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Podcast: Planning and Engagement with Christian Williams, Goodyear, AZ

Posted on June 23, 2020


Christian Williams GovLove

Christian Williams

Christian Williams
Planner
City of Goodyear, AZ
LinkedIn | Twitter


Making the career leap. Christian Williams, Planner for the City of Goodyear, Arizona, joined the podcast to talk about his recent career change to working in planning and his career path in local government. He shared how the City is engaging residents in the planning process and encouraging people to participate. Christian also discussed his recent post about his experience as a Black person and being vulnerable in sharing his stories.

Host: Ben Kittelson

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Episode Transcript

 

Message

Hey GovLove listeners, Ben here. We know that the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench in the plans for all the graduate students out there that were looking for summer internships. Well, ELGL wants to help. We’ve partnered with the Government Finance Officers Association or GFOA to host a PAFR Fellowship Program. What’s a PAFR? A PAFR is a Popular Annual Financial Report. And it’s personally one of my favorite documents because it combines financial analysis with communications. The goal of the PAFR is to make local government finances understandable to the public. This fellowship program will pair graduate students and local governments to create a PAFR and submit it for the coveted GFOA award. ELGL and GFOA will work together to match up graduate students with local governments and then support the students as they create a PAFR document. The way to participate is for if you’re interested in, if you’re a graduate student interested in internship, you should go to the ELGL website and apply, and if you’re a local government interested in hosting a intern and improving your PAFR, you can you also need to apply as well. This is a great experience for all you graduate students out there. And it’s a huge assist for local governments that are interested in either creating for the first time or improving their PAFR. So that’s a, you can find out more by going to the ELGL website. Go to elgl.org to find out more. That’s elgl.org. Thanks.

Ben Kittelson

This is GovLove, a podcast about local government brought to you by Engaging Local Government Leaders. I’m Ben Kittelson, consultant at the Novak Consulting Group and GovLove co-host. We’ve got a great episode for you today. We’re taking a break from our COVID-19 coverage to talk planning in local government. Before we get into today’s episode, I do want to let our GovLove listeners to know about an ELGL conference, annual conference announcement. We are going digital. So ELGL 20 will be online. Details are forthcoming. But we are spreading the conference out over a full week so that you don’t you don’t get that Zoom burnout. But it’ll be October 12 through 16th. So mark your calendars now if you haven’t already. And the best way to support GovLove is by becoming an ELGL member and going tov ELGL events. ELGL is a professional association engaging the brightest minds in local government. We’re also looking for your feedback. If you visit govlovesurvey.com and tell us a little about you and what you think of GovLove, it will help us make the podcast even better. That’s govlovesurvey.com. Now let me introduce today’s guest. Christian Williams is a planner at the City of Goodyear, Arizona, a position he’s been in since September of 2019. Prior to that, he was in the Goodyear city manager’s office as an Executive Management Assistant for over five years. He’s also held positions at the Peoria Unified School District and the City of Peoria, Arizona. And Christian is about to finish his two year term on the ELGL Board of Directors. So at some point, we’ll have to give him a round of applause during this, this interview. So with that, welcome to GovLove Christian. Thanks for joining us.

Christian Williams

Thanks for having me.

Ben Kittelson

Awesome. Well, as a listener to the podcast, I’m sure you’re aware that we do a lightning round to get our guests warmed up a little bit. So my first question for you, what book are you reading?

Christian Williams

So I’ve actually been rereading some books, I recently reread The Sneetches and Other Stories, because sometimes I do feel like we need a refresher to go back to basics and remember the, you know, foundation. So I just really liked the message of that book, and I’ve shared it with a lot of my friends. But I’m going to also reread Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell because I think that’s just a really good book for the times we are in right now.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, yeah, that one is on my stack. I need to, I need to get to it. I love, I love me some Malcolm Gladwell.

Christian Williams

Really good stuff.

Ben Kittelson

Awesome. So my next lightning round question, I know from, you know, following you on social media and seeing kind of your updates over the years, that you’re a big Music Festival guy, I saw you know, my thoughts, my thoughts are with you right now in this time, with no concerts, no gatherings, but can you share, [laughter] can you share with our listeners what the last music musical festival you went to? Or maybe the one that you were looking forward to that got cancelled or something?

Christian Williams

Alright, so I have two answers to this question. So the last music festival that I somewhat attended was Escape Halloween, and that was put on by a group called Insomniac. And this actually occurred during this pandemic, and it was a virtual ravethon or I’ll just call it a DJ set. But it was Halloween themed and it streamed on YouTube. And that normally could have been pretty boring when you’re just sitting in your living room watching DJ sets all by yourself, but I watched it with a group of my friends and I call them kind of like my rave family. They’re from Utah, Washington State in Arizona, and we video chatted while we were watching it. We all wore Halloween costumes on camera, had our lights gone. It was a lot of fun. But my last real music festival, which unfortunately is going to be canceled this year, it was the end of last year. It’s called Das Energi. And it’s outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. It’s on the edge of the Great Salt Lake. There’s awesome views, beautiful views, great music, good memories, good vibe, so I’m really bummed that I’m gonna have to wait till 2021 for that concert, but I saw the good memories from the last time I went there.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, I think I remember your pictures from that one. Because it’s yeah, beautiful setting for for a concert.

Christian Williams

Listening to music and watching the sunset, you know, over the Salt Lake and all the mountains, it’s, you can’t think of a better venue than that. And just the people made it was what it was too so.

Ben Kittelson

Awesome. Awesome. All right. So in this time of quarantining and you know, staying in our house, are you watching, binge watching any TV right now?

Christian Williams

I definitely have. So I got through all of Ozark during this time. And I just rewatched… I’ve been rereading and re watching a lot of things, but I just started rewatching Black Mirror. It’s a great show. It’s really scary how relevant it is. And I will tell any of our listeners, if you decide to watch it, I would recommend skipping season one, episode one because that season that episode just freaks people out for a lot of reasons. But it’s not a representation of the whole show. So, but I mean, that show is just so relevant to I think we’re, you know, a lot of our society and our technologies taking us so.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, and so dark too.

