Images provided by Albert Dzur and Kimball Payne. More from this interview can be found at the Good Society Journal.

This conversation is the third in the series, Trench Democracy: Participatory Innovation in Unlikely Places. Innovative democratic professionals are recreating some of our most fundamental institutions, shaping new democratic practices and struggling against the sometimes profoundly counter-democratic tendencies of contemporary American institutions. While their work is always in progress, their experiences hold value for anyone interested in democracy’s future. 

Kimball Payne is the City Manager of Lynchburg, Virginia, a city of nearly 80 thousand in the center of the state. We talked recently about why a culture of citizen participation is important for a well-functioning city, what public administrators can do to make room for citizens in the everyday work of government, and how serious collaboration with the public changes the way officials conceive of their roles. But first, a brief story about race, police, and public outrage.

Many Voices

In late summer 2006, the city of Lynchburg was facing deeply rooted questions of race and racism. A 46-year old black resident, Clarence Beard, had died in police custody under murky circumstances. “In the wake of the tragic incident,” the Lynchburg News and Advance reported, “accusations of police brutality and of a whitewash investigation arose in the black community, exposing an ugly tear in the social fabric of the city.” The city, which is roughly two-thirds white and one-third black, had to come to grips with some sober truths about racial division.

Realizing that mainstream public relations techniques would not suffice, Payne, working closely with the Mayor, Joan Foster, and community leaders, decided that the city government had to find a way to listen as well as speak. They settled on a participatory public process involving community forums and study circles. Eight to twelve member groups convened for six weeks, meeting two hours every week.  Their open-ended discussions aimed to work through the issue and form an agenda for community action. By the end of 2008, over 1,300 citizens had joined the conversation. Now known as Many Voices One Community, this program is an ongoing and self-sustaining effort in public education, involvement, and advocacy around issues of race and racism.

The community dialogue prompted improvements in diversity training within the Lynchburg Police Department, initiatives designed to increase workforce diversity in city government and area businesses, and a college scholarship program for young people in need of assistance. Citizen participation is now an established part of Lynchburg city government. Study circles and other forms of dialogue are used frequently to evaluate budget priorities and provide input on city planning. What began as a modus vivendi is now a way of public life.

Albert Dzur: You have used study circles and small group dialogue with the community on a variety of issues. Can you tell me about your experience with these forums?

Kimball Payne: We [the Lynchburg city government] are pretty big advocates of the study circle concept—certainly small group discussions. If we have a broad community meeting where we want to explore a topic, we try to break it down into smaller groups, frankly, as quickly as possible. We are big fans of Peter Block’s book, Community, and we use that as a model as well, plus what we’ve learned from study circles. We’ve used it to have an ongoing discussion of issues of race and racism in the community. We’ve used it to discuss the budget process and budget issues for about 3 or 4 years. And, though I haven’t been directly involved, we’ve used it for issues related to planning for roads, revision of the comprehensive plan, community meetings, just a variety of things. We think the small group discussions are really a positive way to receive input. We still have the formal public input process, but people tend to stand up there and speak their piece. There’s not a lot of dialogue that goes on.

AD: Can you say why you think study circles are important for something like race and racism in Lynchburg?

KP: We did the study circles in response to an incident where Clarence Beard died in police custody seven years ago. There was a lot of concern in the community over this situation and one of the commitments that we made to some of the members of the black community, who came to work with us on this, was to try to have some sort of ongoing discussion about issues of race and racism in Lynchburg. We looked at a number of models and finally found the study circle model that felt like it would work the best for us. We had over a thousand people participate in study circles in the initial year or so. And we’ve had an ongoing process of study circles on a smaller scale since them.

AD: Was this your initiative or did you work with somebody in the police force or somebody in the community?

KP: Our mayor at the time was very involved. She was a proponent and advocate for this. After the incident occurred, we were approached by several members of the leadership in the African American community who expressed the need to do something to grapple with this issue. So from those discussions we realized we didn’t want a typical formal public meeting where people stand up and fuss, but that probably won’t accomplish much. What we needed was a discussion. We needed to have some real dialogue, which involves people really listening and hearing what others are saying and then reacting to that in an environment that is safe and protected for all the participants. We looked at a similar experience in the city of Hampton, Virginia—I think that’s how we ended up with study circles.

