, how exciting was inauguration day for you?

Ashley Traynum-Carson  07:23

Oh, I’m like an 11 already. Okay. So before we started, I’m in my Howard University sweatshirt. I don’t know people have seen the hashtag chucks and pearls. I wore my pearls. I have my Chuck Taylors on, because it’s just a it’s a great day for, you know, Howard alumni and for women and, you know, black women and just women of color. It’s just, it’s just an awesome day. 

Kirsten Wyatt  07:46

It absolutely is. And so I’m glad that we were able to record this on such a happy day for you as well. And for many of us, of course, all right. Jay, your turn. Tell us about your career path and, and how you got to where you are today.

Jay Dawkins  08:00

Yeah, I kind of joke that my career in local government started when I was about six. My grandfather was the mayor of my hometown. And he would constantly take me out to events, and I got to watch him. Really, he was my role model growing up. And so I didn’t know a world without local government kind of being at the center of it. decided to go a different direction with school and went into civil engineering and focus on transportation planning out of college, NC State University, and found myself doing transportation consulting work. So working with Departments of Transportation, and a few of the projects I worked on, I got put into a role where we had to set up public meetings to do public engagement. And I was just kind of shocked by the amount of energy and effort that was going into the process and how little was popping out on the other side in terms of like meaningful, useful public participation. And generally, it was just this frustration, that feeling like the world and it’s, you know, big capital projects were being driven by people with a financial interest and or the people who had the most time on their hands and most anger about an issue. And just seeing that as a systemic flaw of just like, Okay, how do I make a dent in this just started hacking away just being a nerd. It kind of was natural to start working on software and Public Input was born 2014. Full Circle, back in local government.

Kirsten Wyatt  09:31

That’s great. And, and again, I love that we have two perspectives about community engagement today. And so, but I do want to ask both of you, you know, why this this focus on community engagement, I mean, you both come from backgrounds with communications with public processes. But what’s really helped you kind of hone in on this particular field as as where you want to do your best work,

Jay Dawkins  09:56

Really I see it as the lever of change. If you want to make organizations more responsive to societal needs and really help us address the hard problems of today’s societies. I think one, it’s going to happen at the state and local level. And two, the thing about large organizations is they don’t change very quickly, but we’re ultimately accountable to the public. So if we can use that as our lever for making progress and positive things happen for communities, that’s, that’s, I think, where to really focus the energy. So that’s where I personally invest my time.

Ashley Traynum-Carson  10:33

So I think for me, personally, on a personal level, I think that what draws me to community engagement is really the idea that there are so many people that are disengaged, but not disengaged, because they are, they don’t care is because they don’t know how so like Jay, I have a family history in public service. My mom is my mom was a social worker, my grandmother worked at the health department, my grandfather worked as a snowplow driver, like we have all this history in public service. So for me, I know how to navigate, navigate public services, somebody said something to somebody said today, hey, my child is having an issue. This is actually an example that someone asked me because they know where I work there, like, My daughter is having an issue with speech, like, can somebody at the city help? And I’m like, no, that’s not the City, but let me tell you who to call at the County. And because people don’t have that access, they don’t know how to engage. So it’s a question of really letting people know how their government works, and making sure that they can fully be part of like the government’s decisions and how we are working for them. And I think that now, and even before now, I think, probably social media has helped kind of like that fire of, you know, people want to be engaged. And so we really have to make the effort to go out and make sure that people know what’s going on and know how to access, you know how to access us. And it’s not necessarily showing up at a meeting, which we can, we’ll talk about later. But I think for me, it’s really just making sure that people know how to access and advocate for themselves in their local government and their experiences with their local government.

Kirsten Wyatt  12:04

I’d like us to talk about the new normal that local government is operating in right now with COVID and social distancing, and then also an increased focus on racial equity. So kind of starting there, if we go back in time, you know, what feels like three years ago, but was, you know, 10, 11 months ago, what were some of your early indications that things in local government needed to change, if we wanted to continue having community engagement, you know, during times of social distancing, or social unrest? What are some of those first steps on that both of you saw on the horizon? You know, in March of 2020.

Ashley Traynum-Carson  12:46

Ooh, that’s a, that’s a doozy. Because I look back at March and it was such a such a blur. In just the sense of like, we were lucky enough that I think we had literally pinned our contract with Public Input when everything happened, and you know, workers were sent home. And so I think that probably, if we, if I had to pick a moment, when we knew things were going to change, it was when, you know, workers were sent home, people, you know, we were quarantining in place. And so we knew we were going to have to change things. So that was definitely like a moment where like, Okay, we got to figure this out, we got to figure it out fast. So I know for the city of Asheville, we probably started our contract with Public Input in March, and then May, we had our first virtual council meeting. And then in terms of just the social unrest over the summer, we, Asheville is a very eclectic and engaged community. So we heard from our community members very swiftly and very quickly about what they want it and so we knew we knew what our marching orders were going to be because of the community that we live in. But I think those two moments, just over the spring and summer, we knew we were going to have to make some big changes and some structural changes in terms of you know, black Asheville demands.

