Making Public Service Work From Home

A big idea and a little determination can change communities for the better.

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"It all started with the old phone call and E-mail route," she says. D'Avirro and a group of neighbors contacted the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, which advised them to partner with the local park advocacy group. After roughly 10 months of community meetings and phone calls, and successful grant applications, Crocker Amazon Purple Playground opened in 2003.

Wood-Lewis and D'Avirro took different approaches to civic needs, but the method was the same. They identified a lack in the community and came up with an answer. Researchers and public servants alike agree that making a real change requires true collaboration: brainstorming sessions with neighbors, evaluating resources, and devising an action plan to maintain the desired service. Still, even a committed, enthusiastic group may need some extra help.

"There needs to be some kind of institutional partner to ensure some longevity," says Ellen Tveit, communications coordinator at the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, which promotes and supports civic engagement. Partnering with an organization in your community can also help you break through logistical and legal processes that may, at first, seem daunting, like applying for a grant or some other type of funding. D'Avirro needed a grant for the Crocker Amazon project and was able to secure two. "You have to constantly network, be politically savvy, and identify the movers and shakers in your community," she says. "You have to do your homework" and find organizations that will support your efforts.

Tveit suggests teaming up with a nonprofit organization like hers. "It's difficult if it's only a group of parents or neighbors," she says. "We have the capacity to do grant writing, and organizations can provide some stability."

Brick by brick. City parks and recreation departments can help you find funding or design a custom service project, like installing benches and basketball hoops or creating a memorial garden. D'Avirro and her group teamed up with San Francisco's nonprofit Neighborhood Parks Council, a park advocacy partner of the city. The council helped to organize group meetings to discuss what kind of playground to build and the types of materials to useā€”and to secure a city "challenge grant" that would match the amount of money D'Avirro's group raised. To bring in funds, they sold the right to put the name of a loved one on a memorial brick for around $50, with the bricks then used for the playground's walkway.

Rich Dolesh, chief of public policy for the National Recreation and Park Association, says people like D'Avirro are "critical for the mission of serving the public and keeping the services going" as park systems face dramatic budget cuts. In San Francisco, 20 percent of the city's park operating budget was cut in the last year, according to Phil Ginsburg, general manager of the Recreation and Park Department. The city is short about 200 gardeners and 80 custodians, and roughly 50 other workers were laid off. "The government can't do it alone anymore," Ginsburg says. "Community public service is more important than ever." The San Francisco community also supported the parks by voting in 2008 for the Clean and Safe Neighborhood Parks Bond, which helps finance various renovations. The fund, independent of the park department's operating budget, helps people like D'Avirro turn their service ideas into reality.

Inspired by the playground success, D'Avirro took a look at the five long concrete benches around it and said, "Man, I wish those were pretty." So she and friends Linda Litehiser and Grace D'Anca, who together call themselves Team Linda, went to the Neighborhood Parks Council again with an idea to cover the benches in murals made from colorful bits of tile, then helped write a grant proposal to pay for it.

Applying for and receiving grants can be tricky. In D'Avirro's case, the team had to demonstrate that the mural project would provide a significant service to the community and that the benches would bring more people to the park. The group pledged to work with the local Precita Eyes Mural Arts Association and the city art commission, hold community meetings to design the bench murals, and enlist neighborhood volunteers to help place the tiny tiles onto the benches.