AD: Now, sometimes when something like study circles gets underway you realize that only the usual suspects are involved. But you said about a thousand people came into the process. That strikes me as more than the usual suspects.

KP: It was very much more than the usual suspects. We formed a steering committee of interested citizens and city staff folks. We spent probably close to a year just planning for this discussion. And even within those planning meetings we formed some relationships with the people involved. And we said we wanted to have 1,000 people involved. We set that as an audacious goal. We really tried to reach out beyond the normal situation where you advertise a public hearing and a few regulars show up. We tried to work with the local sororities and fraternities in the African American community. We tried to reach out to the Hispanic community, to the Korean community, to anybody who would listen to us to try to get the word out. And we were pretty effective. We discovered some people we didn’t know before who have since become leaders in the community. People formed relationships; they met people in the study circle process they never would have crossed paths with in their normal day to day occurrences.

AD: So from your standpoint what counts as an effective process? The numbers stand out to me and you just mentioned relationships that would not have been formed otherwise. What else makes for an effective outcome?

KP: We have had projects and initiatives that have grown out of some of the study circles. We have a group that is working to provide college scholarships for students who need them to get into higher education—called Beacon of Hope. That was a direct outgrowth of the study circle process.

AD: Meaning that it was an idea that got launched from that?

KP: Right. Part of the study circle process is that when you’re at the end of however many weeks it lasts you come up with some community initiatives. And we had a very large meeting at which the study circle groups brought out their initiatives and their proposals and a few of them have taken off. The Beacon of Hope is a big one that we’re really happy with.

AD: Why do you think it is important for people other than public administrators and city officials to be involved in handling a topic like race and racism?

KP: We’ve tried to send a message to the community that members of the local government—the appointed or elected positions—don’t have all the answers and frankly don’t have the resources to address broader community issues and probably don’t even fully understand the issues from our particular perspective. And so we are trying as we’ve had these discussions to let people know that they have a role in being citizens of this community, in being involved, providing their input, helping us do things that we don’t necessarily have the capacity to do on our own, that their ideas are valuable, and we want their involvement and their input. So we really do talk about that partnership: government doesn’t do things for the citizens, but the citizens are part of government and we need to work together on this.

We said we wanted to have 1,000 people involved. We set that as an audacious goal.

AD: So you really do need to broaden that net and bring in as many people as possible. How do you do that? How do you make it attractive to a broad swath of Lynchburg?

KP: Well I think that although we’ve been successful with study circles we’ve been less successful in other areas in the community. But we go into neighborhoods. We have a number of schools and community centers around the city and we will use them and invite people to come. Send out a broad invitation. Don’t expect people to come to city hall. We will have a series of meetings. Typically it will be at least three and sometimes four, five, or six meetings on these issues to try to get out, get around, and give everybody a chance. We even tried last year during the budget process to do something on a Saturday morning and that failed horribly. We try some things and they work or they don’t work. Asking people to come at 7:00 at night doesn’t always work, particularly for people who have kids in school. We tend to have a lot of meetings at 5:30 or 6:00, which might be at the end of somebody’s day but before dinner. And then they can go home and have dinner rather than go home, have dinner and then try to go back out to a meeting again. So we’ve varied the schedules around. Like I said, the one on Saturday morning just did not work—I think we had one family show up.

AD: I’ve heard that from people before that Saturday mornings don’t work.

KP: Well we learned the hard way. We had plenty of staff there and nobody else. We just thought that maybe there’s a group of people out there who have kids and would take a Saturday morning. But we learned that Saturday mornings are pretty valuable to people.

AD: Turning to a more abstract question, what do you think has an impact when a study circle goes well? In the literature about these forums, scholars point to dialogue or communication as the biggest influence, but I wonder if there is something even more primitive going on: proximity. People who wouldn’t sit next to each other normally are coming together and being together as a group. Is this something that you’ve noticed?

