Success Story: Decatur: A Small City That Engages Residents in a Big Way

The City of Decatur, with only 22,000 residents, has a history of civic engagement, having involved more than 1,500 people in its 2010 strategic planning process.

Decatur, Georgia

This success story was originally published as a 2018 All-America City Award project description and is reprinted courtesy of the National Civic League. Learn more about the award program here.

The city of Decatur’s typical strategic planning processes involve house dinners, community roundtables, and diverse steering committees. The city’s commitment to equity shows in its Better Together program and its Community Action Plan for Equity, Inclusion and Engagement, which is designed to make Decatur a more welcoming, inclusive and equitable place to live, work and visit. City government is in the process of assessing its departments, and training managers and volunteers to bring racial equity into the workplace on a regular and ongoing basis.

Three project examples showing how Decatur leverages civic engagement, collaboration, inclusiveness and innovation to successfully address local issues:

1. Better Together

Decatur’s Better Together Initiative was a year-long, community-wide visioning process designed “to cultivate a more just, welcoming, inclusive, equitable and compassionate experience for all who live, visit or work here.” Through the initiative, approximately 800 residents worked under the guidance of a Leadership Circle to put together a Community Action Plan for Inclusion, Equity and Engagement that outlines 60 action items for individuals, organizations and local government.

The Leadership Circle, much like a steering committee, was made up of 19 individuals who came from diverse backgrounds. The committee set three goals for the Better Together Initiative: An Equitable and Inclusive City; Racially-Just Community Policing; and Diverse and Affordable Housing. Throughout the process, extra efforts were made to engage immigrants, young people, seniors, lower-income residents, people of color and others who are often underrepresented.

Once the action plan was completed, a diverse 15-member advisory committee was appointed to oversee implementation. Activities to date include:

  • Creation of a community asset map,
  • A Welcoming America Interactive reception for immigrants,
  • A community conversation focused on “Who Is Decatur” and
  • Discussions on how to improve policing, community development and other functions in ways that respect differences and create equitable outcomes.


2.  Community Relations Officers Who Enforce the Law
In 2015, the Decatur Police Department began an effort to reform the way they do policing, dovetailing this work with the Better Together Initiative and work to improve racial equity. The process, which involved extensive community outreach and guidance, has led to community policing being embedded in the Decatur Police department’s culture to the point that Decatur Police now refer to themselves as “Community Relations Officers Who Enforce the Law.”

As a result of complaints and community concerns, Decatur Police Chief Mike Booker hired an outside consultant. The consultant organized 24 focus groups of 10-15 residents each to hear perspectives on the department from the community, with special attention to resident groups that had concerns about the police. The focus groups, which included police officers, helped craft a three-year strategic plan for the department that focused on improving the responsiveness of the police to the community.

Implementation of the department’s strategic plan includes the use of social media platforms, including Nextdoor.com and Facebook, as a means of staying in touch with the community. Training is another focus area, with new programs to train police officers in working with people of color, the mentally ill, families in crisis and the general public in a manner that shows understanding and respect. Training programs for the community are also included, with a Citizens Police Academy, self-defense classes, kids’ programs and other activities aimed at improving mutual respect and understanding between residents and the department.


3.  I Am Decatur
I Am Decatur is a collection of thirty-two portraits and stories from a variety of community residents that represents the diverse backgrounds and lifestyles of people in the community. The collection is the brainchild of Decatur resident and photographer Beate Sass, who was dismayed at the divisions caused by the 2016 presidential elections and worked with local grassroots organizations to create what she calls “a celebration of our differences and of our shared humanity.”

The city embraced I Am Decatur as part of its Better Together Initiative and displayed the photos during its annual Welcoming America reception in September 2017, which included a conversation among about 50 people designed to bridge differences. The exhibit also served as a backdrop for a “We Are Decatur” Sunday Supper Community Conversation organized by the Better Together Advisory Board to create an opportunity for the community to gather for conversations across differences. Over 150 residents attended the gathering, which has led to the creation of a conversations toolkit for hosting smaller neighborhood gatherings.

Sponsors of the photo collection are now working with local business and tourism associations to display the exhibit in storefronts and other public locations. In addition to the photos, Beate Sass has collected stories from dozens of residents, with those stories being catalogued on a website, all as part of an effort to bridge differences and build connections among the city’s different populations.

Additional Resources

Meet the Manager

manager

Peggy Merriss

City Manager
The Decatur City Commission hires a full-time professional administrator, the city manager, who supervises and manages the daily operations of the city. Decatur's current city manager is Peggy Merriss, who has worked for the city since 1983. She served for six years as personnel director, four years as assistant city manager, and has been in her current position of city manager since 1993. She received a BA in political science from Converse College and a master's degree in public administration from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Excerpted from the Decatur, Georgia, website: http://www.decaturga.com/city-government/city-departments/city-manager-s...

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