Kirsten Wyatt  14:03

Jay, what was your first indication that that local government engagement was changing?

Jay Dawkins  14:09

It feels like such a blur, because it all just kind of happened so fast that I remember some of the early indications. We were seeing some of the meetings on our platform start to get cancelled and that sort of things. We had some in person meetings that we were managing with the toolkit and when we saw the consequences of that, like, I think there was a couple bond referendums that the early meetings they needed to have getting cancelled. We saw some key projects that were getting delayed because of it, we’re like, okay, you know, can we put these projects on hold indefinitely, like what’s going to happen to these kind of core processes that didn’t happen. So that really sparked the whole deep dive into, Okay, what do we need to do? We’ve got this YouTube integration, can we use that we’ve got this initial starter on a phone system, what do we do with that? It’s really just a lot of questions and trying stuff and a lot of late nights. And, you know, when stuff started clicking and coming together and you know, the midnight work sessions to get integrations done in time for the next week’s meeting, I mean, all that stuff, just kind of looking back on it now. It’s just, again, a blur.

Ashley Traynum-Carson  15:26

And then just to add, Kirsten, for us, we started our meetings. And when we first started, so I’ll say as our example, our council meetings, we were just like, okay, people can just call in and we’ll have, you know, public comment that way. And we were there, I swear until probably like 10, or 11 o’clock, because we have so many people calling in about the social unrest. And so then even still, we’ve been refining our process. So now we’re at a point that we’re like, okay, you can sign up to speak, everybody gets there three minutes. But we don’t have this kind of free for all with public, public comment. But that’s kind of, and we were just learning as we were going over the summer, and it’s worked really well for us. And I know, I think Riley in another city might do it the same way where they have a kind of signup, similar to what you would have for your council meeting. So it’s just, it’s been a learning process. And I think we’re lucky that we have Public Input as a partner. So we’re kind of working together to kind of figure figure that out. And they’ve been very nimble and helpful as we were on this learning curve, kind of together as a city of them with as a vendor.

Jay Dawkins  16:33

Yeah. And that that was I think the most fun of the whole process was the relationships that were forged with other folks that were in the same boat as us trying to figure this out. And, you know, the whole guiding principle that I think really served us well, and definitely Asheville was, instead of trying to reinvent the whole process, let’s we focused on recreating existing processes, virtually. So you know, okay, we want to have a written comments, we want to have spoken comments, how do we handle written, you know, in a way that supports moderation, like we’ve got currently, how we make sure those records get retained? So if we want to support voice, how do we still do that while screening for comments that might be lewd, or offensive, that sort of stuff? All those challenges really guided the ultimate, you know, application of technology? And how do you create a secure process that generates the public records that you need for just one compliance, but also just making sure we document everything, but also, Asheville from day one was focused on making it equitable and accessible. So how do we make it really easy to participate like that? Those like, from a guiding principle standpoint, really made some of the harder questions get a little bit easier.

Kirsten Wyatt  17:55

And Ashley, from your viewpoint in Asheville, and then Jay, maybe yours from Asheville, as well as other communities you work in, what were some of the hardest, I guess, implementation challenges or kind of user experience challenges that your community members faced when they were seeing this pivot to, you know, more of a an all online all digital approach to engagement?

Ashley Traynum-Carson  18:23

So I think so I’ll start with the positive, one of the things that we heard, that was a positive was having the phone line so people can listen. So essentially, you can be in your car, if you want to listen to a council meeting in your car, that’s up to you. You can listen to the meeting. And but then at the same time, on the flip side, one of the complaints we heard was, I think people people have their platforms that they’re used to using. So people are like, why don’t you use zoom? Why, you know, like, and so we’re like, we’re using this platform, because it gives us we’re not getting zoom bomb, you know, there are reasons that you have to explain to the public like, okay, we’re using this platform, because we want to have that security measure in place. And so just kind of explaining why we’re not just having a straight Google meeting or a straight zoom meeting. That was a challenge for people. And I think it’s gotten better. It’s a I think, when I think about those comments, I really think it comes from a place of like comfort, like if you’re used to using zoom or you’re used to using WebEx, you know, they’re like, why can’t I just log into my zoom and watch Council, but for, you know, for security sake, like Jay said, for the equitable reason of having the comments, we have recorded comments, it’s better for us as a city to have this platform that kind of integrates with what we’re trying to do. So I think that was the biggest challenge engagement wise. And then when we, like I said, we switch from having kind of this open free for all people can call in a comment when we switch to having sign up, we definitely got some pushback on that, but it helped to what, and I believe this is me just talking. I don’t know if my boss would agree, but I think that having people sign up and that their name shows up. And you know, it’s like Ashley Traynum in West Nashville, show up, people aren’t yelling f-bombs. And so I think it makes me feel a little bit more accountable. Like, hey, my mom or my boss might see me, you know, cursing at the mayor. So I think that that, while it’s an extra layer and an extra step, it’s definitely helped curb some of that behavior that we saw in our first couple of meetings. And now and I’ll just add this caveat, like, I understand that behavior, like people were mad, people has a lot going on during the summer. Right, it was a lot going on around defund the police. So I totally understand why people were angry and having, you know, having these comments, but from a, you know, from a public servant perspective, I’m like, we can’t, we can’t just be yelling f-bombs on YouTube and on our public broadcasting station. So, you know, those are two areas that we definitely get pushback on that just using like a straight zoom, and having to explain why we’re doing the way the way that we are doing things.

