‘Welcome Students’ needs to be more than just a slogan

The MHNA has mostly overcome its conflicted relationship with students, but there’s still progress to be made.

Christopher Meyer

Note: Chris Meyer is a board member on the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association

In June 2004, approximately 90 people packed into a crowded room to partake in the annual election meeting of the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association, the organization designated by the city of Minneapolis to represent the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood. Neighborhood meetings are typically low-key, casual affairs, but this one was monitored as thoroughly as a U.N.-supervised election in a Third World republic. Representatives from the League of Women Voters scrutinized the credentials of all attendees. To be eligible to vote, they would need to be certified members of MHNA (which required the submission of a valid membership registration at least 30 days prior to the meeting) and they would need to present a photo ID as well as proof of residency in the neighborhood. The MHNA board also hired a parliamentarian from the city’s Neighborhood Revitalization Program to ensure that all proceedings were conducted legally. They even hired an armed beat patrolman to maintain security in case matters got out of hand.

What issue could possibly have been so contentious that the board apparently felt the need to prepare against the possibility of violence? In short, reformers were trying to amend MHNA’s bylaws in order to make the organization more accessible to student residents. The previous fall, a group of students had worked with an MHNA representative to prepare a list of amendments designed to enable greater student participation. The biggest change the reformers wanted was to change the month of the annual meeting — when elections for board officers and directors are held âÄî from June to October. The reason was obvious: Students are less likely to be around during the summer. Despite this fact — or as I suspect, because of it — the association voted to reject the schedule change as well as every other student proposal.

Doug Carlson, who was elected to the MHNA board in 2004 and now serves as its president, believes the episode in 2004 was the nadir of student-neighbor relations. Acknowledging that the June election date was probably not accidental, he told me my view is that the Marcy-Holmes annual meeting was moved to the June time frame to minimize student participation, especially in elections. However, he believes MHNA has changed substantially since that time, pointing in particular to the “Welcome Students” campaign MHNA started four years ago. At the beginning of the school year, neighborhood volunteers walk door to door to distribute welcome bags to student renters and hang up “Welcome Students” signs at local businesses and institutions in the area. The “Welcome Students” program, as Carlson told me, is a clear indication that the Marcy-Holmes board has changed significantly since ’04. The change has been from “keep students out” to “engage, communicate, welcome, get to know your student neighbors.”

When I discussed the possibility of changing the June election date with MHNA executive director Melissa Bean, she argued that the election timing is inconsequential since there have been few students interested in joining in recent years. She pointed out that MHNA reserves two seats on its board for students, which have often gone unfilled. The justification she offered for not changing the election date is that a change in the bylaws would require written notice to be sent to all the members of the neighborhood at least 30 days in advance of the vote, which is a time-consuming and expensive process.

It’s certainly true that there hasn’t been an abundance of students interested in joining the board, but that’s all the more reason that MHNA shouldn’t put up unnecessary obstacles for those few who are. It’s also true that the board offers two student positions, but once those positions are filled it’s very difficult for additional students to join. Not only are the elections in June, but in order to be eligible to run for a regular seat, a student must have been a registered member of MHNA for a full year. That means a student moving into the neighborhood in September 2011 would have to wait until June 2013 before they could join, and that’s only if they have the foresight to fill out a membership card in advance. A two-year wait might not be excessively long for different neighborhoods, but in a neighborhood comprised of 88 percent renters, most of whom are presumably students, the wait period is excessively long. Finally, the argument that changing the election laws would be burdensome would be persuasive except for the fact that the bylaws have been changed multiple times since students brought up the proposal to change it in 2004. If it was simply a matter of postage costs and convenience, they could have changed the election at that time.

The “Welcome Students” campaign is an appreciated gesture, but there is much more MHNA can do to invite more student participation. First, while the welcome bags include a flier that describes MHNA and asks, “Won’t you join us?” they neglect to include membership registration cards, which are the means by which students can join the association. Second, the association can make more active efforts to recruit students to join them. While most students might not be interested, there are several pools of potential recruits, such as the student government organizations and students studying public policy courses. Finally, it is essential that the association change its annual meeting date from June to a month during the school year. Until they do, their signs will ring hollow.

Chris Meyer welcomes comments

at [email protected]