KP: Well we certainly have people who tell me that years later that they still have a relationship with people in their study circle they wouldn’t normally have a relationship with. A prominent white businessman and an older black woman, for example, told me they still communicate with each other. They acknowledge that they look at the world from entirely different perspectives but they became friends through the process. I mean, there are not hundreds of those stories, but each of them is pretty heartwarming.

AD: That seems to be important for an issue like race, it strikes me, because there’s a lot of separation between people. The ordinary grooves of daily life prevent us from being in contact and sometimes we really do need to listen to each other.

KP: That’s very true. We have a group that is working on our dialogue on race and racism—we call it “Many Voices One Community.” They are still meeting. They formed a board of directors. They don’t get a lot of support from the city other than encouragement. And they actually held a seminar this fall over a Saturday and got about eighty people who came and discussed issues of race and racism. And that group is still sponsoring study circles too.

AD: Getting back to something you mentioned, I wonder what you are creating through study circles and facilitated dialogues that is not already available through normal city council meetings or local government board or committee meetings. Can you say why these new forms are more appealing than the old forms?

KP: I would say that for one thing we hear from people who we wouldn’t normally hear from. I’m thinking particularly about our budget processes. The recession really got us focused on the budget. And we did a series of community outreach initiatives over several years trying to explain the services we provide, talking to citizens about choices we had in how we deliver the services, or what services we deliver, or to what level. And with the smaller group structures we got input from people who wouldn’t normally stand up in front of a large group and speak. We also had our normal regular curmudgeonly people who will complain about everything. If you have an effective facilitator, their voices are heard but their voices don’t become dominant. And they hear an alternate statement from somebody. If it’s well facilitated and people understand the ground rules and follow them, both sides get respected in that process. It’s just much more effective that way.

Through this process we actually got the community to support a tax increase two years ago, which is pretty amazing in an election year. All the council members got returned to office, too. And I think that was a direct result of having a lot of community discussion.

We did complain we seemed to get the same seventy-five or eighty or ninety people. But we’ve come to the conclusion that the people who show up get a voice. And the people who don’t show up, well we’re sorry; we’ve invited them and we’ve encouraged them to come but if they don’t show up, they don’t show up.

AD: You say you’ve been doing this for five years?

KP: The Beard incident occurred in 2006. And the study circles probably didn’t start up until 2008. It was late in 2006 when the incident occurred and I think the study circles finally got going in 2008.

AD: I wonder if a rising tide lifts all boats so that as people get involved in study circles they’re also more likely to come to traditional public hearings. Have you noticed that at all?

KP: Not really, no.

AD: So they’re different animals, really.

KP: There may be a few people who overlap, one or two, but I don’t think so. Our formal budget hearings, for example, are fairly mild and not that well attended.

AD: What are the main barriers you see making it hard for people to participate?

KP: I think one is a trust issue. People maybe don’t believe that they really will be listened to, that they have much input. I think people are incredibly busy, but I think if it is important to them they can make it work. That’s where I think trust plays in. If they can use an excuse—“Oh they don’t care, I’m not going to get heard, I’m not going to go”—then it’s easy not to participate.

AD: Your point about trust is interesting because it isn’t that they don’t trust you as a person or as a city official. It’s that they think that the way you do your job doesn’t really involve them.

KP: And I think they don’t trust the process. This is why one of our themes has been that it’s not the city and the citizens or versus the citizens or serving the citizens, it’s all of us working together here. We’ve got to do this together because we’re not given the resources to do this kind of top-down city work. And I’m not sure it’s appropriate anyway. So we want them to be involved.

AD: What I’m struck by is how this all differs from a traditional understanding of what it means to be a public administrator, which is to serve the public to the best of your ability.

KP: . . . and I know what’s best for them so I ought to deliver that to them.

AD: Right, so why did I get this professional degree, why did you hire me, and so on. And I wonder if this traditional understanding of professionalism dampens involvement. Do you think the idea that the public administrator takes care of things plays a role in community dis-engagement?