Christian Williams

It is, really dark.

Ben Kittelson

I was like watching it before bed, I was like, I don’t know if I could do this anymore. [Laughter]

Christian Williams

I think one of my, I told my friend, I said, I think there’s two really good episodes that have happy endings and the rest of it kinda like, you know, but it’s good.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. Awesome. And my last lightning round question for you, where do you go for inspiration?

Christian Williams

Inspiration – so I really just enjoy going on small mountain hikes. We have a lot of mountain preserves here in the Greater Phoenix area. And I just really enjoy nature, going out in nature as much as possible. Love the desert. If you don’t know me, you’ll know I love the desert cactus. I love being hot in the summer. Love the blue skies, I love going up on a mountain and just reconnecting with myself, with nature, feeling re energized, re inspired. And to pass on up there, I’ll even make a phone call or two because we’re in the heart of the city, and we’re on a mountain. So I’ll make phone calls up there.

Ben Kittelson

Awesome. Awesome. All right. So closest finish the pod now I like to kind of ask, get kind of learn from our guests like how they ended up in local government and what their career path was. So for you, what was your path to kind of where you are now? How did you end up in local government, in this profession?

Christian Williams

So I’ll go back a little bit to kind of my first exposure to government. So when I was like in elementary school, or maybe high school, my mom volunteered for local government, she volunteered for victims assistance with the police department, and she volunteered and talked to victims of trauma. And one thing she shared with me is that she’s doing that to show me about how important it was to volunteer with your local community and, you know, show me the importance of that. So then I ended up volunteering for the Youth Advisory Board for the city I lived in at the time, Peoria, Arizona. And I did that after I met one of my city council members at a photo exhibit at my local high school. And the city council member got me to volunteer for that and got me kind of learning about local government. From there, I volunteered at various city events because for Student Counseling you need your volunteer hours, so definitely was using the city to volunteer. And also when I was in high school, the Peoria school district in Peoria, Arizona, they offered an internship program for seniors. And I always had an interest in government. And I also grew up half a mile southeast of a Peoria municipal complex, so I always saw City Hall. So I got an internship with the traffic engineering division. And I just really loved my internship. I realized a lot of the skills I would need in order to get into a city department, got me thinking about college courses I wanted to take and I really saw how rewarding it was to help citizens you know with some of their concerns. I remember talking with my mentors and marking streets where speed humps would be placed. And it’s funny you think of a speed hump is something kind of small and annoying, but for me, it was interesting to see how many residents really appreciated them once they ran and what that really meant to their quality of life. So it was cool seeing how rewarding that was even as nerdy as it is walking up the street measuring horse, you know, straight speed humps go, but I had a lot of fun, and it just really showed me you know, how much you can impact somebody’s life. That’s how I got into local government. Yeah.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. So you’re like the poster child for like the youth, Youth Advisory Board. Like it actually works, like some people go into local government after being on that board.

Christian Williams

Yeah. For anybody who runs a Youth Advisory Board or commissioners thinking about starting one, I’ll say I’m, I’m one example of how I can get you in a local government. So definitely.

Ben Kittelson

And was there I mean, was there something on that like Youth Advisory Board that was like, this was a good experience. This is kind of cool to have gotten to learn about or see that maybe you wouldn’t have otherwise and kind of helped you maybe nudge it on the path that you’re on?

Christian Williams

I remember doing youth government day and that’s planning like a trip for other high school elementary kids to City Hall. And most people just did not know what went on in City Hall. But I think it was really exciting just to meet some of the people that represented you, and putting a face to a name and kind of realizing that, you know, city leaders and government people are real people. And imagine seeing out that out in a way that you and you feel like, oh, they’re actually real people. They’re not just like pretty photo shopped images on a brochure or pamphlet. These are real people. And they know they have real conversation. So I think it really kind of humanized in a way so government in some regard.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, cool. Well, in that kind of going back to your, like LinkedIn and your career path, I saw that you worked for a time with a school district. I mentioned this in your bio. So what was that experience like? That’s um, you know, it’s a type of local government, but it’s not one we often talk about in in the profession, but like, what did you kind of work on there was, what was your time like, working for the School District?

Christian Williams

Yeah, it was a lot of fun and in a lot of ways the school district really like you said, it’s like a micro government. We had a governing board which  I would equate to like a city council. We had a superintendent, who’s kind of like our city manager, and then a lot of parents and students who are residents. So when I was at the school district, I was a planner and demographer there. I did a lot of land use negotiations for school sites and development agreements. I projected enrollment and population forecasts. And I helped with the, picking kind of where new schools and facilities would go at based on their capacity. And, you know, even though I wasn’t in the classroom, I felt like I was making a difference again there. I felt like I was, the work that we were doing was geared towards protecting our future generations. We worked with the city a lot also, from a land perspective, how are kids getting to school, from school, how are neighborhoods getting built so kids can walk to their schools. As I was thinking about this, I thought about my boundary adjustments that was probably the most contentious of the times. Yeah, when you’re moving somebody’s kid, it brings out a whole another passion and if you will, but it, it really did help me value the public process. I don’t know how, but it really was rewarding. But um, I’ll say something, a colleague of mine while we were going through a boundary, you know, talking about fixing the problem, finding solutions. I remember going in and thinking, you know, this is easy. I’m a demographer. It’s just simple numbers game like, I can fix this problem simply. Then a colleague of mine gave me some really important advice. He says, he said, like, basically, even though you might have the answer, or think you have the answer, you should probably pretend that you don’t. And the goal should be to get the committee to come up with your idea. So they think it was their idea, and then they’ll defend and support it. So I would say that what he said was mostly right. You, definitely getting the committee to come to your idea, and defend it, is a great idea. But I would also say in learning through that process, the committee had an even better idea than my idea. And I would not have come up with that idea on my own. So I think the value just listening to the committee was really impactful to me. And then, you know, when we were having angry parents come to those meetings, yelling about the changes, it wasn’t me up there, you know, shaking, thinking, oh, gosh, what are they gonna do to me, when I get back to the parking lot after this meeting? It was their neighbors, you know, telling them, this is the right choice. And we went through this painful conversation and I don’t like it either. But this is the best we can come up with. So I think that was a really valuable lesson for me that I learned in a school district about government.