Jay Dawkins  20:57

Yeah. And at the core, I think that response was centered around empathy. And while it’s easy to get stuck in the mindset of, you know, let’s use a setup that is familiar to us. You know, so as as local government professionals, we, you know, our computers are in a state where we can download applications on them, we can easily navigate these professional meeting applications that we use for work. So you know, these kind of familiar WebEx, Zoom type things are great for us. But if you think about empathy, it’s like, what about people who who don’t have internet access? What about people who maybe don’t have as fast as a computer? Or have skill with, you know, installing applications, managing them, you know, navigating new, familiar, unfamiliar interfaces? How do we just put this meeting onto a website, so people can watch it? So that that empathy, I think drove a lot of the decision making for, for how we did technology, but also for how folks like Asheville did outreach into the community and made it accessible to more people. But the the user experience piece that I think is important to note here is not just for the public user experience, but what about the city council? You know, what about staff. So when you add this, when you lower the barriers for stations, when you when we turn on the ability to call in and leave a voice comment ahead of council. And then you have an event like George Floyd that drives so much engagement, and so much from a content perspective, and people want to have a voice in the process in the future of policing. And that really, that came directly on the shoulders of local government. What do you do when you get the case of Asheville and they got over 50 hours of public comment? It’s like, okay, now technology has to adapt to provide a better user experience for the people who have to interpret what they’re hearing. And you can’t do it in like the span of like a day. I mean, if people call in the day before the council meeting, and you get, you know, a couple dozen hours of public comment. All of a sudden, the challenge really became Okay, how do we apply existing common analysis tools that we’ve got existing kind of transcription tools, the ultimate outcome of that was taking those voice comments, getting them all transcribed, running them through analysis and putting them into PDF reports for Council. And that was a big credit to Asheville staff, it was just an unexpected challenge. And, you know, just being able to build out those things to make the process easier for staff and for Council I think is a big component.

Kirsten Wyatt  23:30

I love how empathy runs through both of your responses in not only making sure that you are meeting people where they were when it came to engaging them with your meetings and within with these important topics, but then, all the way through, you know, how do you take those comments and make sure people know that they’ve been heard or they’ve been received? It’s such an important aspect. And so it’s it’s really impressive to have a discussion about technology, but have empathy be, you know, kind of that cornerstone. Share with us how you worked across different jurisdictions during COVID and when it first hit. You know, in normal times, sometimes working across different units of government can be challenging, but it became even more so during or you know, currently during the pandemic, how how did you leverage engagement techniques to make that in our governmental work more successful?

Ashley Traynum-Carson  24:32

So for the city of Asheville, we kind of and I won’t say I don’t say backseat, but so Buncombe County was the lead. And then we had our Joint Information team that we had somebody from our communication team on and very early on, the decision was made that we are sharing the information that comes from Buncombe County because we really wanted to make sure that all of the information that was coming out have one voice so we support it in a lot of ways, Buncombe County. For example, we did a radio show where, you know, the city and county officials were together, county was busy, so we use our graphic designer, so we really shared resources. But we definitely made sure that we were one voice in communicating this pandemic. So the information, we got it from the county, that was the information we pushed out to the public. On so for example, on our Facebook page, a lot of times you would see information from the county re-shared, just so that we were making sure that everybody was receiving the same information, we didn’t want communities, having five different messengers on this very imperative information that can really be, you know, life or death for some of our community members if they get COVID. So that decision was made pretty early on that that’s how we were going to work.

Kirsten Wyatt  25:50

And anything to add on kind of what you’re seeing in the local government engagement space, Jay, as it relates to, you know, ways to streamline that intergovernmental communication?

