Kiersten Mailler & Marisa Denker | February 18, 2021
When we begin discussions with someone about engagement we like to tell them the good and the bad: how the community can feel heard and unified when things go well, and how they can feel angry, frustrated, and divided when things go poorly. Both outcomes are valuable lessons, and both outcomes are widely common results for community engagement. Depending on time, budget, foresight, and humility or hubris, a well-intentioned project can have a negative result if these inputs are not carefully dialed in. Engagement is a mix of art and science, and the first impression you make on a community is an opportunity to show your true colors and intentions. Careful planning, building in the correct amount of time for Phase Zero, and listening to hear and learn are three ways to start your engagement off on the right note.
Build in time to listen – Like, REALLY listen. The old adage stands here: are you listening to hear, or are you waiting for your turn to speak? We learned fairly early on that an engagement project is made or broken by its first point of contact with the community. Community members are often (and rightfully) dubious of outsiders, especially those touting change and progress. They can often be hostile as a way to protect themselves from the disappointment and betrayal they have likely experienced before with outsiders. This is especially true in marginalized or disenfranchised communities, as historically, they have not been treated fairly. Why should this time be any different? If you are truly embarking on a listening journey with the intention to generate positive outcomes for a community, you need to prove it through listening. Be open to surprise, ask for personal experience, and be prepared to offer clear expectations about what you think you can achieve or what the parameters of a project are.
Be intentional – Anyone who works with residents knows that they will quickly find the weaknesses in the best-laid plans. Maybe it’s the wisdom of the crowd, or maybe it’s the number of eyes staring at the same problem, but you can be sure that if you’ve been negligent or sloppy, you will get called out. Not only should your plan for engagement be logical and tidy, but it must be defensible. Give real time to what we call a ‘Phase Zero’ – a pre-phase where you work hard to really connect with community members, build relationships, foster partnerships and ultimately – collaborate all together on developing a built-for-purpose, best-fit engagement strategy for the area. Be sure you’ve done some serious background research and workshopped the possible outcomes before you present your plan to the public. Partner with specific, trusted community nodes in order to collaborate with them to develop and stress-test your plan. Ask them to feed in and for feedback, and incorporate it whenever possible. Having a partner (or more) on the ground will help you to create a more robust process. With the help of your client and partners, establish clear parameters of what you can achieve in the project in the amount of time you have: distinguish the “go’s and no-go’s” of how the community can have meaningful input. We are human beings, though, and humans make mistakes…which leads us to our final point:
Get ready to be humbled – No one knows everything, but it’s very likely that a neighborhood resident knows more about their personal lived experience than you do–and that’s valuable! Go in knowing that you’re going to learn from people about how to do your job better. Be vulnerable: We always end phone calls and listening sessions with the offering “you have my number and my email address, if you have any problems, questions, or especially criticisms, you know how to find me.” This is both refreshing and disarming for most folks who have never found themselves truly in the driver’s seat, and it can help to greatly expand the value of the project when insights are openly accepted. Treat negativity as a learning, and dive into it: where is this hostility coming from? How can we address the root problem? Most anger comes from fear of change and lack of control, so be open to addressing these issues together instead of marching in with solutions.
With these three tools, you’ll quickly be on track with an engagement process that will benefit everyone involved. As far as we have seen, this is the best way to build a scaffolding that protects against negative outcomes and delivers inclusive, equitable, community-driven projects. Ultimately, the community will be the stewards of whatever project you’re delivering, so the end product can only be helped by support and involvement from the end users. Respect the individual expertise of those involved, and go in with open eyes and an open heart.
Connect the Dots is a stakeholder engagement firm that brings together community, private and public sector partners to develop innovative and actionable solutions for cities. We work alongside local partners to craft insight-driven engagement processes that foster participation, build consensus, and re-imagine the future of our communities. Our mission is to build better cities, towns and neighborhoods through inclusive, insight-driven stakeholder engagement. We help community, private and public sector partners to develop creative solutions that move projects and cities forward. We are always learning new things about engagement and participation from our experiences and connections, and we work to share our new lessons right back to others for whom they could be helpful.
Marisa Denker is Executive Director and Kiersten Mailler is the Manager of Strategic Planning and Design at Connect the Dots. You can connect with Marisa and Kiersten on Twitter at @ctd_insight or email them at [email protected].