Member Spotlight: Latara Branch
This is the fourth installment of our monthly series featuring individual IAP2 USA members from around the country to share a little bit about their background, the work they do and their involvement with the organization. Please let us know if you’d like to recommend anyone we should talk to. Thanks!
1. Briefly introduce yourself. Who are you, and what do you do?
My name is Latara Branch, and I am the Civic Engagement Coordinator for James City County in Virginia. My responsibilities include coordinating public meetings, developing citizen education strategies, and facilitating the exchange of public information and input through surveys, comment cards, and online tools. Simply put, I am here to connect citizens with their local government and give them the tools to be public participants.
2. Since when have you been a member of IAP2? How did you first hear about the organization?
I have been a member of IAP2 since 2011 when I first joined the Communications Division. The Civic Engagement Coordinator position was relatively new in James City County, and I was mentored by some very patient and helpful colleagues who recommended IAP2.
3. In your day-to-day public participation work, what gives you the most satisfaction? What are the biggest challenges?
Definitely working with the citizens is the thing that gives me the greatest satisfaction. My goal is to help put a human face on local government. By making local government very accessible to people, they can more comfortably navigate the organization to get the services they need, and they are also empowered to become an active participant in their government.
We’ve had some success with a workshop-style series called the Neighborhood Leaders Forum. We invite representatives from all our local neighborhoods to a quarterly meeting that includes a Q&A session with the County Administrator, followed by a topical discussion. The citizens drive the agenda for each meeting, and we invite members of our Board of Supervisors as well. It allows us to build relationships with citizens, while giving them a forum that’s less formal than Board of Supervisors meetings to engage in dialogue with the County. We have received very positive feedback from the attendees. After every meeting, I hear from participants who ask us to please continue these forums because they’ve been very helpful. That is very gratifying.
The greatest challenge is always finding ways to reach those pockets of citizens who tend to be less engaged. For example, most neighborhoods in James City County have homeowners associations that are easier to reach compared to some of our apartment communities and rural areas. We are constantly experimenting with new strategies to encourage public participation among diverse groups of citizens.
4. As a member of IAP2 USA, what do you look most forward to in 2014? What can we do to best serve you?
Civic engagement seems to be a growing field, and I look forward to seeing it evolve over the coming year. We are all innovating and experimenting with new strategies and especially with new exciting technology. It seems like more and more governmental organizations are seeing the value of public participation. It has always been integral to our democracy, but at a time when cynicism and mistrust are so prevalent, it is more important than ever to facilitate civic engagement. The training offered by IAP2, including webinars and the annual conferences has been tremendously helpful, both to share new ideas and strategies, and also to give us some inspiration and encouragement as we move along in this field.
5. Just like in a few other places in the United States, there is currently some interest building in relaunching the Washington, D.C. chapter (or Mid-Atlantic, as it used to be called). In all likelihood, this chapter would also serve the state of Virginia. What does your ideal chapter look like? What activities would you like to see at the local level?
The Mid-Atlantic area is so diverse. Some of my favorite parts of Virginia, such as Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia have a very busy, urban atmosphere of northern Virginia. The James City County/Williamsburg area where I work, and the western part of the state where I attended James Madison University, is more rural-suburban and relaxed. Ideally, our local chapter would be able to provide guidance for enhancing public participation in the wide range of communities here. I’d love the opportunity to attend training close to home, and it would be wonderful to network with other P2 practitioners from this area.
6. And finally, you attended the 2013 conference. Anything in particular you found particularly useful, interesting or otherwise noteworthy?
Absolutely! It was awesome meeting so many new people who are passionate about public participation. I am a relative newbie to this field, and it was great to get advice and support from others who were more experienced as well as those who were new like me. There were two things I found most interesting and helpful during the conference: 1.) in discussing common challenges to public participation, it was so encouraging to learn that others are trying to work through similar issues and 2.) I was also thrilled to learn that some of the strategies we are pursuing, such as our social media approach, seem to be on the right track. If you are able to attend the next conference, I highly recommend it!