Civic Engagement in Action: A Public/Private Partnership

By Alex J. Norman, D.S.W.

Professor Emeritus of Social Welfare, UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research

Civic engagement is a hot topic in America these days.  Amid reports of low voter turn outs for general elections, a lack of teaching Civics as a subject in our schools and the inability of large numbers of citizens to name their elected representatives, there is a national concern for motivating citizens to interact with their governments at all levels.  The reasons are obvious: a democratic form of government requires an informed electorate that is actively engaged in the decision-making process.

There is no single definition of civic engagement, as it is variously defined from different perspectives whether it is an institutional or organizational commitment to public purposes and responsibilities intended to strengthen a democratic way of life, or whether it is individual or collective actions designed to identify and address issues of public concern.  The objective is to increase the number of voices in dialogue and debate over public policy issues through an engagement of people with elected and appointed decision makers.  Civic engagement involves a range of activities, from voting and writing a letter to the editor or your elected representative, to joining an activity to improve the general welfare of a particular group in society.

Rethinking Greater Long Beach, California

In Long Beach, California, a port city of approximately 500,000 people located just south of Los Angeles, a group called ReThinking Greater Long Beach has taken upon itself the responsibility for giving a boost to civic engagement and transforming the way decisions that have an effect on public life are made.  This self-described, community-based think tank was formed by a local journalist (Tyler Reeb) and three semi-retired professors (Jack Humphrey, Rick Meghiddo and Alex Norman), later adding a third professor, William Crampon. Over the course of four years, the group self-financed four community conferences in which they reported the results of their research in their specific areas of interest; Humphrey on Poverty and Demographics; Meghiddo on Urban Planning; Norman on Public Safety; and Crampon on K-12 Education to the community at large. The purpose was for building a movement for social action that would improve the lives of all residents in the Greater Long Beach area, with an open membership for all individuals with a genuine interest in improving the quality of life and who would abide by four organizing principles:

·                     INCLUSION—We strive to be inclusive and representative of the diversity of Greater Long Beach;

·                     RESPECT—We demonstrate respect for one another and each other’s perspectives, no matter how different they are;

·                     DEMOCRACY—We utilize a decision-making process that is democratic and moves us forward by consensus, and;

·                     COMMUNITY CENTERED—We believe that the people most affected by a particular issue or problem have first-hand knowledge and experiences that are critical in devising solutions. And we strive to ensure that those most affected have the greatest voice and power in decision-making.

Our first conference on “Who Rules Long Beach” was published and distributed in the SouthLander, a self-financed Journal by Tyler Reeb, who was then, the Editor of the Long Beach Business Journal.  Though it was an excellent compilation of essays on decision-making and local politics, our group went little noticed.  However in the second conference series on Poverty (then ranked 19th among urban communities in the nation) and its effect on Urban Design, Mental Health and Education drew an attendance of more than 150 people and the Press.

The Executive Director of the Josephine S. Gumbiner Foundation, Julie Meenan, provided us with funds that allowed the conference to be simultaneously translated in Khmer and Spanish for the Cambodian and Latino attendees who did not speak English. The Press-Telegram provided coverage and Sunday exposure of the conference and began an eight part series on poverty in Long Beach, which later earned them a journalism award. John Williams, the local representative of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation began holding community salons with public and nonprofit executives and decision-makers on how to coordinate and improve services to the poor in Long Beach.

And like the proverbial rooster who crows at dawn, taking credit for the sunrise, it was difficult for us not to feel that our highlighting the situation had some effect in developing the groundswell that followed.  At any rate, it gave us a sense of empowerment that justified our night meetings at restaurants, social agencies and neighborhood centers with attendance ranging from as little as 5 to a high of 20. We continued to meet in a restaurant booth, “The Office” at the Coffee Cup Restaurant, resisting all attempts to organize formally and remaining the “organic group” that we are today.

The Atlantic Avenue Corridor

With this feeling that we could meet any challenge ahead with equal success and be equally principled, we considered that the scope of our research was so broad that it might have more of an effect if we could give it more focus. So for its 3rd conference series we decided on a case study approach, selecting the Atlantic Avenue Corridor, an 8-mile artery bisecting the city from Ocean Boulevard on the south to the Compton/Paramount cities border.  We defined the Corridor as a 1500 foot buffer to the east and west of Atlantic Avenue to include Long Beach Boulevard and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. The reason for our selecting this Corridor was that it represented a socio-economic slice of the diversity of the entire city, and encompassed 6 of the 9 Council Districts.  Moreover it also included a housing project, 2 high schools and 2 hospitals along with various businesses and residences.  It was an ideal area for embracing all of the interests of the city. The map that follows gives a brief description of the study area, which is bordered on the north by the cities of Paramount and Compton and included the two main streets of access to Long Beach, Atlantic Avenue and Long Beach Boulevard.


