Real Public Engagement

In a recent post, Jason Brisson highlights the conflict between “top-down” planning, where experts provide the direction for a project, and “bottom-up” planning, where community members drive (ha, ha, drive, get it?) the project. I do not think this is an either/or issue where technocrats tell a community what it needs versus a community, no matter how biased or ill-informed, tell the planning entity what to do. We can have authentic, real community engagement AND technical expertise.

However, I have rarely experienced real community engagement and I have been involved in spent a lot of time at these types of events. How can we listen to the community’s concerns and gain the kind of useful information that improves a project?

Better Community Engagement

I attend a lot of community engagement and planning sessions. I take time away from my family because I think being involved in the planning process is important. Professionally, part of my job involves engaging the people my organization serves in planning for services that impact them, as well as gathering data for program evaluation. It takes time and resources to plan a community engagement event, and, presumably, the organizers are holding it because they want information that the community has. Why waste our time holding events that do not provide the information we need?

Whether it is an event my organization is holding or an event I am attending, there are two big failures that we need to address if we are to get authentic community engagement. First, most meetings are exclusionary. Second, the sponsoring organization must recognize that they are taking from the community. Authentic engagement requires reciprocity.

These two problems are intertwined and I have been working in my professional life to overcome them. There are both specific, concrete things organizations can do to be more inclusionary and increase reciprocity and changes in attitude that are less concrete, but just as important. As an organizer, I am done wasting my time with meetings that do not accomplish what we need. As an attendee, I am tired of attending meetings where I leave feeling less a part of a project and that I was not heard or listened to.

Concrete ways to have better meetings

The first question to ask when planning a meeting is, “Who are the intended beneficiaries of this project?” Is it a neighborhood, such as planning new amenities in a park? Is it a group of people, like bicyclists or elderly people? Who will use this trail, housing, or street? Who lives in the affected area? Your answers to these questions should drive your planning.

Before planning the actual meeting, the first check-off is:

  • Build relationships before you need them.

Will the project impact a particular ethnic, racial, or cultural group? Families with young children? Elderly or people with disabilities? Young adults? Identify the community leaders or networks within that community and arrange a coffee with their representatives. This takes time and will involve connecting with lots of community groups. Do not discount the importance of relationship-building. This is the front-end work that results in connections with the people who are important to the success of your project.

Find out from them the best ways to communicate and advertise within that community. Is it a community newspaper or radio? Through social networks and word-of-mouth? Find out what concerns that community has and how they intersect with your work. If you are planning regional plan for parks, is that community particularly interested in accessibility, safety, health, or something you never thought of?

Once you have a relationship, it is easier to come back and say, “We are planning a 25-year plan for parks and know your community is concerned about having certain amenities. Can we work with you to advertise through your community radio station about an event we’re having?”

Thinking about the actual event, here are the rest of the concrete check-off boxes:

  • Space.

I recently attended a meeting at a building that required a state i.d. card or driver’s license to be admitted. Who did that exclude? Anyone who forgot their i.d., as well as people who do not have i.d.s or feel intimidated by having to provide that information. I was also recently invited to a meeting that I did not attend because it was not accessible by bicycle or public transit – the only way to get there safely was by car. That excludes a lot of people.

At work, we hold community meetings in “neutral” spaces like libraries and recreational centers. We know that having the meeting in at our building may exclude people who have negative associations or have had traumatic experiences at our building. It also is a power imbalance where we inhabit that space daily and attendees are only visitors. If we want to encourage attendance and get honest information from attendees, we have to hold meetings at spaces that are welcoming.

Probably the best meetings I attended were in locations were the intended audience was already at. Planning for a park? Hold the meeting at the park. What about farmer’s markets, grocery stores, the laundromat, or community festivals? Where are the people you are trying to reach? That’s where you need to be.

Are your materials available in multiple languages? Did you advertise the event in languages other than English? Do people have to request materials be provided in other languages? Are translators available? If they are, are they in the corner waiting to be approached or are they part of the welcoming table or area? Do you greet people in more languages than English?

At a planning meeting.

Probably the best example I have seen of language-accessibility have been the Friendly Streets Initiative events. The last one I attended had surveys available in four languages, staff who spoke those four languages, and all signage and materials were in those languages. No one had to ask. They were welcomed and could fully participate in their own tongue.

