The Atlanta Regional Commission’s Millennial Advisory Panel: An Innovative Approach to Civic Engagement

By Sarah Carnes and Mackenzie Wood

Civic engagement is at the core of shaping smart, sustainable cities, and urban governments across the US are employing innovative models to reach out to and hear from their citizens. The Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) recently introduced a new component to The Atlanta Region’s Plan by inviting Metro-Atlanta Millennials to the regional planning table as part of its New Voices Campaign. Looking forward, ARC leaders acknowledge that Metro-Atlanta Millennials, comprising  25% of the region’s population, will lead and guide the region over the next three to four decades, so including them in long-range planning is a critical step in building a stronger Atlanta.

The ARC New Voices Campaign reached out to Millennials in the 11 county metro region, receiving 300 applications for 150 spots on the Millennial Advisory Panel. The participants selected represent all 11 counties and most major cities in the region as well as a variety of professions and interests. Georgia Tech Master of City and Regional Planning Student and Center for Urban Innovation Graduate Research Assistant Sarah Carnes was chosen to represent Cherokee County. Below, Sarah shares her experience and opinion of this innovative visioning process.

The People.

A lesson learned in my History and Theory of Planning class this semester was further substantiated after a recent conversation with a planning professional from my hometown: public meeting attendance is largely fueled by the so-called “NIMBY syndrome.” Yet, this is the fundamental distinguishing piece of the Millennial Advisory Panel. The panel was comprised of young people who wanted to participate in a year-long civic engagement process because of a genuine desire to advance the region and a genuine belief in the power of collaborative regionalism.

I joined inspiring and empowering young leaders like Bee Nguyen, founder of Athena’s Warehouse, “a non-profit dedicated to educating and empowering underserved teen girls in the Atlanta community,” and Ana Maria Martinez, a mom, attorney, and President of the Georgia Latino Law Foundation, which aims “to increase diversity in the profession by supporting the Latino legal community pipeline.” I joined a team of young leaders who have purposefully dedicated their personal and professional lives to making this community even greater.

The Process.

ARC favored a strategic civic engagement model accentuating authentic conversations. The model was particularly designed with Millennials in mind in order to “identify the unique needs of [my] generation and to develop a citizen‐engagement process that [we] could relate to.”

First, we gathered for an opening event and structured brainstorming session designed to identify “the important questions.” Mackenzie Wood, Georgia Tech PhD Candidate in Public Policy and Center for Urban Innovation Graduate Research Assistant helped curate. During this round table process, members of the Millennial Advisory Panel  posed 435 questions and challenges centered on four broad themes “central to the Atlanta Region’s plan:”

  1. World Class Infrastructure
  2. Healthy and Livable Communities
  3. Competitive Economy
  4. Regional Vision  
Millennial Advisory Panel membersPhoto Source: New Voices Campaign website

The next step was to consider our “vision for a healthy, livable, equitable, and competitive future that all metro Atlantans throughout the region can share,” within the frame of ARC’s four broad themes.   Over the course of 3 months, members of the Millennial Advisory Panel returned to their specific communities and hosted 35 informal Civic Dinner parties with more than 300 participants to discuss the themes and hear directly from friends, neighbors, and colleagues.  Dinner Party conversations were reported back to ARC using #designyourATL, allowing the ARC team to identify the following eight actionable strategies:

  1. Champion a unified regional transit system
  2. Encourage healthy transit habits
  3. Ensure access to healthy food across all zip codes
  4. Foster new incentives for affordable and livable centers
  5. Encourage mentorships at every life stage
  6. Champion world-class education for all
  7. Unite the region with a shared vision and story
  8. Champion smart regional cooperation
Dinner partiesPhoto Source: New Voices Campaign website

This list represents what my generation is thinking about, working towards, and is looking to accomplish in the years to come. From my perspective, what makes this civic engagement model work is its inherent emphasis on authentic conversations.

Finally, Action Teams of 8 to 12 Millennial Advisory Panel members were then tasked with developing potential solutions to address one of these eight regional challenges. Our multi-faceted approach to these issues, and their possible solutions (i.e videos, op-eds, and other action steps), were delivered at a community meeting in September. Presenting solutions to regional leaders like Alicia Philipp from The Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, Bill Boling from the Atlanta Community Food Bank, and elected officials from regional municipalities was one of the most exciting aspects of the process. Our presentations not only informed ARC’s new long range strategic plan, but our presentations also served to invigorate community leaders and the next generation of leaders.

PresentationsPhoto Source: New Voices Campaign website

It is the tangible output like CivicConvo and the Coalition to Advance Atlanta as well as the support received from local governments like the Atlanta City Council that further demonstrates how our generation is contributing to a better Atlanta – and how in a few short months a group of more than one hundred 18 to 30-somethings can not only propose new paths forward but begin to pave them.

Moving Forward.

The Atlanta Regional Commission’s Millennial Advisory Panel got a lot of things right, namely the people, the process, and the power of communicating over food! The panel effectively illustrates an innovative and invigorating take on civic engagement. Because of the intentional methods to create a public participation process that is more enjoyable and informal, there was more interest in involvement and greater levels of commitment from participants.

As other cities consider how best to engage Millennials, they should abandon antiquated participatory strategies in exchange for more lively processes like mixers and dinners that are at “cool and hip” places (One of our meetings was held at Google’s Atlanta office and another at the Center for Civic Innovation. We also had “Pop-Up Happy Hours” at various pubs throughout the city.). Cities should similarly consider how to harness the energy and interests of Millennials in the planning process. What’s the “cool” new thing to do or visit in your city? Perhaps a new restaurant, park, start-up, or maker-space. In short, based on my personal experience, one of the best ways to engage Millennials is through conversations over dinner and drinks.

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