We held monthly public meetings at neighborhood centers, storefront churches and social agencies that were handicap accessible, to discuss our ideas and gain input from the general public.  We formed a planning committee that met at “The Office”, otherwise known as the Coffee Cup Restaurant, for breakfast-planning meetings to develop the program and select a site for our 3rd conference series. We divided the Corridor into three sections based on natural dividers: 1) North, from the Compton/Paramount border to the Pacific Railway Right-of-Way; 2) Central, from the Right-of-Way to the 405 Freeway; and 3) South, from the 405 to Ocean Boulevard. We selected a middle school along the Central Corridor as the conference site and began the process with the Long Beach Unified School District for renting the auditorium.

We decided on the title “The Atlantic Avenue Corridor: A Call to Action” as a strategy for encouraging businesses, residents, organizations and groups to mobilize to action that would improve the quality of life along the Corridor. We selected the areas of poverty, education, public safety and urban design as the foci of our power point presentations.  During the next 4 months we researched data on poverty, education and public safety over a 5-year period, negotiating with the Long Beach Unified School District and the Long Beach Police Department for data on student academic performance and part I & 2 crimes respectively.  We were successful in getting permission to use privileged data from both institutions which we integrated with census data on poverty into 3 separate power point presentations.

More than 80 people from the community, public and nonprofit organizations attended the conference which, once again, had excellent coverage from the Press-Telegram.  We measured the success of our effort on the small group sessions in which people collaborated to plan for follow up actions and the fact that the Press-Telegram gave us front page coverage and dedicated the editorial cartoon to our ability to raise the level of awareness about issues along the Corridor.  We would later get permission from the Editor and the Cartoonist to use the character as the logo for ReThinking Greater Long Beach, and today the figure below is a staple on all of our products.

"Rethinking Greater Long Beach"

However, our success would be greatly enhanced by the fact that two foundation executives also attended the conference, one from the Long Beach Community Foundation and another from the Josephine S. Gumbiner Foundation.  We were asked to make a presentation to the Board of Directors of the Long Beach Community Foundation, which had recently received permission from the James L. and John S. Knight Foundation to act as a funding intermediary for the $750,000 that had been allocated to Long Beach as a part of their 26 Cities Community Programs.  After our presentation, we were asked to submit a proposal which would increase our ability to integrate our data bases and be made available as the foundation for their grant-making along the Atlantic Avenue Corridor. We formed a fiscal arrangement with the Long Beach Community Action Partnership, the local agency designated to serve poor people, and were funded to develop two data bases that could be made available to the public at large.

The proposal to develop an integrated database, complete with Geographic Information System capability. The grant provided both hardware in the form new computers and software designed to handle large amounts of data and data analysis. In June 2007 the Atlantic Avenue Corridor Study was presented to the Board of Trustees of the Long Beach Community Foundation, which they used to fund Leadership Long Beach to manage a Connected Corridor Project along the Atlantic Avenue Corridor, and to develop a strategic funding approach to grant making. 

Several months later we met with the Executive of the Josephine S. Gumbiner Foundation who had funded our ability to have simultaneous translations in Khmer and Spanish for those people who attended the conference but did not speak English.  Again we were asked to make a presentation before her Board of Trustees focusing on the plight of low-income women and their children in Long Beach.  We realized that although we could produce the secondary data, the primary data on women and children would have to come from an institution with faculty and student resources.  We contacted the Director of the Department of Social Work at Cal State Long Beach and informed him of the possibility, and asked that he attend the presentation. And once again after the presentation, we were asked to submit a proposal to develop a research data base that could be used for their grant-making and for program development and evaluation by social agencies providing services to women and children.  Once we researched and produced the report on women and children, the University would provide the Foundation with primary data, using students and faculty from their proposed Center for Social Research.

The proposal was fully funded and ReThinking Greater Long Beach conducted research and in September 2008 The Quality of Life for Women and Children in Long Beach was completed. The document was used by the Board of Trustees of the Josephine S. Gumbiner Foundation as the basis of a professionally conducted planning retreat to determine the course of future strategies in grant making.

Long Beach Community Database

ReThinking Greater Long Beach has used these two grants to develop a Long Beach Community Database based on a belief that information is a “community good” and not a community commodity. Upon learning of the City Planning Department’s intention to develop two additional corridors in Long Beach, we submitted a proposal to the Long Beach Community Foundation for an additional grant to study the proposed corridors and to update the Atlantic Avenue Corridor, which was in its second year of operation. In addition we asked for funding to develop an online version of the Database and collaborated with Cal State Long Beach to house, manage and update the version once it is online.

We were successful in getting grant funds and in June 2009 published our final report entitled “Atlantic Avenue, Pacific Coast Highway and Sante Fe Avenue Corridor Studies”. We distributed 50 copies of the Report, complete with disks for the appendix and a copy of the Long Beach Community Database. Currently the Database is being converted to an online version by Cal State Long Beach, and will be made available to the public at large.

The updated research on the Atlantic Avenue Corridor revealed a sense of a cohering community, reduced crime statistics, increased test scores among K-12 students and a number of independent projects being developed. We are continuing to study the area in hopes that we might find in the Connected Corridor, a model for sustainable community development. The current status of the Connected Corridor Project can be seen online at

None of us imagined that we would have the kind of success that has taken place, but we are assured that whatever we do in the future as a public service, it must benefit the entire city and not a privileged few. And we are evermore convinced that information must remain a community good and not a commodity.