Jay Dawkins  26:02

Absolutely. So we’re definitely seeing a little bit of the inner agency collaboration, we’ve got a few regions where we’ve got a number of counties and cities kind of working in the same, I guess, data environment, so to speak. I think the noteworthy thing that we saw in Nashville, and we’re seeing more of across other cities is, within one agency, there’s a lot of disconnect between teams that are ultimately driving public engagement processes. So traditionally, city council meetings are managed by the clerk’s office. But now with this virtual component, communications team is more involved in all these different elements of outreach that are happening that are connected to those things. So now we’re seeing more of the communications team, the planning team, the clerk’s office, are all kind of operating out of the same environment. And ultimately, storing comments, contact data, meeting records, all in the same place. And so it helps with collaborative collaboration, and really just increases visibility across departments as to what’s going on and make sure we’re not stepping on each other’s toes. So that’s a cool thing. I’m not sure if that would have happened as quickly without it.

Kirsten Wyatt  27:19

Right. I want to go back to something Ashley had mentioned about Zoom bombing. And Jay, I’d love to hear more about how did you balance kind of that need to create a tool or, you know, some processes that, you know, were very open and, you know, sunshine compliant, while also making sure that, you know, those dreaded Zoom bombers or, you know, or something similar, wouldn’t happen in the communities that you work with? How did you strike that balance and, and make sure that, you know, people had a chance to have a say, but obviously, understood the context of where they were testifying or sharing that information?

Jay Dawkins  28:01

I wish I could take credit for like seeing into the future and knowing that the zoom bombing thing was gonna happen. We were just as surprised by it as anybody else. The difference was we focused on really creating a tech stack that was accessible for the public, but still records compliant and manageable for staff. So that original focus actually yielded something that solved the security issue in the sense that you create this open, accessible public space, essentially, anyone can call in, anyone can listen in online, anyone can leave a voicemail. But if you’re going to participate in the actual broadcasted live meeting, you’re in kind of a WebEx or Zoom or GoToMeeting, or now, Teams and a few other options that we have to integrate. But ultimately, that’s like the private sphere that you selectively admit registered attendees into through a connection on Public Input. So and, you know, that was not something that we focused on, security, we were just strictly trying to figure out how to keep all the records and recordings of each of those comments and make it accessible. And then, of course, the crazy stuff happened. Some of it comical, some of it, like not so comical. And it’s been a wild ride, of course, I think a lot of these platforms are updating security. So really now, as we evolve, we’re seeing some of those problems and holes get patched. But the end result of the approach that’s coming out of it is that it’s more accessible and easier to use for the public than ever before, using the kind of web based and film based engagement.

Kirsten Wyatt  29:43

We saw communities across the country react to protests and calls for action after George Floyd was murdered, and local governments had this renewed need to really listen to and then assess public sentiment. about racial justice, and then also police brutality. Ashley, can you share with us how your office monitored and responded to that community sentiment? And then and then how did you ensure that you are responding in a meaningful and authentic way?

Ashley Traynum-Carson  30:16

Yes. So on the first side of this, how we were getting the comments, I think one of the things that helped the city of Asheville is that we already had an equity and inclusion office. So these are conversations that staff had already been thinking about. We’ve had two equity core teams, which are staff looking at how we do contracts is basically how the city of Asheville does business and putting an equity lens to that. So I think that was helpful in that this is already conversations that I’ve been having with their staff members who are already like equity, like I’m an equity trainer for the city. So staff have already started this process. That doesn’t mean that everybody’s on board with the process, but we’ve been having these conversations. So in terms of getting the comments, and just how we were listening to them, I would say even we had, we got a lot of comments on reimagining police. But we also had comments on we did a hotel, we have a hotel moratorium that the city has been working on for a little bit over a year. And a lot of those comments fell on social justice issues on you know, we have a lot of hotels in Nashville, what are we doing about affordable housing, and you know, that like so all of these kinds of things are bubbling up. And so we really worked as a team, and we are not researchers, but going in and tagging these. So when we’re seeing these themes of like affordable housing was coming out, you know, police reform is coming out, really identifying these things, and making sure that like our council people get those or for example, with the hotel moratorium, our planning staff who’s helped build the page and build a survey, to learn about what people want, they’re getting this information to build that into how they’re going to read and I don’t want to say redesign, but update our ordinance. So that that in itself is almost like a full time job, especially when you have these really hot button issues. But really looking daily at what these themes are and things that we are hearing from the public and making sure that the people who need to, to get those to make the decisions are getting those that information which plug for Jay, Public Input makes it easy, we can just kind of download those, but it really is taking the time to, having to read them and tag them. And another issue that we dealt with over the summer and fall, we had a Vance monument task force, which was a local, Confederate monument and working with a task force, we had 12 weeks of meetings and public comments, to really discuss how, how the City and County want to move forward. It was a task force of six people from the city and then six from the county of how to move forward with this monument that has caused harm in our community and our meetings included having a historian come and tell the history. We talked about what what what this area could look like in the future, how it’s harmed. And then, at the end the task force recommended and it hasn’t it’s not finalized, but recommended that it be removed and what and what that looks like for our community. And so hearing those voices and getting text messages about that, and just really having to stay on top of like, what are the themes that we are seeing? So like I said, that was like a full time job of just listening to the community and making sure that everyone involved in these various projects, were able to see these comments as they came in and identifying, I really think identifying the themes is like the big thing. So you have kind of these buckets of what you’re looking at. So you can quantify the very, you know, this is very, the information you receive is so it’s so emotional, and it’s so raw. And so you have to from a government standpoint, really be able to kind of quantify what you’re seeing and what you’re hearing. And so I think as a staff, our staff did a good job of kind of identifying those themes. So we can report out to, you know, our council members into the community, what we what we were hearing what we heard.