KP: I think it depends on the issue. I don’t think I could get much public enthusiasm about running a wastewater treatment plant. But on some of the budget choices we make on what sort of service delivery mixes we have, for example, they’re not going to question how we deliver the services as much as whether it is an appropriate service to be delivered and how it should be paid for. And those are issues I’m really not sure there is a professional answer to. Again, I can deliver water all day long, but should we privatize the water system? That’s a broader and a more policy-oriented question. How dynamic should our parks and recreation system be? Are we willing to sacrifice parks and recreation for public education or for public safety?

We’re dabbling a little bit with priority-based budgeting and I think those sorts of discussions about our priorities—what is important to this community—those are the things that you take to the citizens. I don’t think how we run the bus system is something they really care about. They do care when we cut service though!

AD: Pushing on this line a little bit, let’s say you go to a professional meeting and a colleague from another city comes up and says, “Well, I’ve heard about this study circle stuff you’re doing in Lynchburg and that sounds nice, but my city just doesn’t have the human resources and the time to do that.” What would you say to that person?

KP: We didn’t either. I had no idea that we’d do study circles until we had a crisis that needed to be addressed—the Beard incident. We needed to find some way to address the issues that were coming out of that. But then again, we did embrace it through our budget process and other things we’re doing in the community now because we just thought it was so effective.

Yes, it takes time, it takes resources, and it takes reordering. We have an incredible number of city employees who have basically volunteered their time to be facilitators. We have a strong group of twenty or thirty employees who are trained to be facilitators for these things. We got facilitators from all across the community who volunteered, were trained in the study circle process, and then did it. Some were city employees and some were just folks in the community. But we still have this strong corps of city employees who will do things for the budget meetings and other community activities. And they’ve just taken it on as an additional responsibility. Most of them are exempt employees so overtime is not an issue, but we can flex their time to make it possible. They are very dedicated to public service and dedicated to this process as well. So it didn’t take a lot of resources. We brought a speaker in to do a kick-off for the Lynchburg Community Dialogue on Race and Racism, so we spent a little bit of money there. Staff and community volunteers coordinated the initial efforts. Later, I had an Assistant to the City Manager who took the lead in subsequent activities. That position has since been eliminated and she’s now doing it as a volunteer—she’s got another position in the community.

AD: So you would say to the skeptical colleague: “Good for you, but you may very well need this in the future.”

KP: Yes, and also “How’s everything else working for you?” I have to admit there is this “good old days” model where you just have a formal public meeting and then make the decision you think best for the community and move on. There was something nice about that. But with today’s social media and instant communication, I think you really need folks in the community who know what is going on, are involved, and feel like they’re part of the process.

AD: And they can serve as resources.

KP: A big part of what we do completely openly is to educate people: we try to explain to them the world, as we understand it. We’re open to a different view, but when we were exploring all of our different services as we were looking at some pretty severe budget cuts we explained to people, this is what we do, this is how we do it, this is why we do it, so they have a much better understanding.

We also have something called a Citizens Academy, an 11-week program that enrolls about thirty people a year. They visit all the different city departments and facilities and learn about how and why we do things. To a person they usually come out of it saying, “I had no idea. You guys are doing a great job.” And they become advocates in the community. We get volunteers from the Academy. We get people who serve on boards and commissions from it and we have actually gotten some city council members too.

AD: Just this last summer, Shawn Martin, a 29–year old black man, died after being pursued by Lynchburg police. Though different than the Clarence Beard case, similar public sentiments about racial division and unfair treatment arose in reaction. Was the city’s experience with Many Voices One Community helpful in addressing these concerns through public engagement?

KP: I have met with the board of Many Voices One Community and we have talked about a community discussion involving the neighborhood in which this incident occurred. At this point we are awaiting the results of the autopsy and the State Police report on the incident. In the meantime, the representatives of the Lynchburg Police Department have reached out to community members and have had some small “living room” meetings to address concerns. I would say that this small group approach and a commitment to listen to participants are things that we learned through study circles.

AD: Is there anything you’d like to say in closing that we haven’t covered already about the value of citizen participation in city government?

KP: From our perspective, citizen participation is essential to good governance in a community. As I said before, the elected officials and appointed professionals don’t have all of the answers and may not even know what the right questions are. It is important for citizens and the public servants to work together in partnership to build a strong community. 

Research on this project was done in partnership with the Kettering Foundation.