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2019 Year In Review

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In 2009, New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg launched Cities of Service with mayors from 16 U.S. cities. Since then, our coalition has grown to include more than 280 cities on three continents, representing more than 84 million people, and we have helped cities engage more than 100,000 resident volunteers. We have awarded more than $8 million in grants, supplied cities with critical human capital, and provided thousands of hours of intensive technical assistance to help city leaders more effectively engage residents to solve public problems. Over time, our work with cities and citizens has also broadened and deepened, creating long-term results and lasting relationships.  

In our early years, we brought impact volunteering initiatives to dozens of cities and helped them develop service plans and hire Chief Service Officers. When Cities of Service became an independent organization in 2014, we introduced new ways to build the community engagement muscle and citizen service capacity of cities in our network through a unique partnership with the Corporation for National and Community Service.

To date, we have placed 150 AmeriCorps VISTA members in city halls around the country, expanding the capacity of 39 city governments to recruit, engage, and deploy resident volunteers in order to address public challenges. We have also created step-by-step blueprints, case studies, new forums to bring city leaders together, and—for the first time in 2019—a set of Cities of Service Citizen Engagement Techniques to make collaborating with residents more efficient and accessible to city government. 

But our impact is measured not only in grants made, litter removed, volunteers placed, and blueprints written. By coming together to make an impact, city leaders and citizens have established relationships that continue beyond one project, and these relationships have long-term effects. We have helped city leaders form important strategic partnerships with local organizations and stronger bonds with one another.

Most importantly, thousands of citizens now know their elected officials and city staff by name—and may even have their phone numbers on speed dial. Residents are connected to each other and better equipped to advocate for their communities, participate in local government, and meet the challenges they face together.

Each year we learn new things from our grantee cities and our partners. As a result, we are continually improving our approach to citizen engagement. We’ve become more responsive to the needs of our cities, and we’re able to better support them in their efforts to build stronger, more vibrant communities. And we’ve created a coalition of people who are dedicated to long-term engagement that changes lives. Keep reading to learn about our work in 2019.

Love Your Block, our signature program, continues to help cities revitalize neighborhoods, one block at a time. Beginning as a local NYC Service program in 2009, we have since helped 47 cities implement Love Your Block by providing funding and other support, and numerous additional cities have independently adopted the program after seeing its success. 

Our Love Your Block cities provide mini-grants and other support to community groups, enabling more than 9,000 resident volunteers to work together to improve over 2,200 blocks around the country. Residents restore and enhance their neighborhoods and also form connections with city government officials and one another. We know this can have a considerable long-term impact on communities: a study by the Urban Institute found that the connections formed as a result of Love Your Block empower residents, increase their sense of shared purpose, and grow their capacity to cooperate and meet common goals. 

Our newest cohort of 10 legacy cities completed their first program year in 2019. 

  • Buffalo, New York
  • Gary, Indiana
  • Hartford, Connecticut
  • Hamilton, Ohio
  • Huntington, West Virginia
  • Lancaster, Pennsylvania
  • Milwaukee, Wisconsin
  • Newark, New Jersey
  • Richmond, Virginia
  • South Bend, Indiana

The hard work of city staff and AmeriCorps VISTA members has already begun to pay off. Participating cities awarded 68 mini-grants to activate more than 2,500 resident volunteers, who repaired homes, removed litter, planted gardens, and painted murals at 147 sites.

None of this work would be possible without people like Glen Taylor, a resident of Gary, Indiana. For many years, Glen and his group, A Time for Change, have been rallying community members to take a stand against gun violence with an annual parade in the Glen Park neighborhood. In 2019, Love Your Block inspired him to try a new approach. With a mini-grant from the city, he recruited his neighbors to clean up their block and install brick planter boxes. The City of Gary’s General Services Department trimmed trees and removed the debris in the area.

While a parade can raise awareness, Love Your Block helped Glen do even more. He connected with his neighbors to make a tangible, visible improvement and lasting impact on their community. As more people have joined in, their work has moved others to contribute year-round toward making Gary a better place to live. One neighbor was even motivated to start her own block club nearby. Glen is one of many individuals in our Love Your Block cities whose work has fostered a greater investment among residents in their neighborhood, making cities safer, stronger, and more connected.

We expanded our work with Experience Matters, a new program in partnership with AARP that activates experienced volunteers. Cities of Service is helping five cities engage residents aged 50+ to tackle public problems that contribute to poverty, ranging from financial insecurity to property code violations. Through Experience Matters, we are creating a stronger bridge between cities and a historically untapped community of older adults who will use their expertise to take on some of the toughest issues that cities face.   

  • Albuquerque, New Mexico
  • Birmingham, Alabama
  • Columbia, South Carolina
  • Forth Worth, Texas
  • Saint Paul, Minnesota

Since the June 2019 launch of Experience Matters, city staff and AmeriCorps VISTA members have begun to plan their programs, designing financial literacy workshops, identifying sites for pilot programs, and developing local partnerships. In Fort Worth, Texas, AmeriCorps VISTA members have been certified as Financial Social Work coaches, which will allow them to train resident volunteers to educate their neighbors about financial literacy. Staff from city governments and Cities of Service are working closely with local AARP offices to design dynamic, effective projects with measurable outcomes.

In October, our partners at AARP in Washington, D.C. hosted our Experience Matters Academy. Over two days, city staff, AmeriCorps VISTA members, and AARP state office representatives from five participating cities developed plans and exchanged best practices. See photos from the academy below.