Kirsten Wyatt  34:18

Well, and to put it in context for our listeners, I mean, we’re not talking 100 comments, we’re talking like 20,000 comments, right, especially on some of these big projects, you’re reimagining police project, you know, the monuments project. I mean, these aren’t, this isn’t just like a notebook or two of comments. We’re talking like 1000s and 1000s. Any other advice on how, you know you talked about buckets, you know, being able to kind of tag them, but you know, any other experience that you you took away from that that you’d like to share?

Ashley Traynum-Carson  34:51

So, so reimagining, I didn’t lead that team, that was one of my co workers, Brenda Mills, and one of the things I talked to her before our podcast, she talked about, we did offline focus groups with community members. And she said that was really helpful, because a lot of the things that we heard in the comments that we received, and we heard from community members too, so, you know, having to open it up and doing some virtual virtual meetings. And that was helpful also with our Vance Monument Task Force, just being able, and I’ll speak specifically about the Vance monument being able to bring people along in the process. And I think that was good, because, you know, we started that we started with Vance monument of Okay, here’s our task force, this is what we’re charged with, this is what we’re going to be doing over these next 12 weeks. And so every week, if you and there were people who follow every week, you could go to Public Input and be like, okay, here’s the agenda, here’s the meeting notes from last week, here are all the comments, and I can look and see where we are going. And so we’re building and bringing people along, so that it’s not just this final, this is our recommendation, you can see the process. And you can see the thinking of what led us there. And so I think that for that project, I think that was one of the successes of that we’ve literally for 12 weeks brought our community along in this process of like how we’re getting to this recommendation. And I thought what was really powerful at the end, maybe not the end, but the one of the meetings before the end, it kind of was the the task force sharing how they got to what decision they were going to, how they got to personally what their recommendation was going to be. And one of the guys said, and he was a white guy, he was like, you know, I came in fully ready to just say, keep this monument he was like, but after listening to, you know, Miss Whiteside and Miss Simmons, you know, I really now understand this harm that happened. And so now, you know, I’m changed, I’ve had a change of heart. And I think I don’t think that could happen. If you just came to one meeting, or you weren’t able to go back and hear these comments and hear from these wonderful women in our community who are like, I’ve lived here my whole life, and I could not go downtown. I when I went downtown, there was a colored they were the color section, and I couldn’t use the bathroom like those are, those are conversations that you would not have been privy to have we not brought you along every week. And I thought that was I thought that was just so powerful to see kind of this evolution of this task force. And I know for a fact I know several people in the community who dialed in every week to kind of listen in to hear. And even if they still want it, they want to go back, it’s still this, you know, this public engagement page where you can go back and listen and read the comments. So really bringing, bringing people along in that process is helpful.

Kirsten Wyatt  37:32

Well, it’s such an important reminder that, you know, engagement exists to, you know, obviously engage people, but then it’s it’s other people listening in and hearing those stories and hearing those comments that can lead to that greater understanding, or, you know, being able to just hear other voices that may be outside of the echo chambers that sometimes people can live in.

Ashley Traynum-Carson  37:55

Yes, definitely.

Jay Dawkins  37:57

It’s a wonderful to hear that, actually. I mean, that’s the kind of stuff that I think motivates so many of us to do this work, and really proud of what you guys are doing and happy that we can be part of it.

Kirsten Wyatt  38:11

One of the things I’d like like you to speak on a bit, Ashley, and I think you talked about this a little bit at the ELGL conference, but it’s this concept that community engagement needs to include kind of a Civics 101 course, about how like, it’s one thing to say, yes, engage, but then how and on what topics and where you go, and how do you talk about these things. Talk to us more about how you’ve built in this, you know, Civics 101 training into the ways that that Asheville is engaging your community members.