Ben Kittelson

Man, yeah, you got the whole exposure, like you’re doing land use planning and, and the public participation aspect. Yeah, that’s, that’s a lot. So that I mean, now I’m gonna fast forward to like your most recent career change because, like, I guess it kind of informs maybe why you made the switch. But um, so you recently switched to, you know, working in planning department and being a planner from the city manager’s office. Let’s start maybe like, with the higher level, what made you want to do that? Why did you want to make that switch?

Christian Williams

So it’s a good question. It’s a question I get all the time. Like, why would you go from city manager’s office to planning department? So when I think about my career journey, and when I’m asked about my role changes, I like to compare it to a video game, which might be kind of dumb or whatever. But have you ever played Mario? I mean, I’m a 90’s kid. I grew up largely in the 90’s. So I played Mario a lot. So have you played that Ben?

Ben Kittelson

Oh, yeah.

Christian Williams

All right. So there’s countless levels in Mario. And you know, as you’re playing the game, your goal is to get through this castle, and you’re going on this journey through it. And in the game, Mario, he has to climb various ladders and chain links in this one version of game. And he has to climb all these to get to the next point. But Mario also has to jump to next ladder in order to get to the next boss in the level. And you think these ladders Oh, you just climb this ladder and you go up and you get to the boss. But as he’s going, he has actually hopped to different ladders and sometimes go down and over and he jumps and, you’re afraid you’re gonna fall in lava. But I would describe my career as that, like, I needed to take that terrifying jump to the next ladder, because there was not just this ladder that goes straight to your dream job. So I mean, I loved working with the Deputy City Manager. I loved my previous job, had it for more than five years. I had an awesome time. But, and I couldn’t say that role for forever, I suppose. But I realized that I had more climb to do and there was not going to be a direct ladder for me to get to the next position. So as Mario did, I, I jumped and before I did that, I did have a lot of conversations with my former supervisor. We talked about my professional development plans, what opportunities there were, and she really inspired me to take that leap and knew that there would be new successes and new opportunities and challenges. And I’d say that’s also how I got in local government. I think, you know, I like comfortable environment sometimes. I like doing what I know, I like feeling like an expert in my field or my area. But sometimes you got to be vulnerable and take that leap. And sometimes it, you know, it’s not the, you know, some people view the city manager’s offices, like, you know, that castle in the sky. But, you know, there’s other little, there’s other levels on the way that are just equally as fun that are going to challenge you. And so, I took that leap to planning and I’m hoping to find some new successes, and I mean I have and I’m finding new challenges here. And, you know, I don’t know all the answers right now, but it’s fun to learn again. You know, learn from other, you know, the other perspective. I’ve had a lot of fun. But, that’s how I describe why I left the city manager’s office, and came to planning.

Ben Kittelson

I like that analogy. I like that a lot. Like the that it’s not direct, you have to kind of make a leap to be able to get the next thing or the next experience that you need. Um, so but why planning? Because you could have gone, you probably could have taken a similar jump to a different department. What was it about planning? Like this is what I wanted to kind of, I don’t know, stick with, this is what I want to kind of explore and get this experience. Like, what were you kind of seeking by going to the planning department?

Christian Williams

I’ve always just loved planning, had passion for it you know. I think it started, my mom has a funny picture of me that I will never show and I hope she never shows it but um, it was we were living in an apartment at the time but I think I took all the blankets off the bed and put them in the middle of the living room and formed little mountains and it was like a little island. I took all of our books off the bookshelf and phone books and I stacked them into buildings. I took all my stuffed animals and I put them on top of the little buildings and they were the little mayors and this is a little town and she got her camera out to take a picture of this. I think I was just literally in my underwear. And I was so proud of this little town I made and I used to play SimCity all the time. I used to, I used to memorize all the tallest buildings in all the cities across the country. I realized one day that skylines, and buildings don’t just form on their own. It all starts with something in planning. And I realized that I didn’t like architecture as much as I thought. I loved the architecture, but buildings don’t get there without planning and underlying zoning. So I think that, that just really excited me how things get to be the way they are and how they, you know, come together and interact. And it’s planning. So I just always had a passion for planning and I wanted to go to a place for I was excited about the work and that’s, that’s planning for me, as nerdy as that might sound. That’s, I really love planning.

Ben Kittelson

That’s awesome. That’s awesome. And Christian’s mom, if you’re listening to this, I will I’ll pay you like 10 bucks for that photo. If you can share that, like we’ll [laughter]

Christian Williams

Got to go find that photo. It’s a actual photos. I’m about to go find it like hide it now. [Laughter]

Ben Kittelson

Well, what, so what have you got to work on? I mean, it’s only been I guess, it’s been…time means nothing now, but I guess it’s been not quite nine months. So what have you got to work on since you made the switch over to the planning department?

Christian Williams

Oh, it’s been non stop. So, for those of you that don’t know about Goodyear, Goodyear is growing even in this pandemic. We’re growing a lot. We went from 65,000 residents in 2010 to approximately 90,000 residents today, hopefully the census will confirm that. And we have millions of square feet of data centers under construction, manufacturing, industrial, lots of houses, lots of multifamily. We’re just growing so much. So I’ve worked on things from zoning, conferences, zoning plans, site plans, kind of like planning out how parking is laid out and where entrance to the buildings are, criticized a lot of buildings and made a lot of friends in that area. And then you get the fun stuff like, I would open a group home or assisted living home and interpreting zoning code. So you name it, my team has just been throwing it all at me, just to get used to the questions and all the processes. It’s been a lot of fun. So I would say I’ve been working on a lot of projects.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. Now, I should have asked this earlier. Did you have to go back to school for, to be able to kind of make the jump to being a planner? Or did you already have kind of that training before entering the city manager’s office?

