Member Spotlight: Ryan Henderson
By Lance Robertson
IAP2 is filled with members from a wide variety of backgrounds, interests and experience. Our “member spotlight” feature aims to share our members’ stories and bring us closer together as an organization. This month’s “spotlight” features Ryan Henderson, from the City of Fort Lauderdale.
Briefly introduce yourself. Who are you, and what do you do?
I’m currently in my second year as an ICMA (International City/County Management Association) Senior Management Fellow with the City of Fort Lauderdale. As an ICMA fellow, I work in the Division of Neighbor Support, which is housed in the City Manager’s Office. I have the distinct pleasure of working hand-in-hand with our community members, who we call “neighbors,” in helping to address their individual and neighborhood/civic association concerns.
I’m originally from Charlottesville, Virginia. I graduated from Virginia Tech with a BA in Communication in 2010, worked as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer in Pocahontas County, West Virginia from 2010-2011, and graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with an MPA in 2013.
How long have you been a member of IAP2? How did you first hear about the organization?
I joined IAP2 in the Winter of 2013 after city staff introduced me to the organization. They thought that IAP2 would be of interest to me and serve as a wonderful forum to see how other cities our building community through effective public participation outreach efforts. Getting the public to participate and bringing more people to government is a core function of my work and the mission of our division. It simply made sense for me to become a member. It was two months ago that I decided that I wanted to have an active role in IAP2 and serve on IAP2 committees.
What attracted you to IAP2 in the first place?
When I was introduced to IAP2, I knew immediately it was an organization I had to join. As I was pursuing my MPA I took a particular interest in research dedicated towards public participation and its relevance to social equity. With IAP2, I found an organization dedicated not just to public participation but an organization dedicated to effective public participation, demonstrating how public participation can bring everyone to the table. With working in local government, and specifically in the role of helping our neighbors become better familiar with all that local government has to offer, I saw the utility of joining IAP2.
In your day-to-day public participation or community outreach work, what gives you the most satisfaction?
Many people simply see public participation in local government as just showing up to commission/council meetings so they can voice opinions and concerns on certain items. Undoubtedly, there’s an importance that formal government meetings serve in the realm of public participation. However, the satisfaction I get from community outreach is when you get the community’s support for initiatives and programs. Getting the community to participate in adopting a street or rehabbing a neighbor’s property is satisfying. Helping neighborhoods plan and market their “block parties” as a way to get to know one another better and to celebrate their community is satisfying. Developing workshops and seminars that teach our neighbors how to effectively communicate as we strive to bridge the digital divide is satisfying.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve found in doing P2 work?
The biggest challenge has been bridging the digital divide. Our city has an outstanding online communications toolkit. We know that when our neighbors become familiar and trained with our communication tools, then their participation in local government and within their neighborhood association will increase. The effect of this is a more informed and engaged citizenry.
Why are you interested in getting more involved in IAP2?
I want to learn as much as I can about effective public participation and best practices from around the world. I want to take what I learn from IAP2 and apply that when working with our neighbors as I try to do my daily part in building the best community possible. For about five months I was a member of IAP2 in-name-only. I realized that for me to get the most of what IAP2 has to offer I needed to become involved.
When you begin to invest time and effort into an organization it’s just natural that begin to care more in the success of that organization. You have a desire to see it flourish. It’s my hope that as I begin to learn of, then share, the best practices of public participation found in communities across the world, then more people will see how valuable IAP2 is and will also want the organization to be THE central place to learn about public participation. Learning and then sharing is a win-win for everyone involved.
Just like in a few other places in the United States, there is some interest building in re-launching or re-building chapters to connect local folks on the ground. What is going on in your state and region?
When I made the decision that I was going to become a committed member of IAP2, I immediately wanted to know how active the Southeast Chapter was. Although the chapter is not very active right now, the opportunity clearly presents itself for the chapter to become active and to make the most of a re-launching campaign. It comes down to now showcasing the value of IAP2 to registered and prospective members in the southeast. There has to be reasons for why community builders in the southeast would want to join IAP2 and the chapter. It is the chapter’s goal to create those reasons and to promote the mission of IAP2.
What level of interest are you seeing within municipal governments, in your region, in doing more public participation?
As I mentioned earlier, there’s more to public participation then just showing up to meetings to speak on issues. We, as a city, have many committed volunteers who dedicate their weekends to serving their community. Many of our programs would not be successful if it were not for the participation of our city’s volunteers. We see how critical it is to recruit volunteers and to provide them with meaningful projects that make a difference in the community. I believe local governments across the country are also seeing that.
What is your most memorable, or favorite, public participation effort or campaign to date?
We developed a program called “Adopt-A-Neighbor.” The intent of the program is to help low-income and elderly homeowners become code compliant through volunteer efforts. Many of our homeowners get cited for violations that they have a desire to act on but can’t. The goal of the program is to match willing volunteers to go out and do the work. The City of Fort Lauderdale provides the financial support by buying all the necessary supplies. Once the work is complete the code violation is erased and the homeowner becomes code compliant. The program is highly successful and it has the support of city leaders and our neighbors.
As a city we care about volunteers and putting volunteers in the right place to do the work they want to do. Volunteerism is a huge component of public participation, and our volunteers are really making a difference in the community. The intent is also to show our homeowners who receive help that the City of Fort Lauderdale and the community are there to help. It builds goodwill in the community and shows the value of participatory actions within a community.