Our (former) NCP blogger Joe Smith wrote a piece in today’s Washington Times featuring College Park Day. Thanks Joe, for doing such a superb job. You’ve made us proud! Here is the link.

Bloggers log off, team up to connect neighbors
By Joseph Smith

Last fall, in a post on my (now defunct) neighborhood blog, I criticized the College Park City Council for its decision to pull the funding for the Taste of College Park.

Like other “Taste of” events across the nation, the TOCP encouraged residents to get off their couches and make the trip downtown, enjoy the fare of local restaurants, peruse the wares of local merchants and enjoy a beer, all within the shadow of our modest city hall.

“We want the people of College Park to come together, don’t we?” I rhetorically asked. “Well, nothing brings folks together like food. So why not hold another TOCP? Or better yet, a cultural festival or similar event that would bring folks from the various communities within College Park together for some food, entertainment, (folk) art, and maybe even some fun.”

As the snarky tone of that excerpt implies, I saw the TOCP as a means to an end. Sure, it was a nice event, but it was also a potential solution to a larger, more significant problem than the reallocation of public funds.

A few weeks before writing that post, I had attended a meeting of my civic association, and, as I sat in the uncomfortable metal chairs, I heard a few attendees make disparaging comments about the immigrant and religious communities that recently had established themselves in the neighborhood. I couldn’t believe my ears.

To improve community relations, I thought, the city should hold an event that encouraged its diverse communities to mix and mingle, and the best way to spread that idea was to ask the readers of my blog to lobby the council and have the TOCP’s funding restored.

Around the same time, Fazlul Kabir, a local activist and member of the city’s Muslim community, was writing on his blog about how “communication gaps between different communities” were among the city’s problems. A possible remedy, he proposed, was “getting ethnic communities more involved in civic activities.”

“Over the past several years, more and more people with diverse backgrounds and ethnicities have moved into our city.” Kabir says. “A community event celebrating the diversity and heritage of our town could help residents get to know each other and improve relations between various groups, such as new and long-time residents, students and permanent residents, and people from different cultures.”

Unbeknownst to us, people were paying attention, and, in March of this year, we each got a call from one of our city council representatives, who asked us to put our proverbial money where our mouths were and attend a meeting about an event like one we were calling for. We jumped at the chance.

The first meeting was small, consisted of only five people — me, Kabir, both of our city council representatives and a city staff member — and was little more than a brainstorming session. By the time it was over, we had agreed upon two things: that an event should take place and that it would be called College Park Day.

Our second meeting was about a month later. This time, there were several more people around the table — more city council members; residents representing neighborhood associations, businesses, churches and organizations; university students; and a staffer from the Maryland National Park and Planning Commission — and we got more accomplished. We picked a date for the event (this Saturday, Oct. 9), identified a location and decided what to have in regard to food, entertainment and exhibitions. The ball officially had started to roll.

That was six months ago, and, as I write this with less than two weeks to go before the big day, I marvel at the incredible amount of energy and effort that the all-volunteer planning committee has put in to make College Park Day a reality. I’m also thankful for the city staff, local officials, public institutions, and private corporations who have so generously donated their funds (about $8,000 so far) and resources. I’m humbled by the way the larger community has encouraged and supported the event.

What amazes me the most, however, is that, through the work of all involved, we already have succeeded at bringing people together who may otherwise not have met, and we’ve shown what can be accomplished when neighbors come together and work toward a common goal.

So, how can you do something similar where you live? I recommend the following, which were vital for me:

1) Get to know your local representatives. In my experience, the people who represent you on your city or town board/council are always interested in talking to motivated, thoughtful residents. Tell them about your concerns for the neighborhood, find out what they’d like to get done in the community and what their challenges are, and (assuming you see eye-to-eye) then let them know you’re available to help change things for the better.

2) Get involved in your community. City/town boards, neighborhood associations, local committees — if these bodies have one thing in common, it’s that they need volunteers to accomplish their missions. By joining them, you can help your city or town cover its bases, learn something about how your locality runs and connect with likeminded folks — people who also want to make things better. If your town is like mine, your city council rep can tell you where the vacancies are. (See No. 1.)

3) Share your ideas. If you have things to say about what’s happening in your neighborhood and like to write, start a blog. They’re free, and you can advertise by word of mouth. However, blogger beware: Having a blog doesn’t give you a license to bitch and moan. You can write passionately, of course, but you have to offer something. If you have a unique perspective, skill set or expertise that’s of use to the community, stay focused on that. It’ll set you apart from the crowd and give readers a reason to keep coming back. If you don’t want to be a blogger, then look for a neighborhood e-mail list or Internet group.

4) Act. If you’ve zeroed in on a problem facing your community and have an idea on how to address it, then share it with your city council member (No. 1), bring it before your neighborhood association or local committee (if applicable, No. 2) and discuss it on your blog (No. 3). If it’s a good idea, and the timing is right, it might just take off.