Christian Williams

Good question. So I, when I was at the school district, I was a planner. So I went to University of Washington, Seattle. And I effectively got a planning degree, planning and geography. I’m also a geography nerd. So let’s play trivia sometime if you need somebody on your team that knows geography then I’m your guy. But I had a geography minor and the equivalent of a planning undergrad at University of Washington. So that’s why I made the leap into the school district as a planner, went to the city manager’s office. I got my MPA from Grand Canyon here in Arizona, and then went back into planning you know, got my MPA, and then left my managers office to go to planning. So that’s how I ended up back here. But I had a planning degree.

Ben Kittelson

Okay, cool. And so I’ve noticed like, in that you posted about kind of some of the engagement work that you’re doing in the planning office. Well, what is what has been your approach in Goodyear to kind of engagement around planning?

Christian Williams

So I would say that engagement with planning, it really started with a general plan here. And I think in a lot of cities, it starts with a general plan. So for some of our listeners, you probably have no idea. I mean, where general planning just seems so generic and general. You know, that’s the plan. That’s general. But so for those of you that are listening that might not be as familiar with planning. In Arizona cities that are over a certain size, they have to create what’s called a general plan. And in essence, it’s a visionary document, and it’s a land use plan for the city. So to create that document, residents from all across the city participated in exercises. I’ve actually participated in some in my own city, where you talk about concepts and themes, typically about what you want your city to look like, what you want it to feel like, where do you want to hang out, all that kind of stuff. So it gets compiled in this document. And after citizens created that document, it was forwarded to some committees and then City Council for a final vote. And then ultimately in Arizona, it goes back to the citizens of that city to be voted on and approved. So, in my daily work, we use this big picture document in our planning roles every day, you know, we look at if somebody has a proposal that’s different from the lands that that’s there, they have to conform with the general plan or request of the council or voters to amend the general plan. So from a public process standpoint, zoning cases and use cases, they all go through that public process. For example, I had a zoning case and you know, when I have a zoning case, I have to send postcards out to all the nearby residents, property owners, community associations, we place a physical sign on the property. We put advertisements in newspapers. So again, goes from that general plan. And then if a change is being requested, the public is going to at least be notified of that change and have an opportunity to participate. On top of that, goes to, we have a Citizens Committee that gets engaged. So they’re not elected, but they’re appointed by the City Council. So they’re citizens from either the district or the city around the city. And they are really involved in those planning cases. So there’s another engagement level there. But both of those take place. They have meetings, and those are on our website. The meetings are posted on our website, is streamed on our website. But I would say that one thing that the city of Goodyear has done that I think is really awesome as of late is, instead of having residents go to the website and look for this meeting, that streaming and all that, we’ve tried to make an effort to go to where our residents are hanging out on the website or are on our on the web already. So our meetings are now streamed on Facebook, as well as YouTube. So that’s my present I’ll even send my friends on Facebook live like I know you’re on there all day. So you might as well watch your boring meeting right. So, and it does look like our viewership of meetings have gone up by that. But um, when we really talk about engagement, though, I would say that government can definitely always do better. I was actually talking with my colleague of mine the other day about the topic of engagement and residents getting involved. And he actually brought up a good point, interesting point, talked about how fear is usually the driver of engagement. And he said, the city he used to work for, it had its biggest showing when they put up signs all over the city to kind of get residents to be fearful. And it said, because they had heard about chatter going on in the city, but they weren’t really getting any formal feedback. So they put up a sign that says, if you want to have an outcome on the future of this city, you have to come to this meeting, now is your only chance. So that got them a big showing, but um, I would just say, from a personal observation because I’m also a resident. I go to meetings too, but the meetings that I’ve seen that I’ve had the largest crowds are the most involvement from residents, it usually involves fear and usually involves fear of the unknown or the fear of the other, you know, if you will feel like all the other, but it just makes me wonder why fear is such a driver in public engagement. I’ll also say that like half of my friends, like they have no idea what’s going on in local government, despite even my efforts to tell them what’s going on, or about the public process. And I think a lot of people sometimes don’t care because it’s not sexy. They view, they might view it as boring, they get bored easily and they want to be entertained or jump to the next cool thing, but um, I don’t know what are your thoughts, Ben?

Ben Kittelson

No, that’s interesting. The kind of fear of change, like that, when you when you put it like that, that is kind of what maybe if you were to boil down like the commonality between the people that are showing up, you know, at these council meetings or planning commission meetings to you know, talk for three minutes into the microphone, that is kind of what keeps them all together or kind of, you know, unites them is that, you know, the unknown is not something they want, like they’re they are fearful of it. And then yeah, so that that’s, that’s an interesting point like how do you flip that then to be like, instead of being fearful of, you know, of the unknown, let’s be, you know, let’s dream, right let’s think about what could be and like get people to not be scared. Yeah, but that that’s interesting, but how do you make that switch?

