Q&A with Stephen Stolte: Strengthening Preparedness and Community in Daly City

Stephen Stolte is assistant to the city manager in Daly City, one of seven cities that participated in the Cities of Service Prepared Together program. With funds and support from Cities of Service, the city created Project Green Space to boost preparedness efforts and plant trees. He spoke to us about his efforts to increase preparedness in his city and best practices for engaging residents.

What were some of the most effective techniques you used to engage hard-to-reach populations in Daly City?

It was really about hitting the ground in those communities repeatedly over time. No one responds to one announcement. Even if it’s about adopting a free tree — and trees can be really expensive — they need to hear it over and over again and in multiple ways.

Like many communities, our hard-to-reach populations don’t have a lot of trust in government. We tried to overcome that by meeting people in the neighborhood in their homes, knocking on the door, engaging in conversations. We really wanted to show the human side of our government organization. Those human connections make things happen.

And then of course we had all of our information in multiple languages. Over half the population of Daly City is foreign born. A majority speak a different language than English at home. So that’s one of our big challenges in outreach.

We really wanted to show the human side of our government organization. Those human connections make things happen.

We learned that the best messengers are often not the city itself but other organizations or trusted people in the community. So one example is the partnership we formed with the Bayshore Boys and Girls Club. That’s in one of our hard-to-reach neighborhoods. The kids from the club helped spread the word to their parents and neighbors.

We also made some tree planting projects highly visible. That helped inspire others to adopt a tree on their own property. On Otilia Street, we put in a mini-park — all California native plants — and it generated a ton of interest. One of the schools that we were struggling to form a partnership with is now interested in getting involved after they saw the work done at that park.

What advice would you give others who have a small team working to engage citizens?

Don’t despair when things don’t go well for a long time. We’ve been working with Cities of Service here for three years. I think the efforts really only started showing success after a year or even more. There’s no doubt that it’s time-consuming and it’s a long-term game. You just have to stay committed and you’ll see it grow over time.

Also, we learned if we could help residents solve another problem — it might be a a little parking issue or illegal dumping on their property — it forms a bond. And humans get things done based on the bonds they have with other people.

I think this is probably the most important work we do. Even though the grants we got from Cities of Service were relatively small in the grand scheme of things, they’ve had big impacts and energized different city departments that are thinking about how to engage the public. We’re thinking in our own office about how we can make citizen engagement our top priority in everything we do. It’s brought it to the forefront.

Why is building relationships important to the success of preparedness programs?

When people don’t know each other or they don’t talk, or they don’t engage with the government, they are less resilient. The city isn’t able to come in and save everyone in the event of a disaster — people are going to benefit from relying on the relationships with each other.

The feedback we get from residents — it’s so consistent at all our volunteer events — is that they value most the connections they make with other people.

The feedback we get from residents — it’s so consistent at all our volunteer events — is that they value most the connections they make with other people.

We lack community meeting spaces in Daly City. We’re mostly a residential community. There’s a lot of homes but there are not a lot of cafes or parks or plazas or meeting spaces. It does not facilitate the meet and greet that would happen among community members otherwise. What we noticed is that the volunteer events provided a space for people to get to know each other and form friendships and do something good and bond over it.

Is there an accomplishment you are most proud of from the Prepared Together program?

For us and so many other cities, it is hard to form working relationships with your schools, because of  turnover with principals, and teachers are all stressed out and overworked. We don’t have an inroad usually.

At JFK Elementary, a community member already maintained a couple gardens on the school grounds that were memorials for her son that passed away. AmeriCorps VISTAs were flyering the neighborhood and knocking on doors and that’s how they met her. She’s already an advocate for green spaces. She took them all over to the school and got us connected to the principal who was super supportive. We ended up planting over 30 trees. On planting day it was so cool to see all different age groups come out and help throughout the entire day. Those trees are doing the best of any that we planted and it was because the entire school was involved all day long. Those trees are still well cared for by the community.

Is there any other advice would you give to another city that wants to collaborate with citizens?

Get the top level commitment from the [mayor or] city manager’s office. Check out the wealth of resources on citizen engagement. Start with Cities of Service.

Take on the role of spearheading a project and program and then try to engage people to get them involved, let them take ownership in different ways. People are really going to rely on your convening power and your funds. Just take your role really seriously in the process. You’ve got to stay a part of it even if people are owning the community garden or other assets you create.

And if you’re starting from scratch, you’re going to get a mix of reactions. I know we did. Some people are frustrated and blame the city for all kinds of problems. Some people are going to be totally surprised to even get a call back from you or hear from you to begin with. Keep at it and people will come around over time.