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Vol. LVIII, No. 25
December 15, 2006
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'We Want to Be a Good Neighbor'
Coleman Takes Helm in Office of Community Liaison

  Dennis Coleman is the new director of NIH’s Office of Community Liaison.  
  Dennis Coleman is the new director of NIH’s Office of Community Liaison.  

“We want more clout.” That’s what members of the Community Liaison Council started out telling Dennis Coleman, new director of NIH’s Office of Community Liaison.

The council, which represents the community and homeowners’ associations surrounding NIH, was founded in 1995 when then-NIH director Dr. Harold Varmus assured community members they would be involved in the development of the Bethesda campus master plan.

“So I told them they can have as much clout as they’re willing to work for,” says Coleman, who, with a background in engineering, marketing and politics, has seen clout in different forums. “I’m not telling them what to say to the agencies that affect their neighborhoods, but I am telling them about those agencies, what they’re planning and the opportunities they offer for public input”—how and when to communicate their positions to the State Highway Administration, Montgomery County, the Naval Medical Center, the National Capital Planning Commission and other decision-making bodies. External agencies, he says, can have as much or more authority than NIH over issues affecting our neighbors— such as growth, traffic, storm drainage, noise and environmental review.

“Elevating their issues to the right audience,” he says, “is a way to get clout. I’m giving them relevant information and being very straight about it.”

Coleman came to NIH in late August from Half Moon Bay, Calif., where for 8 years he served as a city councilman and mayor. Before being elected, he was a “citizen activist,” dealing with planning commissions and municipal boards, so he’s been on both sides of the table.

“In law school, there were bright and eager 20-something kids bouncing off the walls and I was the oldest—and need I say most jaded—person in the room. As a result, I had a great time with courses like local government, environmental law, land use and dispute resolution. The professors would say, ‘So this is what the law says. But tell us, Mr. Coleman, how does it work in the real world?’”

He completed his J.D. in 2002, adding to a curriculum vitae that includes an undergraduate degree in philosophy—“an attempt to learn how to think,” he says—and graduate studies in mechanical and nuclear engineering. Long stints at Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, Control Data Corp. and Technology Marketing Center taught him “how to be a nerd” and how to explain technical issues to the lay public— skills that he’s already applied here at NIH.

For example, his office recently mailed letters to 200 nearby community associations, inviting them to attend a new series of health presentations, since “even though nearby associations may not be immediately adjacent to our campus, they must have some interest in receiving the state-of-the-art health information that NIH can provide.” He included inserts about volunteer opportunities at NIH (“so NIH can start getting more out of our community liaison activities”) and also asked recipients to pick the top five community health concerns they’d like to learn more about. He has also pledged to attend meetings of participating associations whenever possible.

“I know of no other federal institution that is so responsive to what [its neighbors] think,” he says. “We can reduce undesired impacts of NIH on local communities if we can, but liaison is not just about traffic, noise and light. Liaison means that we inform the community about issues that affect them, get feedback on what to do about unresolved issues and look for opportunities to form collaborative efforts where both sides get something.” As Coleman is prone to say, “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.” NIHRecord Icon

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