Christian Williams

Yeah, and another thing I noticed too is it’s usually fear of something that they think is going to directly impact them, and just zooming out to kind of, uh, I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week, you know, especially with all that’s going on. But like, to me, it’s not just government that I’m seeing this in. It’s about a whole host of issues in general. So I guess, yes government can do a lot more to do and have people more engaged, but I also have a challenge for some of our non government listeners, you know. I would ask, you know, when’s the last time you picked up the paper or even read it online? Because let’s be real who picks up the paper physically? And some, some of you, I don’t but or, you know, a lot of my friends don’t watch, you know, meeting streaming online. They’ve never emailed the council member and for some reason, I think there might be some, I don’t I don’t want to call it active disengagement, but maybe also some hopelessness in the system. But for some reason, I feel like a lot of people aren’t interested in government or we’re not, we don’t, we don’t find the topics interesting, especially when they don’t impact us. And I oftentimes don’t see residents going to meetings to fight for a building or zoning that isn’t in their backyard. Or, you know, they don’t and also they don’t come to compliment the city council. But I would challenge us as a public to remember, because I’m a member of the public but I’m, I would challenge us to keep up with government and ask questions of government, schedule meetings with a council member. I actually did that one time. I had no clue, I’d really never talked to my council member and I wanted to just know who he was. But um, I think that we have to demand accountability even when it’s not a sexy topic. And we have to care about the issues, even if they’re not in our neighborhoods, because one thing I notice is like, by the time you come to a meeting out of a fear, and because it now impacts you, it’s usually way too late to care because we needed to have cared before we veered for a safety because by that time, you know, the ships already sailed. But that boring policy that wasn’t sexy that they talked about in some work session or study session that we did not want to watch, that policy has been drafted. And that’s now creating this problem that you know, you’re not passionate about because it’s in your backyard. So I’d also say we have to care about things that don’t directly impact us. Because one day that fear might just be standing right at your doorway. And by then everyone’s screaming and people on both sides are out there and council’s not gonna be able to hear what really matters to you, when there’s all this chance for and against something. So government can do a lot more to engage people. But we also, I think there’s some responsibility as us as a people of a community to care about things, when they don’t impact us and care about things before they’re sexy, hot button issues in our backyard, you need to care when it might impact other people’s. I guess that’s my challenge, especially to my generation, Generation Z is, read your next couple council agendas and think about how that might impact not only you, but your neighbors and, you know, our future citizenry. And I think beyond just zoning, that rings true in a lot of issues, I think that we’re facing today in our society, we don’t care about until it impacts us.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, well, and I also think like, our challenge I think local governments and staff are just as guilty of this as elected officials with like, we hide behind technical language and kind of, you know, the whatever jargon of our profession or our individual discipline and it makes it harder to understand the impacts, of you know, the things we talk about are the things we adopt as a, you know, organization. And so…

Christian Williams

We don’t use people friendly language.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, exactly.

Christian Williams

An acronym for everything.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, so then then it doesn’t become real until it’s too late. But if you if there’s a way to demystify that, or talk in more plain language about, like the impacts of, you know, the comprehensive or general plan, and, you know, what it means to, you know, have this be a mixed use zoning, like area instead of just family like, like what that could, what it could mean to your neighborhood, like, maybe, maybe that’s a different, you know, another way to like empower, you know, our folks that work in local government to like, how do you change, you know, challenge them to change the way they talk about things as well to like, hopefully inspire folks that so it’s not just the fear based engagement.

Christian Williams

That’s so true. And I think that we as citizens also need to challenge our government to do a better job of that and I speak as a citizen and also a member of government. Like, I’m totally guilty of using government language in terms people don’t understand. But we as citizens should demand also better. Like, when was the last time we emailed and said, this report makes no sense. And I can’t understand it. And I want to know what’s happening in my community. Like, tell me what this means in like language I can understand. Now, is that the responsibility of the citizenship? Should government know to do that? Absolutely government should know to do it, but we don’t do it. So I also think that we as a generation have a responsibility to demand that the government does that force as well.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, yeah.

Christian Williams

I think it’s a two way street. That’s for sure.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. For sure. Yeah, but yeah, and, yeah, I totally get that. And I think we, I know I’ve had bosses in my career that the goal is not transparency. It’s to overwhelm with like, with technical jargon, and, you know, the size of the packet that gets dropped to Council or whatever. So it’s not like that clear plain talking language. I think that especially extends to, like a discipline like planning where like, it is like so theoretical and kind of in the clouds, like, when you’re talking about the policies and kind of the, you know, and so it’s hard to make that that real without like a, like a really conscious effort to do.

Christian Williams

Sometimes it is hard, you know, I think as a resident to say, how does this apply to me long term. And I think that sometimes we fail to do that. And we, we don’t want to watch these boring meetings. Because let’s be frank, sometimes they’re very boring. And but it’s the implications of those policies later on that really impacts society. And I think beyond planning, and sometimes even beyond government, even as a society, like, I think we’re seeing some of the unrest as a result of policies that were passed, whether that be out of good or bad intentions, but now it’s coming full circle, and we’re seeing the ramifications of it. And now we can see why it applies to us. But at the time, oh, it doesn’t really apply to me just the policy. I don’t I don’t think so. I think we can all do better. We can, government can speak more human language and but I think as a citizenry it’s also, it’s also incumbent on us to demand better and to and to stay engaged even when, you know when no one’s watching, you know, I think that’s when things can sometimes run amok.

Ben Kittelson

Alright, so I’m going to switch gears now from your kind of planning work and engagement work. So you like recently wrote an amazing and honest post like kind of in the light of the upheaval we were seeing as a country and about your experiences as a black man in America and about, you know, the killing of George Floyd and kind of what we are seeing demands for you know, racial justice and equity and police reform. So I’ll kind of, like cede the floor to you but can, maybe can you share with our listeners like how, you know, you’ve been kind of feeling about the last few weeks and what kind of what you kind of shared with how ELGL and local governments can be doing in this time?