Ashley Traynum-Carson  38:44

Yes. So on the reimagining police project, which that’s when we received, like the 20,000 comments, part of that process, we were worked with a consultant out of Charlotte, Amplify Consulting, and part of that process was a Civics 101. So we had these community groups and stakeholders who identified themselves as wanting to learn more. And so we did two sessions, I believe, with the community just to kind of engage them on how to, you know how to figure out where to go, if you need a, you want to put a garage in your, next to your house, you know, so those kind of classes, but it wasn’t it wasn’t a class, we did it essentially with people who had engaged on that project. So that going forward if they had another issue or wanted to talk to somebody in the city, they knew, they knew where to go and what to do. I would love to kind of take part in like an advocacy program with the city and with and with our community going forward. I think Civics 101 is great, but I think a lot of times and this isn’t just specific to Asheville, specific to a lot of cities, the people who are the loudest, you know, they they get they get heard, of course, and so just making sure that our communities of color know that you know, you can be loud too, you can show you can show up you can call. Teaching, getting those skills there so that they can feel comfortable advocating with themselves. But ya, for reimagining police there was definitely a Civics 101, two sessions in there for people who had engaged in the process and showed interest.

Kirsten Wyatt  40:20

Jay, how did feedback from local government organizations that you work with during the racial justice protests, and their engagement efforts influence Public Input’s work, and how you’re engaging and encouraging local governments to engage with our communities.

Jay Dawkins  40:38

I think Ashley has really spoken to the big theme, which is that things really just changed in such a big way, like the process change that there was just this, this fundamental shift that happened because of it. But I think when when things first started happening, it became clear that this moment was completely unprecedented. You’ve got like two career defining moments in history kind of happening at the same time. and local government is at the center of that right? Now, now, what does local government do? And so Ashley’s team, essentially opening up that process to more voices and making sure more people can be heard and people can understand what was happening. There was more transparency, there was, you know, a complete record of each of these meetings and each of these conversations that were happening in the community. It was just a new way of doing engagement that emerged because of a need, because of people’s desire to have a voice, right? There was just, we’ve never before seen this many people realize that they had a voice and like have a desire to participate in a city council meeting, right? I mean, the these sometimes it can be sleepy meetings, obviously, there’s some controversial issues that land on city council, but this was unprecedented. And so kind of seeing that open up a door for a lot of people to, to participate in new ways. So Asheville getting over 40 hours of voice comments being one thing there, we can’t physically achieve that through the old process, like you can’t have that much public comment, people would just go home, you know, they’re not going to wait 39 hours to have a voice. So it changed so much, but in a big way, I think it it gave more people have a chance to have a voice and be part of this process. And then the technology and the processes and teams had to adapt to make that possible. So it’s really just, I mean, it was hard, and a lot of people put in a lot of effort. But gosh, that outcome, I think is more just equitable world where more people realize that they have a voice. And it’s not just the same handful of folks driving the conversation.

Ashley Traynum-Carson  42:50

And just to echo what Jay is saying, I definitely think that that’s where that empathy and equity comes into play. Because guess what, most people cannot attend a council meeting like you guys heard my daughter’s banging on the door, like people go home, they need to cook dinner, they you know, people have people have lives outside of their work, it’s just a lot to manage, and then think, Okay, I need to go sign up for counsel show up in person, and having the ability to just say, Okay, I’m gonna call in, I’m gonna have this meeting on in the background, and when I hear the topic I want to speak about, let me call in, is a game changer. It’s a game changer to be able to just be like, you know, I’m just gonna pick up my phone, I’ll make my comment, and then I can go about the rest of my evening of feeding my child chicken nuggets and noodles, because that’s all she’ll eat. So it really it really changes things. And it’s lets more people engage. And then another thing that we did we did with our Vance monument for the first time, is that I implemented text messaging. And literally, we put a banner out front of the Vance monument where the where, where the monument was with a QR code and was like, if you want to leave a comment, scan this, text us, we got 69 comments in literally probably like two hours. So just just being able to text message, that’s a group that we wouldn’t I don’t think, I wholeheartedly don’t think that we would have gotten those people to just walk by and be like, Oh, I’m downtown, I see this. Let me let me get drop you my comment really quick. That’s that that’s something different. And most people have a phone, whether they have a smartphone or whatever, but that’s easier for me to just be able to leave my comment that way. So it’s just, we have to recognize and i think i think what COVID is doing is making us recognize that like, life is life is challenging. You know, we have moms working from home, we have people you know, daycares are closing, there are a lot of things that impact our lives other than our nine to five, and we can’t have our, we can’t have everything centered around that kind of nine to five or like evening meetings for counsel. And so by making it you can text me You can call even not me, but you can text the city of Asheville you can call the city of Asheville. we’re engaging an audience that we weren’t able to engage before. And that’s for good or bad, we’re going to hear, we’re gonna hear stuff that’s gonna make us uncomfortable as public servants. And I feel like, you know, be that’s also part of equity and being anti racist, like, you’re gonna have to sit in it, and you’re gonna have to be uncomfortable. But we need to hear from people. And I think that that’s probably, if one of the only silver linings of COVID is that we’re hearing from people, and we’re really going to have to really sit and listen and take that take that input into consideration, because now people are able to call us and text us and get us information or engage with us in a way that they weren’t able to before.

