Sunday through Tuesday (February 22-24), I will be working with the community engagement experts at the Carl Small Town Center, the Project for Public Spaces and the Citizens Institute on Rural Design in Houston, Mississippi. The three day event will engage community members around questions regarding the design and related impacts of a new rails to trails trail head near the city’s downtown. The Chickasaw Journal summarized the event and the new amenities in the area that it will focus on in this December 2014 article. We hope you can join us! As we get ready for this event, and wrap up the Design Cents forum earlier this week, I summarized some of my thoughts about community engagement here.
Community engagement is a term that sometimes mean a lot, sometimes means nothing at all, and always raises a lot of questions. At it’s worst, community engagement can be a lie, tokenism, or an insincere attempt to placate or meet a requirement. At it’s best, it unites people around a common cause and lays the ground work for positive, long-lasting understanding and impact. Here are a few things that I’ve learned about community engagement in the past.
Human to Human
No matter how effective your social media machine, lovely your fliers, or engaging your survey, none of it matters if you don’t have a real connection to the community you are trying to engage. You must spend time in person with the people, in the place, and sometimes living the experience that defines the community you are working with to develop how to best engage. For example, a largely illiterate population won’t be well engaged through surveys. By meeting the community, face to face, engagement goes beyond being an exercise and gains strength, an identity, and context.
There is no recipe for successful community engagement. It’s a messy art, and those who practice it learn that no single attempt or event can be expected to be a catch all in which information is gathered, people are galvanized around a cause, or a plan fully developed. Many community engagement activities I have seen, and planned, have been poorly attended. Really poorly attended. Many times this points to a lack of understanding on the planners part regarding who the community is, how to reach them, or what issues are important to them. The worst thing to do at this point is take the responses of one or two people as speaking for the whole, or pat yourself on the back for trying and simply give up. Take a step back and try to understand why the engagement exercise failed, and then try again.
Have A Plan
Like me, most people who engage communities weren’t trained to do so. We make a lot of mistakes, but a simple one is to be prepared. It is disrespectful of the people who participate if the organizer doesn’t have a clear goal, activity, or leader. While flexibility to allow people to respond honestly is important, they must have something to respond to. If a map would support your engagement activity think through what it should look like, how big it should be and how people will interact with it. Community engagement isn’t easy, so taking a professional approach is important to meeting the efforts goals.