Christian Williams

Sure. So, I mean, we’ve talked about this a little bit, but um, yeah, the last week’s been, it’s been, honestly a very, very stressful week. I think beyond the week, it’s been stressful for people for forever, you know, but this week in particular, this last week has been very stressful. I’m sure it’s been stressful for a lot of us. And there’s been a lot on our minds as a society, I think. But you know, not only are you thinking about the current state of affairs, but with the pandemic and everything, but, you know, when you’re outside, you see the tension. When you’re inside your house, you watch the tension and you feel the tension. You know, it was it was hard to sleep the last couple weeks, for a lot of us. For me personally, it’s felt like a never ending stream of texts and calls, lots of questions from people. A lot of people confused, a lot of people frustrated. I felt like I’ve had to be a teacher and answer a lot of questions, especially for a lot of my non black friends, which, that’s just full in its own. And also knowing that I don’t represent all black people. I don’t represent all black voices. But it feels like a lot of weights on your shoulder when you feel like the viewer might view you as representing a whole group of people, when in fact you don’t. I think I’ve shared that kind of experience with a lot of my other black friends about how we, we sometimes I felt this week, like, there’s a lot of weight on our shoulders, but um, I would say at first I found this whole, you know, having to answer these questions kind of made me annoyed, kind of made me feel angry, sometimes made me sad. But then I thought about it. And in my opinion, this is what we’re missing in America right now and in government are these types of conversations because people really don’t know. They’re asking because they don’t know. They are not asking to put themselves on the spot about that. But you know, sometimes we call that ignorance. And ignorance exists in part because people have never felt comfortable or had the opportunity or taken the opportunity to ask these tough questions, so I can appreciate that. And as a society, we’re such a segregated group of people. And we give each other fake waves and surface talk in the office or informal or public environments. And I would say some of our interactions are somewhat fake. And our interactions can sometimes become robotic. And we, all we know is what we see on TV. So it’s a story for another day, but as a child, I even fell victim to believing what I saw about people on TV and I wrote about this for ELGL a while ago, but um, TV is scripted, and it creates this narrative for an audience and we sometimes become that stereotypical audience. And sometimes I feel like that’s more contagious than COVID at some points of time, but um, I think this week – It’s kind of like, I decided to leave my comfy auditorium, where I’m watching what’s going on with people and just become more vulnerable, and actually show people who these quote unquote characters they’ve seen on TV actually are, and try to explain that from my perspective. But this past week, I usually do not like telling a lot of personal stories about myself. But this past week, I really realized I needed to do that and to be somewhat vulnerable. Because I think and even share it with my friends. Some of my experiences are like, I had no idea that happened to you. And it’s like, yeah, well, I don’t share that because I don’t want a pity party about it. I but I also realized, I mean, not sharing you think this doesn’t exist in America and things like this never happened. So I felt a real need to be vulnerable this week. And also, I viewed it as if somebody is going to start off a question with this may sound dumb or this may be a dumb question or nit that they don’t know. Then the least I can do for them is channel my frustration. into some further understanding. So that’s kind of what the weeks meant for me. And, you know, I think the lesson that I’ve got out of this for government is that, especially with all the stories I’ve been hearing about people and people like me, and you know, we’re all individuals, we all have individual needs. And we all have our individual stories and realities that make us who we are, that make us tick, that make us passionate, that make us disengage. And these stories can’t always be shared in mass settings, or a with an open all call or amongst all the other angry voices. But I believe trust and relationships are really built at the individual level on the individual basis, and that’s where people are most comfortable sometimes sharing. So we should take the time to ask individuals and learn from individuals and listen to individuals and hear their individual stories and hear individually why they’re sad or happy. And we should also remember that sometimes people have no idea, they’ve never been taught, they’ve never learned before. Never seen things. And I think a valuable lesson I’ve learned is instead of shaming them and making them never ask those questions and go back to thinking and leaving what they saw on TV, I should just take the time to listen, to truly listen to them, and to truly share so that, you know, we can learn together about how we view the world and society. So I think those are some of my major takeaways. And as you know, I was kind of shaking when I wrote that piece. But, you know, with all that’s going on, I just felt like something needed to be said, and we needed to have some conversation and actually engage as a society versus hiding behind the screens and not knowing the other person.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, I mean, your personal story, and like, I know like there’s been a lot of like, coverage and kind of others in the kind of journalism world sharing their stories and, and highlighting, you know, what’s gone, what’s happened in different cities across the country for decades, and you know, hundreds of years but, like hearing that, like, you’re reminded, like, this isn’t, you know, some issue that’s, you know, far away or in some other city. It’s, it’s everywhere and like how do you know, it has to be a part of the conversation in every state in every city and like in the country. And I mean, I think it’s, it’s very like big and like, generous of you to, to be willing to like teach, you know, probably non black people, white people but like you’re experiencing that this is real and at the same time, it’s, I would challenge you know, other white people that are listening to take the time to be there, you know, there’s plenty of stuff out there that you can you can teach yourself like you don’t need to rely on the you know, the, the black people in your life that are already kind of dealing with, you know, so much and processing so much like, there’s a lot of resources out there, where you can kind of learn about, you know, the impacts either locally or kind of throughout the country, that the challenges that, you know, we’ve set up as local governments that and the policies that that we could do to kind of fix some of these things. Um,

Christian Williams

Yeah, I think the most interesting thing, I mean, engagement is a two way street. It’s asking but also sharing. And I recall a friend of mine or some somebody I know, I wouldn’t say a friend, but somebody I know, they’re like, well, what’s happening and they were frustrated, you know, some people are very frustrated with that with the disruption that’s happening around them. Well, this doesn’t happen to you, this doesn’t impact you does it? Like this doesn’t you know, this is different. You live, you don’t live in a Minneapolis or an inner city. And this is, this doesn’t impact you ever and I was like, it actually does impact me a lot. I’m, I can see myself in George Floyd. So, and then I had to explain why and why this is connected and why this matters and things that have happened to me not even living in an inner city. And I think we you know, sometimes we don’t share our stories and it shields people from knowing that it’s reality right in front of them. So I think that going back to public engagement, even engaging with, you know, your neighbors, like sharing those stories, bring some reality to it. And it’s not just a narrative they’re seeing in some distant place. It’s actually, you know, might be next door to them.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, they’re having those tough conversations, because that’s, you are right. Like, we don’t talk about race as a society as a …

Christian Williams

We like to say, oh, I’m colorblind, that makes me a great person. I don’t see color. Well, that’s an issue there. Yeah. [Laughter]

Ben Kittelson

So what do you think? I’m curious, like, on your perspective, like, then I don’t expect you to have an answer or anything. But as we kind of navigate, like, you know, what, what the, what the reforms will be and like, what kind of where we go from here as like a society like what do you think local government should be thinking about or doing? Like, if you have you could be, you know, king of the world and be like, hey, start talking, having these conversations and start talking about this or maybe consider these kind of policy things. You know, what do you think? Or what do you think we’ll be, you know, once we kind of emerge out of this, like national conversation and start, you know, trying to figure out as like cities and, and local governments like what, what do we do from here?

