Roanoke, VA, is showing that civic engagement doesn’t need to take a back seat during an emergency. In the words of the city’s mayor, Sherman Lea, when COVID-19 hit “we did what an All-America City does – turned to our community to determine what is needed next.”
Roanoke, a seven-time winner of the All-America City award, is showing that engagement can improve results during this year’s pandemic. When the disease first arrived the city began reaching out to its nonprofits, business community and residents to make plans for outreach and response. This culminated later in a formal input process called “Star City Strong: Response, Recovery, Resiliency,” that involved a 36-member community task force.
The first steps in Roanoke’s response and engagement was to hold community conversations consisting of virtual focus groups, individual interviews, on-line solicitation of ideas and a comprehensive social media campaign. Much of the attention of these conversations was aimed at reaching the city’s vulnerable populations and helping to preserve the city’s social and economic infrastructure.
In June the city formed the Star City Recovery Task Force, which was made up of 36 individuals representing nonprofit groups, youth, business, faith-based organizations and the community at-large. This group held four meetings and a public hearing over a one-month period to develop recommendations to the City Council for spending millions of dollars made available from the CARES Act, a special CDBG allocation and other sources, with a majority of funding coming into the community to be influenced by these recommendations.
The task force recognized that areas of the community hit hardest by the epidemic, including vulnerable populations, front-line workers and small business, needed extra attention. In doing so, the group applied a racial equity lens to all of its recommendations.
Recommendations for funding from the Task Force fell into four categories: community health, economy, safety net and youth and education. Community health recommendations included not only provisions for dealing directly with the disease, but also for mental health programs and support for health clinics affected by the outbreak.
A similarly broad outlook affected recommendations in the economy arena, which included funding to not only support small business and tourism, but also arts and culture and displaced workers. Recommendations in the areas of safety net and youth/education sought to support the city’s social infrastructure of nonprofits and venues like child care agencies and schools, while using creative approaches to bring recreation services closer to the community and support youth with mentoring and alternative physical learning spaces.
Needless to say, the task force’s recommendations were accepted as written by the City Council and implementation is now taking place, largely by, you guessed it—the community.