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Organizing 101: New Civic Academy effort starts this weekend

One of the more intriguing initiatives of the Walsh administration kicks off this Saturday on the South Boston waterfront. The mayor’s newly branded Civic Academy will offer a class on how residents can use technology and social media to plug into City Hall. The three-hour “class” will be held at District Hall, a venue that is billed as “a civic space where the innovation community can gather and exchange ideas.”

The civic academy idea bubbled up from last year’s mayoral race as Walsh aides gathered in Joyce Linehan’s living room to spitball policy ideas. Now that she serves as Walsh’s chief of policy, Linehan is making the academy “a thing” – and hopes that it will attract both experienced, old-school organizers as well as new arrivals who don’t know much about how the city works – at least not yet.

“We were sitting with a small group and as campaign people we’re naturally activists and organizers. We know how to do something. If someone asked one of us to start a little league or organize a block party, we’d be able to do it,” said Linehan.

But not everyone has those tools or know-how at their disposal.

Linehan recalls that former City Councillor Maureen Feeney hosted a citywide civic summit in 2008 during her tenure as council president. “It was a really great event that seemed to reach out beyond the usual suspects,” notes Linehan. “But nothing really came out of it. We wanted to come up with system where we can do smaller events every two months – the classes – that lead up to a biannual event that will be a much bigger event.”

Linehan says the inaugural “big event” is scheduled for the spring. Saturday’s class in Southie, which starts at 11 a.m., is the first in a series of smaller classes that will lead up to it. This weekend’s class will feature Lindsay Crudele, a community and social technology strategist with the city’s Department of Innovation & Technology, and Charles McEnerney, a principal at Layers Marketing. Linehan thinks the next class will focus on a more specific topic, like how to plan and permit a block party. Other potential topics include starting a community garden, settling in as a new resident and biking to work.

“We’re looking to identify smaller things that neighborhood people would be interested in knowing how to do,” said Linehan. “The social media one is just a good one for us to start with because it’s easier for us to do internally. It will also be something that some existing neighborhood groups could really use some help with.”

To be sure, the civic associations that have been the foundation of neighborhood decision-making for decades in Boston are a target audience. Bolstering – and growing – the numbers of people who belong to civic associations is one of the goals of Linehan’s working group inside the mayor’s office. The group includes Dot native Justin Holmes, Feeney’s former chief of staff and a veteran City Hall navigator who now serves as Walsh’s chief information officer.

But Linehan and company also want to connect with Bostonians who may not know that there is a civic group or crime watch that meets monthly on their block. “I think it will be especially helpful for people who moved into the neighborhood maybe 5 or 10 years ago,” she says.

The effort is also engaging the wider community by asking folks to fill out a survey— which is posted at the city’s website. Go to cityofboston.gov/mayor/ to fill one out and to learn more about the Civic Academies. The Twitter hashtag for the effort is #CivicBOS.

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