Christian Williams

That’s a good question. So that’s a question I’ve been actually asked a lot like, what what’s the endgame here? One thing I hope this is not, but I’ll be optimistic. But you know, I think with this pandemic going on, a lot of people are frustrated and tired and bored. I don’t know if that’s why there’s been such an outrage or more of an outrage when other issues in the past should have been just as outrageous but this pandemic might have caused us to want something or do something because we are bored in our lives or have an opportunity now that we have less things going on. But I also think that a lot of protests are demanding change immediately today, what are we going to do today, when some of these things, I believe, are truly systematic issues. I think a lot of this, a lot of these issues can in some ways be tied back to segregation, how we don’t know people, and then the issues that occur in communities that are more segregated and looked over, less thought of, if you will. So I think we should, I think some of these solutions are like 20 years solutions, like how do we, how do we educate our youth? How do we treat our youth? How do we get them engaged in civic activities? How do we, you know, get them interested in things that they might not generally have exposure to? I would say that I’m very lucky and very blessed that I had such strong leaders, mentors, black men in my life that showed me that there were opportunities for me beyond some of the opportunities I, you know, just saw on the TV, you know, you know, I think we’re sometimes told our stereotype of who we should be and what our options are. So I’m very lucky that I had, you know, teachers in my family and doctors in my family, lawyers in my family that showed me that there are opportunities for people like me. So I think we need to really think about as a society about how we, you know, sometimes they say it takes a village to raise a young person. I think we need to really think about 20 years from now, what do we want our youth in disadvantaged communities, regardless of their race, you know, disadvantaged communities, how do we as a society, even though we don’t live maybe in those neighborhoods, how do we mentor and shepherd young people so they know there’s opportunities for them, and they know that they’re cared for and that they’re provided those opportunities. So I think that’s a big question that we, as local governments need to think about, and you know, even the private sector, how do we invest in youth that might not buy our products today? Or you know that they’re not our market or our customer? How do we invest in and show young people their value moving forward in the future? So I don’t think that’s a solution today, whether that’s providing recreation opportunities there or educational opportunities. I think it’s a bigger societal issue. And I think it’s going to take a village, frankly, to do that. And now I think, I mean, I think there’s some good policy discussions that have come as of late about some immediate fixes we need today. I think some of this is societal. And we need to talk about how we create understanding of people that we don’t see every day that are hiding in front of our plain eyes.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, I really like that. The, and not losing the, the long term for the immediate, like, having a kind of an eye on that. And maybe that I do think that’s something as local governments and as leaders like we should have in mind is like, yeah, there’s some immediate fixes. There are a lot of demands right now. But we should also be thinking about, like, how do we, what’s in the long term? And like, how do we continue to build, you know, more equitable places 20 years from now? Yeah.

Christian Williams

Because there’s gonna be a day when this this crisis that we’re seeing is not going to be the cool hashtag on Instagram and Twitter and people aren’t gonna be protesting. And the question is, what’s left? And what are what are we as cities, what are we as the business community doing to address some of our systemic issues?

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, and how do we set up like systems and processes that ensure racial equity is taken into account past, you know, when the marches die down, you know. Like, like, like, how do we make this sustainable long term? Yeah.

Christian Williams

Exactly.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, so um, anything else you want to share like, I feel like we’ve, we’ve touched on this. That’s good, there’s no easy answers. But are there any like policy things that you’ve seen there that you think are like interesting or worth paying attention to?

Christian Williams

You know, the biggest thing is not policy for me. It’s, it’s getting to know people that you don’t know or you would never typically reach out to them to know. I think hearing their stories, learning that people like, humanizing people that you don’t know I think that’s the biggest that’s been the big takeaway for me is that we don’t reach out or talk to people that sometimes aren’t in our social circles or in our neighborhoods, and I think we can all do a better job and I mean, beyond race, I struggle with this as well, but I’m getting to know people that are much different than us or live different lives in the US I think that’s a big takeaway. I think we have because I think with a lot with some understanding, I mean, I don’t know the policy, the prescribed policy to fix all this, but I do know that we can do a better job of getting to know our neighbors and humanizing people.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, yeah. Well said, well said. All right, so we’ll end on maybe like a forward thinking note. I, I’ve been, I recently got to talk to Rick Cole on this podcast, and he’s kind of our, my conversation with him has kind of stuck with me lately. And his – he’s interested in like, how do we build a 21st century government? And what does that look like? And what needs to change? And how do we need to adjust, like what we do to serve, you know, the new needs that our communities are facing? And, you know, between COVID-19,kind of this, this recent uprising and demands for racial equity, you know, along with like, you know, more structural long term things that have been issues for local governments, like now’s as good a time as any kind of be noodling around this. So with that kind of a long lead up, what do you think, what’s kind of your perspective on what local governments need to change or what they’ll be working on in the next years and decades?

