Q&A: Evanston, Illinois, Turns to Town Hall Meetings to Build Equity and Equality

Evanston set about doing intentional, focused, and good work around the issues of equity and empowerment, and committed to doing so in full conversation with the community.

ARTICLE | Jul 6, 2017

The city of Evanston has embarked on a new mission to more intentionally address issues of access, equity, and empowerment in its community. Through a series of Equity and Empowerment Town Hall meetings, community members were invited to hear what "equity" means for its community and share their ideas. Moderated by Patricia A. Efiom, Evanston’s equity and empowerment coordinator, the meetings mark a new effort by the city to more intentionally address issues like the achievement gap in education and affordable housing.

Findings in the recent ICMA Innovations and Emerging Practices in Local Government Survey 2016conducted in collaboration with Arizona State University and the Alliance for Innovation in April 2016, found that town hall meetings are the most frequently used citizen engagement tool by local governments. So we caught up with Patricia A. Efiom and City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz to get some tips and advice for how to use town hall meetings for your community engagement, specifically wrapped around issues of access, equity, and empowerment. 

ICMA: Share with us why it’s important to give community members an opportunity to share their vision for equity.

PE: As we set about doing intentional, focused, and good work around the issues of equity and empowerment, we committed to doing so in full conversation with the community. If we are going to affect real change in our community, change that is impactful, change that residents can embrace, then we have to know what the community’s lived experience is. Our goal is to be the most livable city for all of our residents. If we do not hear directly from residents, we will miss their needs and the cycle of oppression will continue. The city of Evanston is committed to being as inclusive as possible.

ICMA: In your town hall meetings, how are you drawing a distinction between equity and equality?

PE: The image on the right says it all. Equity moves us from the state of equality defined as being equal, especially in status, rights, and opportunities to a community where all individuals have access to the opportunities and resources necessary to satisfy their essential needs, advance their wellbeing, and achieve their full potential, and where all barriers and biases—institutional and individual—that limit access to those opportunities and resources have been eliminated.

ICMA: Who are the targeted audiences for the equity town hall meetings?

PE: Our initial town hall meetings were meant to reach a breadth of the community. We strategically situated five open meetings across Evanston to allow as much access as possible. As anticipated, we were able to attract those residents who are already actively engaged in the community. We then identified populations we knew were missing (i.e., Latinx, seniors, those with physical challenges) and reached out to them directly.

ICMA: What type of outreach do you do to build awareness around the town hall meetings? 

PE: We sent out press releases to local media outlets; used social media; announced the meetings at city council; sent information out through the alderman; posted flyers in city facilities; and, of course, word of mouth.

ICMA: What has been the biggest surprise over the course of these town hall meetings?

PE: I was pleasantly surprised at how many people feel deeply passionate about issues of equity, most particularly about race. They have no problem speaking out about issues of racism but I was most surprised that the very people they were speaking for were not in the room. The biggest challenge I am having is making sure we make room for those whose voices have historically been silenced. In order to do that, we have to learn to listen. 

ICMA:  What else is the city doing to hear what the entire population of Evanston feels about equity and equality? 

PE: We have developed and distributed an Equity Climate Survey which is available on the citys website. Hard copies are available at city facilities, senior citizen buildings, independent living facilities and the YW/MCA. And we continue to seek out populations that are missing.

ICMA: What are the goals of these survey results and town hall meetings? 

The goal of these community conversations is to listen as deeply to the community as possible. We are especially interested in getting to hear the voices of those who for a whole host of reasons are typically underrepresented in public forums; on boards and commissions hence those voices are most often left out of our public policies and decision making bodies. We want to be sure that we develop a plan and have policies, practices, and a workforce that are equitable for all of our residents.    

ICMA: Wally, we’d love to hear more about the Equity & Empowerment Department. Why did you find it to be so important to create? 

WB: In 2012, Evanston joined the STAR Communities network as a Pilot Community. Through this network, we learned a great deal about gaps in our city services. Evanston prides itself on being a diverse community but that diversity hasn’t always translated into the workforce, policies, and practices. And while the council and staff have long been committed to diversity, we recognized that if we were going to make significant advancements in the area of equity, we were going to have to invest human and capital resources to root out historical inequities and to undo the damage done by those policies and practices. Our STAR rating in the area of Equity & Empowerment confirmed what we knew and were working on but also helped us realize we needed more expertise and a more firm commitment to effect significant change to reach our goal of being the most livable city.

ICMA: Pat, you are the first equity & empowerment coordinator in the city. Do you have staff? Do you have a budget?

PE: Getting my position in the budget was the first step. I am currently evaluating the needs for the office of Equity & Empowerment and will be submitting a proposed budget for the upcoming year. 

ICMA:  What are you doing internally to train staff and get them to understand what equity is? 

PE: Fortunately, the staff has been working on equity & empowerment well before the decision was made to hire an equity & empowerment coordinator. In fact, a group of staff and residents were invited by the University of Chicago to a racial equity training session. They began to build on that training and put together a working group that had begun to give shape to my position. Last month, we sent some 30 staff members to the national Beyond Diversity training—a two-day intensive training confronting issues of racism. Before the the Equity Diversity Plan unfolds, there will be lots of staff training around the issue of equity and empowerment

ICMA If you had one word of advice for communities who are looking to start an equity and empowerment department, what would you say?  

PE: Resist the temptation to hire someone from within or add this responsibility to someone’s current job. Hire an experienced professional and make sure that they have top down support. Given the equity climate in this country right now, this work is too critical to go undone.


To learn more on the impacts of town hall meetings on community engagement, download LGR: Local Government Review. This special section of Public Management (PM) magazine is offered to ICMA members as a member benefit.

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