Why are neighborhood groups so hard? There are many reasons, but mainly it's because their meetings suck.
Everybody knows the objections: nothing ever gets done, it's just a bunch of talk; the format favors the gregarious and the rude; meetings are too long, boring, and inconveniently timed, etc.
Based on my experience with the CCCC and with the larger community, here are some ideas about what might go into a good meeting:
The meetings are not for activists or experts - The formal setting of public meetings enhances the authority of those who regularly go to meetings - people who LOVE public meetings or whose work brings them there. These folks navigate Robert's Rules and such without a second thought. Not so for most people, especially the people neighborhood groups really should be working to turn out — low income residents, renters, immigrants.
Parliamentary procedure and all those rules are an extra layer of complexity superimposed on issues that are already complex and maybe contentious. I say, break any rule or tradition necessary to make non-activists and non-experts feel like they are on the same footing as everybody else.
Disciplined, supportive moderation - Neighborhood leadership should scheme and collude together outside of the meeting about how they will support each other in making sure the dialog reflects the diverse voices of the neighborhood. The leadership should explain what they're trying to accomplish with their moderation strategy at the beginning of each meeting. Outside the meetings, they should seek buy-in from attendees on their strategy. The leadership should directly and unapologetically head off neighbors who are rude or seek to dominate the dialog.
The meetings should be fun whenever possible, and always engaging - Lazy neighborhood groups read the minutes of the last meeting, see that they're approved, and trudge through committee reports, and hopefully leave enough time at the end for people to share what they've been dying to talk about. This is pure torture and can take hours to do. Nobody comes to a meeting for this — we do it because we think that's what a neighborhood group is supposed to do.
Host an expert, a politician, or activist that will challenge or inform attendees at every meeting. A part of every meeting should be devoted to learning what each attendee wants from the meeting, what issues concern them. The leadership should never assume they know. Have a little food and drink. Go out of your way to make sure that children are welcome. Don't hesitate to devote one of the meetings to a few hands of Uno. The same four people will show up no matter how boring or unpleasant the meetings are — the rest of us are gonna need some sweet talking.
Turning residents out to the meetings should be the core activity of neighborhood group leaders - Leadership must be more concerned that the neighborhood is there than they are about pet issues. This is an incredibly humble position for a community leader to take - they may end up helping people on the other side of the issues they care about! But that's the challenge the leaders of a neighborhood group must rise to. Being inflexible about positions is cool, but you shouldn't use a platform that purports to represent a diverse, divided community with many different interests to do so. An issue-oriented advocacy group is the right place for this.
On that score, here's a snippet of what I wrote to the Columbia City Community Council before I quit:
"A neighborhood group consisting of eight regular attendees in a neighborhood
of 6,000 simply does not speak for the neighborhood. Any authority our group
has is owed to our name and it's implication that we speak for a
high-profile neighborhood in Seattle. But this authority isn't free - we
have to earn it by becoming a credible representative of the community. If
we aren't a credible representative of the neighborhood, that's not the
neighborhood's problem - it's the CCCC's problem. The CCCC hasn't earned the
right to speak for the community because we haven't done the first job of a
community organization - organizing the community."
The most energy should be put into turning out the people who are least likely to show up and feel comfortable and included at a general neighborhood meeting — renters, low income people, minorities, immigrants. The meeting should cater, nay pander, to the people neighborhood groups traditionally have the hardest time reaching.
Be sensitive to the reasons people don't come back - leadership should be keenly aware when people drift away from the group. Many will be happy to share why they haven't been attending. If at all possible, change the meeting to address their concerns - there are probably others who share them.
First things first - A neighborhood group doesn't get to have bylaws and restrictive boundaries and voting requirements until it has a meeting the community wants to come to. And if the meetings don't look more and more like the community — all of the community — you don't have a neighborhood group and it's time to pack it in. They don't come because you didn't build it.