Christian Williams

Yeah. First off, I did listen to that episode, and he well, he has a fascinating history and a fascinating story. It was a very good listen. And he brought up a lot of good points about discontinuing things that don’t work. I know in my organization lean is a huge concept that we’ve really embraced and huddles and looking at waste. I think that’s a big thing. But to your question about how local government will change well, based on what I’m seeing today, I feel like government’s going to become a lot more virtual, and there’s gonna be a lot more distance services. There’s gonna be less desire for in person experiences and expectations of that 24/7, click for service response right away. I think government’s slowly shifting in that direction. And even looking at our city council meetings, I mean, viewership increased once our meetings were offered on Facebook, and not just our website, you know, people not having to leave their houses is a is a huge thing and getting services wherever they want to be, not being inconvenienced by running down to, let’s say City Hall, but being able to have that wirelessly with them wherever they are. But um, I think people are gonna want more convenient access to government. And even right now our team is working from home and we’re meeting virtually with clients and we’re having virtual meetings and doing our virtual reviews, which has been, it’s been awesome. But I do worry about the long term impacts. I think we do lose some connections and some of that authenticity, some of that messiness and vulnerability and empathy when we’re able to just be behind the screen. So, I guess that’s my big concern with 21st century government is thinking about how we connect mentally and emotionally to our customers and our residents. I hope we do not end up having a real life black mirror effect. [Laughter]  That’s what I do. I do worry about that, especially for those growing up native to technology, you know, when you’re able to – I don’t want to see sideboards, government sideboards. I want us to be able to relate to our residents and our communities. So, I always wonder, you know, will the world become more distanced through the act of being more connected? So that’s my fear for a 21st century government. But future government, I think is definitely more virtual. So I guess one thing I’m trying to be mindful of is, you know, somebody calls, ask them how their day went, you know. Let’s not get into permits right away, like, how’s your day going? Like, was the system easy? And I think sometimes even asking how did, how is your day going, you get a whole host of information in it. But it really humanizes you and government. And let’s hope it’s a good conversation starter. Just before we get into the nitty gritty about why your permit wasn’t approved, let’s have a conversation as people. So I think that’s one thing that we need to be just mindful of how we treat people and humanizing them. If they want to have a quick talk about well, that’s not football going on right now. But if they want to talk about the Sunday game for the first two minutes of your phone call, let’s have that conversation, as long as you are not a Steelers fan. [Laughter]

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. And if things start to go more digital, like, how do you, like, how do you encourage those connections that we talked about, like earlier? Like in regard to like, community, creating community, like what’s your role in that?

Christian Williams

Yeah, I think transactional things are great. And being efficient is great. And, you know, having system flow is great, workflow is great. But also, we need to take time to, you know, say take time to smell the roses or whatever that phrase is, it takes some time to just remember that we’re not all, not all machines in a factory. We are people.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. Although it’s not a lean thing, that having like a messy long meeting can sometimes be good for ….

Christian Williams

Yeah, it really can. I was given advice one time. I used to, in the manager’s office, I would sometimes go into meetings. I’m like, we have an agenda. I know we need to talk about, let’s just talk about it. Like, let’s get to it. Sometimes it was very off putting I think, like, really like, this guy’s in this meeting just trying to like get like, like, I think I found some of my most successful meetings have been me taking the time to ask how your family’s doing. You know, you learn so much, you know, maybe somebody just had surgery and they’re not, you know, they’re not happy today because they had to care for a loved one, like, you go into a meeting and just like spew off a bunch of numbers and expect things to get done on time frames. That’s zero empathy. And I was totally, I could have done way better. And that that was a learning thing for me,  young in my career is that you need to care about people first and about things and getting stuff done quickly, later, like care about the whole person. Because if that whole person is not in that meeting, you’re not going to get what you want anyway, so let’s work on how we can get that person to being that whole person. So I found it to be good to just ask how, some people don’t care. They don’t, like I don’t want to talk about personal stuff. That’s fine, but some people really do and they’re desperate to talk. I’ll give you an example. I’d come to the counter this week in the office. Because I am in the office, by myself, but um, I came to the counter, and this guy just wanted to talk about what was going on. He’s just like, you know, I’m just his heart was very heavy. And I feel like you know, we’ve been, we’ve been so trapped in our houses so long and he just wanted to talk and I was like, you know what we can wait on, now this application and zoning verification like I can I can take the time to listen to him for five minutes, just get that off of his chest because that’s when he needed to be a whole human and feel like a member of society again, and to you know, go back and into his routine. So I think we can all sometimes just take a pause and ask people how they’re doing and make sure they’re doing well before we get down to business. It’s not always about the numbers. Sometimes it’s about the people.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, well said, well said. Well, on that note, my most important question for you. It is the last one. So if you could be the GovLove DJ and pick the exit music for this episode, what song would you pick?

Christian Williams

Alright, so I’ve had a song that’s been in my head a lot lately. I mean, we’re all anxious right now. It’s anxious times. And sometimes on your journey, there’s some rough or scary parts and has to be returned back. And we don’t know where we came from or where things are going. We look ahead, there’s unknowns. There’s peaks on the horizon. And I think about how there’s always a tomorrow and even if it’s not, actually tomorrow, the sun eventually does rise again. So right now, I would say the song Waiting for Tomorrow by Martin Garrix and Pierce Fulton would be my GovLove DJ song, because there’s just one more day. Just Waiting for Tomorrow.

Ben Kittelson

Awesome. Well, we will queue that up for you.

Christian Williams

Aww! Can’t wait to hear it. [Laughter]

Ben Kittelson

With that, that ends our episode for today. Thank you, Christian for coming on and talking with me.

Christian Williams

Thanks for having me Ben. Appreciate it.

Ben Kittelson

And I do want to say something for our listeners. If you see Christian, give him a, buy him a wine, a beer, give a firm handshake, pat him on the back like he’s completing you know, his term on the ELGL board, and, you know, he’s made a huge impact on, you know, this organization and where we’ve gone. And we normally would get to thank him and our other outgoing board members in person at the annual conference, but we weren’t able to do that this year. So the next time you see him or maybe you video chat with him, make sure you thank him and show our appreciation for all the work that he’s done to take ELGL to where it is today.

Christian Williams

Thanks, Ben. It’s been a lot of fun. Last year has been a lot of fun. It’s been great working with you and Kirsten and the rest of the board. Yeah, I am gonna miss it. But you know, we’re not going very far because gov member of, board member for life, we’re doing that. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been an honor. It’s been fun just meeting all the members in the last couple of years.

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, well, we’ll definitely, we got to keep you guys engaged so that, that board member for life thing will be, will be real. [Laughter] For our listeners, GovLove is brought to you by Engaging Local Government Leaders. You can reach us online elgl.org/govlove or on Twitter at the handle @govlovepodcasts. You can support GovLove by joining ELGL. Membership is $40 for an individual and 20 bucks for a student. And if you are not already subscribed to GovLove on your favorite podcast app, you should be subscribed. And if you are, please share this podcast with a friend or colleague. Help us spread the word that GovLove is the go to place for local government stories. And with that, thank you for listening. This has been GovLove, a podcast about local government.

 


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