‘Civic Challenge’ launch in Newark seeks to give residents the tools to solve local issues they care about

participate cardThe Citizens Campaign is a 15-year-old training program designed to give regular citizens the framework and systematic approaches to get results on local issues they care about.

The program trains groups of about 30 residents, called “Civic Trustees,” in each of its four cities to surface key issues and develop feasible approaches to solving them. Now as a supplement to those Civic Trusts, The Citizens Campaign is also launching its Civic Challenge campaign in Newark, Trenton, Perth Amboy, and emerging Citizens Campaign city Asbury Park.

As part of this campaign, residents of these communities will be encouraged to take what’s called a “Civic Pledge,” where they commit to help leave their cities better than they found them by using and promoting The Citizens Campaign’s problem-solving approach. The Civic Pledge is an articulation of values that citizens can make and challenge others to take, including a commitment to seek solutions to local issues that are cost effective, based on evidence, and are implemented with a so-called “no-blame” approach.

“It is time to end the blame game and finger pointing that dominates our politics and gridlocks our government,” explained Citizens Campaign founder Harry Pozycki, who volunteers full-time to run the organization he created 15 years ago. “To tackle our big challenges, we must put problem solving and a competition for solutions front and center. That can only happen from the bottom-up, and that is what the Civic Challenge is designed to do,” he added.

A variety of action steps, which The Citizens Campaign says can be adapted to almost everyone’s circumstances and time constraints, is being provided to city residents who register to take the pledge on The Citizens Campaign’s website homepage. At a high level, these include encouraging local elected officials to adopt a solutions-focused approach; incorporating local problem solving projects in high school civics and social studies courses; and working with the media to put the focus on potential solutions in their news stories. Lessons learned during the Civic Challenge’s pilot phase will be incorporated into a campaign when it goes statewide later this year.

For those who have the time and are willing to commit to service for a year or more, there is also still an the opportunity to work with like-minded citizens as a Civic Trustee in Newark and the other Citizens Campaign cities. Here in Newark, which is just getting underway, Trustees are working with experts from The Citizens Campaign’s Law and Policy Task Force to develop neighborhood boards to oversee quality-of-life issues like abandoned properties, neighborhood safety and public facilities maintenance.

Newark Civic Trustee Michael Steadman moved here from Jackson, North Carolina just ten months ago join St. Benedict’s Prep as the high school’s residential director. The former United States Marine Corps captain, who also teaches amateur boxing at the school, said he became interested in ways to increase public safety at a grassroots level. When he joined The Citizens Campaign as a Newark Trustee, he decided to work on a concept for an auxiliary police force.

“Perth Amboy has an established one that has had a lot of success,” he explained during a telephone conversation last week. “It was brought about by The Citizens Campaign.”

Using the group’s approach, Steadman said he was able to get an audience with former Newark Police Chief Anthony Campos before Newark’s public safety department consolidation in December, and that Campos was receptive to the idea. “By getting more citizens involved in security around parades and events, we free officers up” to do more critical work, Steadman explained.

In order to incentivize potential auxiliary officers to join the program, Steadman is also proposing working with Newark-based corporations to institute an incentive program that would offer hiring preferences for auxiliary officers seeking security jobs, noting that any lift in public safety would benefit business and residents alike. Steadman is now working on getting the idea up the chain under the new public safety configuration.

Civic Challenge participants don’t necessarily work on projects that require the same amount of time and resource commitment, but Pozycki notes that the Civic Challenge grows out of the success of the Civic Trusts and reflects the same values. The Citizens Campaign believes this Civic Challenge campaign will supplement and amplify the work of the Civic Trusts, which they hope will in turn and lead the push for governments’ adoption of pragmatic problem solving in their own approaches.