Kirsten Wyatt  45:40

I love that. And I, you know, I think, you know, I’ve been hearing that from a lot of ELGL members that, you know, the the COVID, has forced more innovation in 10 months than we know, we had seen in 10 years in many aspects of local government. You know, I don’t know if you have any, any hard data on it yet. But anecdotally, are you seeing greater diversity in the people who are engaging in these public conversations or in public comment? Because you have opened so many more doors that make it accessible to that parent that needs to cook their chicken nuggets, but they also want to participate? You know, in that public hearing? I mean, have you seen that yet? Or are you in the process of measuring that and kind of seeing if, if there’s greater diversity of voices coming in?

Ashley Traynum-Carson  46:26

So we’re now in the process, like, I was just building a survey yesterday, and I was adding in some demographic questions, because like we talked about before, at the beginning, it was such a blur. We’re just like, get it out there. We got to talk to people. But now that we’ve been in this for almost a year, it’s like, okay, we want to know, we want to know if women are engaging if what, what their race or racial ethnicity is, you know, your age. And so now we’re building in those questions. Whereas before, we were just like, do you live in Asheville? Yes or No, but that wasn’t a literal question. But so now, I think, because now we’ve had a little bit of a moment to breathe. We’re building those into our surveys that that before we were just trying to go go go to get everything up and going in. So no, but i think i think that we’re getting more people, but I don’t have any, like definitive answers for that. But we are starting to build that into our surveys.

Kirsten Wyatt  47:19

But it really does illustrate government, meeting people where they are versus government scheduling meetings when it’s convenient for them. And so I think it does just sound like, you know, you’re well on your, on the way toward, you know, making these opportunities, more open to more people,

Ashley Traynum-Carson  47:39

Right. And then even one of the like, this is it seems like a small thing. But now you can send us an email, like, you know, when so for example, like right now, before our meeting, I had a, I helped to do a live, put up a live stream for our sustainability committee. And for, they have an email address, you can email them anytime. So for example, like ar 3:30, we had a sustainability meeting and I got on there, I got there live stream started. But for the past week, it’s been up on Public Input, so people kind of emailed us for a week to give their comments about what they’re going to be talking about. So I think that that makes it a little bit easier, like nobody has sitting down at their computer, but they have this time to actually sit and think and be thoughtful about what they want to say. And just to offer that insight to that board and or board or commission.

Jay Dawkins  48:24

I’ve got a little bit of data that may shed some light on it. The interesting thing is that, so I’m just pulling up a few numbers here from Asheville’s database, and it looks like so they’ve had a little over, like 4,000 phone comments, about 490 of those were in meeting, you know people commenting live during a meeting in a speaker queue, so that’s like 16% of the total volume of like phone participants. So it’s, it’s interesting. So from a standpoint of, you know, who are engaging during a meeting versus outside of the meeting, that’s a that’s a cool number. So that’s almost what five times or more than five times as many people have participating by voice by itself is before we think about all those 1,000s of comments. But just anecdotally, looking at pre-COVID. Meeting attendance data, we had a few clients that were using kind of our in person meeting suites, we had some sign-in data compared to and the average across all these different meetings and post-COVID meetings, I think we’re seeing about 240% increase in participation. And that’s just again during the meeting. So it’s really the tip of the iceberg when you think about overall engagement. But by by changing it up to make engagement both synchronous around the meeting, but also asynchronous requests made at any time. I think we’re seeing that’s at least a 5X kind of increase in access and engagement when we’re looking at those numbers by themselves. That’s pretty cool. Demographics, we’re really excited to roll out a few new formats for demographic questions that it should be a bit more user friendly. And making it clear that these are optional. And this is why we’re asking that sort of stuff. So hopefully, we’ll have some for the next couple of episodes and see if we can get some diversity where you had metrics and kind of mirror that with the diversity dashboard efforts.

Kirsten Wyatt  50:30

Yeah, absolutely. So looking into the future, and I know, we are only a couple of months now into 2021. But what are your predictions for virtual meetings? And, you know, public meetings in general? And are we going to go back to everything the way it used to be or is kind of a hybrid system here to stay?