Lots of people have children. Plan for them. When I attend meetings in the evening it means paying a baby-sitter and not seeing my children for the entire day (having worked all day). This is a sacrifice for both me and my children. Not planning for children means excluding people who either cannot afford a baby-sitter or cannot afford the time away from their children. Lately, I have just been bringing my children along. I get the stink eye sometimes, but ultimately my children are also part of the community.

Children have important feedback, too.

Planning for children does not mean having to provide child care (although it can). It can just mean planning your format so that people can move around and that quiet talking is okay. It might mean handing out coloring pages and crayons or having an activity area with a few toys. It means saying, “Children welcome” on advertising, which both tells parents it is fine to bring children AND tells other participants that children will be attending.

Reciprocity means changing attitudes

Once you have made connections and built relationships, have a space that is safe and welcoming, and are able to provide for children and people who speak languages other than English, then it is time for the difficult part. As people holding community input sessions we need to change our attitude from one of an expert to that of learner. I have worked in my field for 15 years and have a Masters degree – shouldn’t I be the expert?

Well, I am, but only in some aspects of the issue. My area is human services – food stamps, welfare, homelessness. It’s been more than 30 years since I received food stamps and I was a child. Now I am evaluating and planning food stamps services. While I have experience with the program most of it is not relevant today. Someone receiving services today has knowledge and experience that is equally as valid as my professional experience and should have a voice in how services are provided. Other people who live in the community, grocery store owners, food shelf organizers all have important experiences related to food stamps, but maybe not as pressing or as important as that of the recipient.

As a road user who bikes, drives, takes transit, and walks, I also have important experiences and knowledge. My perspective is important to planning and I may see things a professional engineer misses. However, I am not a transportation planner so I lack that expertise and experience. I also have limited knowledge of things like budgets, priorities within the agency, and laws that may impact the project.

To really get the information I need, I must set aside my knowledge and come to the table ready to learn. In my work, I do three things to show participants that their time and expertise matters.

  • Engage people in the process from the beginning.

Too often we do not include the community until plans have been made and we ask them to react to them. Asking people to respond to a plan once it is far along in the planning process has a few problems. First, on a practical level, it invites nitpicky arguments by giving short-shrift to goals of the project. What are the community members’ goals? What benefits do they want to see? What do concepts like “safety,” “livability,” and “mobility” mean to them? If we take the time to agree on those conceptual ideas first, actual details and implementation will be easier. Secondly, they may have definitions or ideas the experts never thought of. If my idea of safety is very different from that of the transportation planner, my idea most likely will not be addressed and, in the end, my safety needs will not be met. Thirdly, it is just basic respect.

Another PowerPoint.

  • Provide a formal feedback loop.

I organize a client engagement group. The first agenda item of every meeting is how we used information they provided previously and, if we could not, we tell them why. Maybe they had a great idea, but we ran into budget constraints or a state policy stands in the way. They need to know this. Again, it’s respectful, but it also helps direct their advocacy to useful places. If it is a state policy then complaining to us will not help, but writing to their state representative might. It also shows that we were listening and respect their time in a real and concrete way. In other situations, this might be a follow-up email or newsletter that provides this information.

  • Humanize the event.

It is intimidating to walk into a room full of strange people who are formal experts. Now imagine doing so if you have never done that, have had negative or traumatizing experiences with government organizations, or have been dismissed before. Spend time being human together. That may be sharing a meal or food at the beginning of the meeting. It may be having staff spread throughout the room rather than in front of a podium or ditching the PowerPoint. Where can you use music, toys, or art to both gather feedback and make the space more welcoming? An excellent example of using toys in planning is Place It!, an organization that uses models to let participants design a street or park. Check out their gallery for fun pictures of people giving feedback.

Top-down. Bottom-up. We need both. We need leadership from elected officials to drive change. We need technical experts. We need real involvement from people impacted. If it feels like this list is impossible or there is not time to do all these things, I recognize it is work and it takes time. But, the alternative is a bunch of meetings where the “experts” do not get what they want and communities feel excluded and do not get their needs met. So, that feels like a big waste of time because it is.



Dana DeMaster

About Dana DeMaster

Dana DeMaster, MPP, is a program evaluator and researcher for human services programs who lives and bikes in Saint Paul. When she’s not analyzing data, she can be found rabble-rousing for neighborhood bike improvements in Saint Paul, playing Legos with her two children, or sewing practical things. You can find some of her other writing on the Grease Rag and Wrench blog.