With our newest program, Guiding Opportunities, we are making sure local residents and communities are part of the conversation. In partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation and The Prudential Foundation, this two-year program supports Chief Opportunity Zone Officers in six cities. Cities of Service has placed AmeriCorps VISTA members in each city to help engage residents and other local stakeholders in planning and decision-making. This work will ensure that community voices are part of investment and development decisions made in Opportunity Zones—and that those investments ultimately benefit local communities and residents living nearby. 

  • Atlanta, Georgia
  • Dallas, Texas
  • Newark, New Jersey
  • Oakland, California
  • St. Louis, Missouri
  • Washington, D.C.

Cities of Service and our partners believe that the best way for city leaders to meet the needs of citizens is to include them in the process. Guiding Opportunities represents a growing emphasis in our work on authentic and active engagement of city residents to help leaders meet every kind of public challenge and take advantage of every opportunity.

In November, Cities of Service gathered city staff and AmeriCorps VISTA members from our Guiding Opportunities cities, along with participants in our Love Your Block program, for our academy in Dallas, Texas. They got to know one another and started to plan their projects. See a few photos from the event below.

Photo Credit: Beth Crockatt

To ensure effective citizen engagement, Cities of Service supplies expert guidance, technical assistance, and capacity-building support to mayors, city managers, and staff; connects coalition cities to share their knowledge; and promotes cities and their important, transformative work. 

Support: Our grants, coupled with expert technical assistance and other support, have led to deep engagement and lasting change in many cities. For example, in Lansing, Michigan, the success of Love Your Block led the mayor to promote the program director to a cabinet-level position and create a new department dedicated to citizen engagement. Lancaster, Pennsylvania, has used our Love Your Block grant to leverage more than $75,000 in additional support, tripling our investment in one year and attracting new partners to sustain their work. 

Many of our AmeriCorps VISTA members have also made an impact beyond their service year. Nearly a quarter of our 150 AmeriCorps VISTA members have been hired by their host city and another 13% have been hired by partner organizations, bringing a pipeline of talented, thoughtful leaders into city government and community service.  

Connect: We have seen time and again how eager city leaders and staff are to support one another, given the chance. Cities of Service offers a variety of opportunities for members of our growing international network to connect, including on Slack, in webinars, and at our annual convening. Frequently, city staff meet at our convenings and stay in touch afterward to share effective strategies for citizen engagement and discuss best practices for everything from distributing mini-grants to reaching historically marginalized communities. These connections lead to greater impact across our network as city staff learn from each other’s missteps and successes. 

We continued to expand opportunities for connection in 2019. This past summer we held our first international convening in Bologna, Italy, in partnership with the city of Bologna, the Fondazione Innovazione Urbana, Nesta, and URBACT. This was a chance to explore effective citizen engagement on a new scale; more than 50 staff from city governments and partner organizations from around the world gathered to discuss how they are collaborating with citizens to address public challenges in a wide variety of contexts.

See photos from our 2019 Annual Convening in Dallas and Bologna Convening below.

Promote: We share the work of grantees and partners by telling their stories, celebrating their accomplishments, and helping other cities test and replicate their success. Recently, we’ve shared ideas and best practices from our cities at conferences such as the Reclaiming Vacant Properties Conference, CityLab, and SXSW. We’ve also created a variety of resources—including step-by-step blueprints and case studies profiling city solutions—to help others learn about and adopt these practices in their own communities. 

Our newest resource, the Cities of Service Citizen Engagement Techniques, provides a playbook to help city leaders engage residents in shared problem solving—from brainstorming ideas to analyzing data to testing solutions—and showcases the ways that other cities have used the techniques.

We’ve spent a decade refining our model of citizen engagement and we know that it works. We continued to study the impact of our approach in 2019, working with the Urban Institute to examine the effects of Love Your Block in our newest cohort of cities. We’ve also worked with other leaders in the field—like Dr. Peter Levine, Academic Dean for Tufts University’s Jonathan Tisch College of Civic Life, and the New America Foundation—to examine and promote our work.

We spread new ideas and best practices with the Engaged Cities Award. The success of our programs has made leaders in the field of civic engagement and service hungry for new strategies and tools to build their capacity and increase their impact. The Engaged Cities Award helps us do just that, recognizing and elevating the effective and groundbreaking ways cities are engaging residents to solve problems across Europe and the Americas. Through videos, stories, blueprints, and case studies, we shared these solutions with our network to help them reproduce the winning solutions in their own communities. The Engaged Cities Award has demonstrated how city leaders are using crowdfunding, design thinking, citizen-sourced data, and other proven approaches to solve some of the biggest problems that cities face today. 

In 2019, the second year of the award, we received more than 100 applications from cities in three continents. We were impressed by the quality of the applications and the extraordinary things that city governments are accomplishing with their citizens, from tapping into the urban agriculture movement in Atlanta, Georgia, to reducing crime through community engagement in Aurora, Illinois, to transforming the city’s website with resident-centered design in Orlando, Florida.

We were thrilled to announce the three winners of the Engaged Cities Award in October at CityLab DC:

Reflecting on what we’ve accomplished in 10 years, we look forward to what our movement can do in the future. All the work that we have done over the past decade has inspired a movement of city leaders, public servants, and community members who are committed to improving their cities. Each mayor who believes deeply in the power of citizens, each staff member who has committed to drawing on the expertise of the community, each VISTA who has gone on to serve the community, and each resident who sees their city government as a partner—these people make lives better, cities stronger, and our democracy healthier.  

We are incredibly proud of the work we are doing together and are full of anticipation for what our second decade will bring.