In three public workshops for the One City, One Vision strategic planning process, about 500 people — including more than 100 at the Carver Center Thursday — have gathered around tables to talk about what they love about Anniston, which needs are most critical, and how to address those moving forward.
“Anniston should feel really proud and feel good about the engagement,” said Sarah Bongiorno, a consultant with ACP Planning & Visioning who led the workshops. Bongiorno said ACP has worked in communities two to three times Anniston’s size where they’ve not had this many people turn out for meetings.
For a community that doesn’t have a legacy of planning, the turnout is even more exceptional.
“We know it’s an engaged community,” she said. “They’re hungry for change.”
Although Thursday’s final workshop at Carver Community Center had fewer people than the previous two sessions on Sept. 12 and 17, Bongiorno said it’s common for attendance to wane over several meetings as residents participate in earlier work sessions.
In addition to the volume of participation, Bongiorno said she’s been impressed with the level of engagement and excitement among participants, leaning in around tables and really talking to their neighbors about their ideas for the community.
In the meetings, residents noted concerns such as crime, education and racial tensions as critical concerns for the city.
Jamareon Cunningham said young black men like him are unlikely to come to meetings like the one at Carver Thursday night. He said he feels like a racial wall separates the city
“They feel like they’re second class, like they’re second rate,” he said. “They feel like going to school is pointless if they’re not going to be able to get a job in their own neighborhood.”
Without a job, he said, people will turn to crime to support their families. A high school graduate, Cunningham, 29, said he’s always had a hard time finding a job. He eventually went to prison for selling drugs, and after filling out more than 300 applications over more than a year out is still having trouble getting work.
He said if more young, black men like him felt like they had an equal chance at work, things in the city — public safety, education, pride — would improve.
Sitting at one of the work tables, Dennis Bradford and Jennifer Johnson said attitudes about race in the city are a problem that Johnson called “the elephant in the room.” She said their group talked about what’s going on in Anniston to keep those attitudes in place.
Negative attitudes linger, Bradford added, because they are being reinforced at home. He said his group thinks that residents should work to intentionally build relationships across racial lines and then talk to their families and friends about doing the same.
Their group, led by Anniston firefighter Barrett Adams, also suggested training for new parents and teaching life skills such as budgeting for students.
Other suggestions from working groups included increased focus on career technical instruction in the city’s schools, programs for high school dropouts, increasing school attendance, more cleaning up of vacant lots and buildings by the city, greater focus by social services agencies on helping residents find jobs, and an emphasis by businesses and the city on hiring locally.
Bongiorno said the high turnout at the input meetings could translate into higher involvement in task forces that will be formed to craft and implement plans for critical need areas such as education and social services. She said she hopes the same people will show up to the community summit in November, where the information she’s gathered over the past week will be presented to the community for the next phase of the plan.
Erica Tolson-Turner, a member of the volunteer steering committee for the plan, said the turnout and the process is great. “I think we’re going to see some changes in Anniston,” she said.
Staff writer Paige Rentz: 256-235-3564. On Twitter @PRentz_Star.