i’m engaged, you can be too

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.

CIRD workshop Houston MS

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.

Try Again

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.

 

no, thank you, de’vante

I recently met De’Vante Wiley (featured in the audio below) while hosting a group of high school volunteers participating in the Summer Youth Institute, an experiential learning program that explores Mississippi society, history, and diversity. De’Vante began working to improve his community at a young age, organizing a community garden in Baptist Town when he was sixteen. I was glad to see that Southern Foodways Alliance ran into him also, wrote about him in this blog post, and provided the link to the excellent interview they did.

A couple of weeks after I met De’Vante  he stopped by the community center. Just as he succinctly speaks about some of the most challenging social aspects of life in rural Mississippi, he also transcended one of the most challenging aspects of community work and said, “On behalf of the Baptist Town community, thank you for the work you’re doing.” From an outsider perspective, public interest work is warm and fuzzy, but the reality is that it is political, never complete, and addresses realities too complex to equal unanimous support from any large group.

Still, public interest designers conduct meetings, surveys, studies, games, and events to try to take into account the needs and aspirations of their client communities. Through this process to find the best possible architectural response, negative feedback is sometimes the only voice that is heard, while those pleased with an initiative stay silent. Positive feedback such as De’Vante’s “thank you” feels good on a personal level, but more importantly, indicates to social impact designers when a project is on the right track.

a fresh coat of trust

Over thirty people attended a meeting at the new Baptist Town Community Center on Monday night, by far the most that have participated in this type of meeting since I began working in Baptist Town last year. Even better, a lot was accomplished at the meeting with the selection of an advisory board for the center, collecting ideas and volunteer commitments from residents, and celebrating a fresh coat of paint on the building’s exterior with games and snacks. It felt like an important moment in the course of this neighborhood revitalization effort.

Often when “community engagement” is discussed, the concept is sugar-coated. It is described as meetings where information flows freely and individuals rally around a common cause. The reality of this type of engagement is often far from such a utopia. Issues are rarely cut and dry, and it is difficult to develop a clear understanding of community member’s needs and hopes. Further, many engagement activities fail to attract more than a few participants. When community members do arrive, factions sometimes develop or certain individuals are antagonistic to the point of inhibiting discussion. I have experienced this many times in a variety of locations, so what made last nights meeting different? Trust.

When I arrived in Baptist Town much had been promised and resources were aligned to deliver on these promises, but there was no one in place to oversee actual implementation. We were able to complete infrastructure, park, and signage projects in 2013, and this went a long way toward building trust within the neighborhood, but it’s been months since these projects were completed.

Last week, a group of painters from Resurrection Catholic Church in Wayne, Ill. teamed up with Sherwin Williams to repaint the building we had newly purchased for the community center. From a faded and scratched blue to a brilliant red (selected by community members through a voting process), the building has new life. I think that the trust we build by making good on promises is the primary factor in garnering both the participation and the communal spirit of meetings like the one we held last night. This is encouraging as we prepare to break ground for five of the Cottages (at last), but also a reminder that for the communities we engage with as social impact designers, regular, visible signs of our work are necessary, no matter how small or what form they take. Otherwise it’s perceived as just a lot of talk.

it’s official

After many months, Google Maps has approved the locations of the Kingigoro Primariy School and the Roche Health Center. If you are ever in East Africa, all you have to do it type the names of these buildings to get driving directions! Alternatively, you can search for these locations today and see the progress Village Life is making. The completed walls and foundation of the new school building are shown below. Richard Elliott will lead EWB-UC students on a trip to construct the roof in April.

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