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INTERVIEW BY Martha Thomas

Jessie Newburn has lived in Columbia for most of her 48 years – her family moved to Thunder Hill when she was 7. Now a resident of Oakland Mills, Newburn describes herself as a lover of the Burning Man festival, contra dancing and hula hoops. Her favorite weekend pastime is visiting friends at their farm in Pennsylvania and helping out with the pigs. In February, after several months as a consultant, she became director of Communications and Community Engagement for the Columbia Association (CA). A co-founder of the site hocoblogs.com, she also blogs about technology, culture and her personal life as JessieX. Her DVD “Anyone Can Hula Hoop” is available on Amazon.

Q Is the “Community Engagement” part new wording for the job title?

People think public relations is about, “we have a message to get out.” The culture is changing and people want to receive information through different media. These days, it’s not “I have something to get out to you,” but it’s about listening: to the blogs, the social media, people making online comments.

Q What has your relationship with the CA been in the past?

I was always aware of CA, but didn’t have a comprehensive understanding of what it was. It was always a big benevolent player in the community, but I never wrapped my mind around it. After a few months with the organization, I felt like a fish that had been swimming around, but someone just explained the concept of water.

I knew the pieces: the developments and covenants, the pools and paths, but I didn’t really see the big picture. The bottom line is, the CA provides quality-of-life amenities, and by doing so, increases property values, making the tax base stronger for the county, which allows the county to invest more in public services. Our DNA as an organization – as a community – is planning.

Q What are the plans today?

We’re now 45 years old – almost reaching mid-life – and have to start acting the way humans would in middle age. People in Columbia are accustomed to things being built, things being new, everything going up, up, up.

But we’re past the stage where everything we do is new. We have to start deciding what are we going to be investing in, renovating, decommissioning.

It’s not that our responsibility is any different than 10 years ago, it’s that our planning has to be different.

One element of community engagement is to help people manage expectations. We want people to have a higher quality of life, but can’t support everyone wanting everything.

For example, much of Columbia was built before stormwater management was mandated, and we have big issues with stormwater runoff and streambed restorations. These are big budget concerns.

Q Summer is a big time for the CA.

It certainly is. During the summer, our employee ranks swell with lifeguards, summer camp staff and open space management.

While spring is busy with planning, once summer arrives, it’s all about operations. We have 23 outdoor pools, more than 93 miles of paths and 3,500 acres of open space to be maintained, along with dozens of summer camps, free cultural activities at the Columbia Lakefront – movies, concerts, dancing Under the People Tree on Friday nights, and our partnerships with area organizations like the Columbia Festival of the Arts. The summer months are when you really see the magic of this community. People are out – fishing in the lakes, walking the paths and riding bikes. Of course, there’s also more trash and clean up too!

Q How did you become so comfortable with all this social media and online communication?

At the University of Maryland in the early 80s, I created my own major, “culture and technology.” My thesis was on technology in the developing world – focusing on cook stoves. Technology is a tool to change culture. I was fascinated by that relationship. I worked for a while as a secretary, but when I got a PC and printer in 1987, I had more technology power than the company I worked for. So I quit and started a resume and desktop publishing business. When I encountered social media in 2005, my jaw hit the ground with a thud. I thought, oh my god, the whole world is about to go through a massive change.

Q And what did you do to embrace this brave new world?

Well, I had recently purchased a hula hoop and after I’d exhausted my tricks, I thought, “I have to meet other hula hoopers.” I went online, typed in “hula hoop Maryland,” and started connecting with other hula hoopers through Tribe dot net. I spent hundreds of hours – tagging and blogging, commenting, friending and liking. This was all before Facebook really got going. Throughout that process, I gave myself a Ph.D. in social media.

So I got a job at a local software firm – now Nemetschek VectorWorks – I was their PR person, and got to install their entire suite of social media.

Q How did you become involved in HoCo blogs?

I started blogging locally as Hometown Columbia. There was another blogger, Robin Abello, called Easy Columbia. I suggested he list local bloggers on his site, and he did. It turned out to be the heaviest trafficked part of his website – that’s how we came up with idea. Now we have about 275 bloggers listed.

Q You’ve not always had positive things to say about CA – how does that work?

Yes, I’ve blogged negatively about the CA in years past, and I didn’t hide any of that when it came time to interview for the job. I would say there are some who consider it ghastly that I’ve written negatively in years past, others who see it as refreshing.

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