Aimee Appell leads a community listening session

Aimee Appell, chairperson of Neighbors United - Undoing Racism, leads a community listening session Thursday, Sept. 17, at the City Pavilion. The goal of the session was to get resident input on how the city can improve its outreach to new residents.

Inspired by the success of experimental listening sessions, organizers of the new community relations board announced more sessions in the coming weeks. The first round of listening sessions concluded last night at the City Pavilion. The sessions’ main objective was to get input from Washington residents about how the city can proactively welcome new people to the community and be more inclusive for people already living here.

There were four listening sessions — three virtual and one in-person and virtual — scheduled over the past two weeks. Aimee Appell, chairperson of Neighbors United — Undoing Racism and the pastor at Peace Lutheran Church, 5 Scenic Drive, led the sessions, which were attended by 80 people across the four installments.

Washington-based marketing company Branding Bear facilitated the Zoom calls.

Mayor Sandy Lucy, City Administrator Darren Lamb, Community and Economic Development Director Sal Maniaci and several others plan to use the input to form an official Community Relations Board. Although they are leading the project now, their hope is that the board will come to be managed by a collection of people in the community.

“We don’t want it to just be us coming up with ideas,” Maniaci said. “We have to hear from everyone.”

‘Let’s Have Some Action’

Appell said the idea came after Washington made national headlines over the summer. Lucy started thinking about how to respond and knew she wanted to stress actions, not words.

“Anyone can make a statement,” Lucy said. “I thought, ‘Let’s have some action.’”

As a lifelong Washingtonian, Lucy said it was traumatic to see how the city was being portrayed. She wanted to create some way to be proactive in identifying similar issues.

“If there are any obstacles to getting people involved and making Washington more diverse,” she said, “we want to learn about it.”

For Maniaci, making Washington more attractive to newcomers is also the economic thing to do. “If (companies) want to expand here, are they going to say, ‘That’s a place I want to live?’” he said.

What Was Discussed

During each session participants were split into groups of four to seven people to share their experiences and brainstorm what a community relations board could do. Some of the ideas floated by participants and moderators included a volunteer fair, a ministry alliance, an ambassador program for newcomers, an international foods night and more. Moderators took notes on the experiences participants shared to look for common themes that could be improved.

The theme of how to formalize the informal connections people make came up in all four sessions. Appell said many residents have ready-made networks through their large families, churches or volunteer organizations — that make life easier for people from the area and can be hard for someone relocating to find.

Nancy Wood, a retired teacher who attended the in-person session Thursday, said more opportunities for people to connect with those outside their established circle would be a good start.

“The thing that makes people get along is knowing each other,” Wood said. “You’ve got to get them to know each other.”

Next Steps

The four listening sessions were just intended to be the start. Appell anticipates scheduling more listening sessions and then choosing one or two ideas for the board to start working on.

Jacque McHugh, owner of Branding Bear, the company that organized the technology for the virtual events, said she hopes the board can be a resource for local businesses and organizations to learn from.

“It’s OK to admit we don’t have it all figured out yet, but this group could help take steps toward inclusion and unity,” she said. “Our goal is to genuinely look out for the good that’s here and show it to the world.”

Upcoming listening sessions will be held Sept. 22, at 6 p.m., Sept. 23, at 6 p.m., Sept. 24, at 1 p.m., Sept. 25, at 9 a.m. and Sept. 28, at 6 p.m.

For more information on the Community Relations Board or to register for a session, contact the city government at (636) 390-1000 or email crb@washmo.gov.