Cities and towns of all sizes struggle with how to involve the most representative sample of their population in their community design efforts. My first post in this series highlighted general tips on how to increase public participation in planning and design. This post specifies practical ways to engage groups who are typically underrepresented in community efforts.
Start by understanding your own community. The US is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse every day, though those changes are not occurring evenly across our country. For instance, according to USA Today’s Mapping the Diversity Project, the Hispanic population has grown to 16% of the total US population and is projected to represent over 25% of the population by 2060. While much of this growth traditionally occurred in the south and west, other parts of the country will become increasingly diverse in years to come.
Our household structure is changing too. Take for instance the rise of breadwinner moms or that both parents work in the majority of two-parent households, or millennials who are delaying starting families.
These demographic shifts are happening in parallel with diminishing participation in conventional types of public participation. We continue to see record low voter turn-out in national elections and local election rates are even lower. Anecdote after anecdote confirms that participation in local planning and design mirrors low voting rates overall.
These trends are especially acute for groups who are often absent from planning efforts. Common categories of exclusion, as identified by Amanda Sheedy in the Handbook on Citizen Engagement: Beyond Consultation include: those living on the edge or near poverty, ethno-cultural or newly arrived residents, age, particularly the young and, old and those living with disabilities.
The first step to engaging your own community is to develop a deeper understanding of it by exploring questions like:
- Who lives in your community now and how is the population changing?
- How would you describe the culture of public engagement in your town?
- What’s the level of trust for local decision makers and processes?
- Who holds the power to make decisions and has that power been used to empower or disenfranchise specific groups in the past?
Thinking up front about your community’s context will help you set realistic goals and develop better engagement strategies. Community readiness tools, like the Harwood Institute’s Community Rhythms framework, can help you determine what kind of project your city or town is ready for and how to avoid common pitfalls.
A demographic profile is an easy way to understand your community’s diversity. Tools like Headwaters Economic Profile System do the heavy lifting of aggregating key information across federal data sources.
Be clear about your promise to people. Everyone wants to know that their input will make a difference. This is can be particularly acute for populations where there may be a history of disenfranchisement related to local decision making. So, make sure you are clear up front about how people’s input will be used and what level of impact it will have on the outcome.
Sherry Arnstein’s ladder of participation or the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2)’s Spectrum of Public Participation can help you think through and articulate how you will use resident input in your process.
Seek ways to build trust. Trust will be fundamental to your success in engaging new voices. There are a few key ways to do this early on in a project.
Seek out community partners who will be seen as trusted organizations or leaders for those populations you are trying to engage. These partners can play several roles in your project including: helping to design and frame your effort, identifying ways to work with specific populations, and inviting or hosting community conversations.
Often neighborhood associations, service organizations or local faith leaders are good places to start. These partnerships may be informal (e.g. holding a few meetings, reaching out when there is a specific question or need) or there may be a need for a more formal arrangement. In the case of more formal partnerships, it’s helpful to review best practices in creating and sustaining these kinds of partnerships.
Also, be prepared to address top of mind questions and concerns of those you are engaging. You may find that what is a priority for them is not directly related to your project. In that case, do what you can to connect folks to more information or provide direction so that they can take action. If you can show progress then folks are more likely to trust what you have to say.
Talk and act inclusively. The way you frame your project will affect whether people take interest in it. First, try to speak in lay terms and avoid jargon as much as possible. (Check out David Stauffer’s article for a take on key “plannerisms” to avoid.) Also, watch out for specific words that may hold contested meanings. For instance, asking for “citizen” input could inadvertently alienate people in communities with immigrant populations even if your desire is to hear from all residents.
Also, don’t expect people to come to you. Everyone is busy these days particularly those who are working multiple jobs, juggling child care or managing long commutes. The more you can do to interact with people in their everyday routines the better, so consider holding project activities in places like laundromats or at transit stations. And don’t forget the power of a regular conversation – sometimes it’s better to leave the building blocks and sticky notes at home and just listen to what people have to say.
Make participation possible and positive. Sometimes you have to hold a meeting where people come to you. In these cases, do what you can to make people’s attendance feasible. Actions you can take include: provide amenities like food, transportation, simultaneous translation, and childcare; ensure meetings are held in ADA compliant, or at least more accessible buildings; and offer stipends to help compensate for lost wages.
Getting folks in the room is just the beginning. Make sure to develop a meeting format that will ensure all feel comfortable participating and that their input is valued. For instance, low tech, high touch activities like small group conversations or methods like storytelling can help people share community experiences in their own words without being intimidated by speaking to a room full of people. High tech tools can play a role too; tools like keypad polling enable people to express their opinion anonymously on issues which can ease their fear of being confronted or judged for their perspective.
Think about the long game. You may find that even after you take all these steps you’ll fall short of achieving greater, more diverse levels of participation. When this happens it is helpful to remember that community engagement is not a one-off thing; it takes years of effort to create a healthy culture of civic engagement (and unfortunately only one bad experience to set that progress back). The more you can do to build a sustainable infrastructure to support public participation the better. Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy and Slow Democracy are two good resources for re-imagining how we can engage people in civic dialogue and decision making.
These processes require patience, flexibility, and resolve. All are achievable particularly if you work with other community partners. And remember that when you make participation work for more marginalized populations, you are creating better opportunities for all people to take part in your effort.
I want to give special thanks to the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD)’s network for pointing me to some excellent examples and resources for this article.
Photo courtesy of CIRD.