Ashley Traynum-Carson  50:53

I think a hybrid system is definitely here to stay. I’ve heard from our boards and commissions members that they’re like, well, we we like it being online, we like people being able to call. And so I think that we’re, I think our organization is going to get a push to continue virtual. So I think that that’s definitely here to stay. Whether or not local governments have the staff to pull up all these meetings. And it’s just, I think that’s what that’s what I’ve heard and like different I did a COVID cohort with ELGL is that it’s just a lot of staff and we’re doing double work now, with all the meetings. So just trying to figure out what that looks like, process wise, if we’re going to be doing some hybrid meetings when people are in person, but then we’re still using the phone line and making sure the technology is in place, or that you can still hear on the phone line good. Because, you know, if you’re using Zoom or Google Meet, which the city uses, you don’t have to kind of worry about that if it’s all packaged there. But if people are going to be in person, how are we making that happen? But that’s for a little bit later. But I definitely think that it’s going to be hybrid, I think people are going to I think people like that they’re able to engage easier now. And so we’re really going to have to meet people where they are and continue it and figure out how to make it work.

Jay Dawkins  52:12

Yeah, I echo that. I think I overheard a conversation on a planning commission meeting the other day that I think defines it, they had one commission member that spoke up somehow I cannot wait to get back to such and such hall or in person meetings are happening. You know, How much longer do we need to do virtual stuff? Chair of the Committee said, well, I think we might be doing this for a while. And really this is this is good practice for, you know what we’re going to need to be able to do to support people that aren’t comfortable going back to in person or can’t or whatever reasons from an immunocompromised standpoint. But recognizing that both of those voices are valid, and they both are coming from a place of sincerity. So there are people that will prefer to be back in person if it’s possible. And we have to recognize that there’s going to be a certain segment of even the public that wants to attend in person. So creating approaches that can support that, where we’re still hosting virtual meetings. And the in person component is smaller, and perhaps just like a supplementary element to that. It’s what we’re calling hybrid meetings. So it it creates a lot of technical questions that we’re actually working now to figure out what’s the AV setup look like to allow public comments from from the phone or online to enter the meeting room without reverb? And vice versa? How do we do contactless signup? Right? We are so used to having all these like you fill out the form if you want to speak you fill out the form when you get to the meeting, like how do we make that contactless? How do we plan for in person capacity through registration. And make sure that people that show up in person don’t get a greater voice than those who can’t physically attend? And I think there’s there’s a chance that we’ll be seeing IT teams try to hack together Frankenstein approaches. And they’re coming at it from a technical approach. But we’ve also got to look at this equity equity lens of now that we’re offering these other ways for people to engage how do we make sure that you’re giving those voices equal weight and so our focus is going to be probably not on the big teams that can have two or three FTEs that they can dedicate to figuring out that Frankenstein approach and build out something that hopefully can help Ashley and her team and help a lot of local governments manage this process without as giant of a lift. The equity and accessibility are at the core of their work.

Ashley Traynum-Carson  54:42

Yeah, Jay, you hit on everything. That’s the technic, I think what makes me nervous about hybrid is just getting the technology together so that it looks good, everybody can be heard, like you can like, you can literally hear everybody because that’s an accessibility issue. So it’s just going to be some more work in figuring that out. But I definitely think that virtual meetings are here to stay.

Kirsten Wyatt  55:07

Well, and I like I like your recognition and kind of it’s almost it’s kind of a warning almost. And I think some of us are starting to think about this. But how do you ensure that the way to have an email or a phone message comment, you know, carries the same as someone who does show up in person, because that is what we’re used to. And, and I think that’ll be an interesting conversation. And perhaps our follow up Gov Love episode could be about how Asheville successfully manage that transition. But, but I’m glad to hear that recognition and that, that awareness that that if we’re going to open up more opportunities for comment, we need to make sure that, you know, our governing boards are receiving them in the same way. So thanks for mentioning that. All right, so I want to thank both of you for joining us on this episode of Gov Love. But I do have one last question for you. I don’t know if you’ve worked this out in advance, and if you both have songs to recommend, but my question is, if you could be the Gov Love DJ, what song would you pick as our exit music for this episode?

Ashley Traynum-Carson  56:12

So my, my song would be actually, I was thinking it’s a historic day, we have Kamala, I think that we’re going to exit we need to play Howard University’s marching band, break your neck, it’s a song that everybody who goes to HBCU knows because the bland plays it, every band plays it. But I think that is the fitting into this day of like having that marching band, the sound of the Showtime marching band, take us out. 

Kirsten Wyatt  56:40

Perfect, great selection and most importantly, I want to thank both of you for coming on taking some time out of this historic day to talk to Gov Love about your important work. So thank you for being here.

Ashley Traynum-Carson  56:52

Thank you.

Jay Dawkins  56:53

Thank you.

Kirsten Wyatt  56:54

This ends our episode for today. Gov Love is produced by a rotating cast of ELGL volunteers. ELGL is the Engaging Local Government Leaders network. You can reach us at ELGL.org/GovLove or on Twitter @GovLovePodcast. Thank you for listening. This has been Gov Love, a podcast about local government.

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