Patricia Boddy, PE, a senior sustainability coordinator at RDG Planning & Design who has spent more than 30 years working in the conservation field and has extensive experience with community engagement, was invited to present on Best Practices in Community Engagement. Her presentation was highly interactive. Some of the key talking points and discussion are summarized below.
Introduction spoke to the challenges in community engagement. Many center around trust. Community members may or may not know each other. They may or may not know the facilitators. They might assume that decisions are “baked” prior to their participation in the process, arriving to any meeting or interaction somewhat distrustful. Boddy and the audience engaged in a conversation about the obstacles to creating trust in communities and among stakeholders. Key responses included: Fear of loss, of change, of abandonment after a project concludes, and lack of funding continuity.
Another challenge to successful community engagement was identified as “apathy.” Boddy noted many projects do not capture the public’s attention until a project is poised to happen. Moving past that early-stage apathy to make a substantial early connection is a key to successful engagement. Discussion noted the arts can play an important role here in providing opportunities for the public to connect in an engaging and unthreatening way.
Boddy recommended a two-pronged approach to public engagement that she dubbed “silos and salads.” Boddy cited its important for stakeholders to know they have been heard. She provided examples of community engagement successes by first approaching stakeholders through their various pre-identified groups—this might be demographic groups, user groups, specific neighborhood groups, etc. She would work with the stakeholders to provide careful listening from each of those groups (the “silos.”) Following that hard listening, she would likely prepare an early draft of a strategic document and then invite these stakeholders to come together—but now participate in discussions with members of the OTHER groups—not their own (the “salad”). Using prompting questions and small-group discussions with these “salad” tabletops, the resulting workshop would often produce a meaningful consensus strategic document where participants felt heard by the facilitator and by each other.
In order to help determine the mix of stakeholders important to reach, and to identify potential questions for discussion/input, Boddy introduced an RDG tool based on the work of Jan and Cornelia Flora of Iowa State University. Their work speaks to seven “capitals”: Human, Social, Political, Financial, Built, Natural and Cultural. RDG’s version is called the Engage Tool and it was produced at RDG Planning and Design through an annual design Residency (currently in its tenth year). Annually RDG invites some of the top graduate students from across the country, representing mixed disciplines (not just in the field of design) to accept and tackle a design challenge. The Engage Tool was developed to help any community or organization assess the potential impact of its decisions. It was derived in particular to help address the public health impacts of a proposed project, since oftentimes, public health impacts are not assessed until AFTER a project has been developed. The tool was designed to be used by a wide-ranging number of people of many different backgrounds attempting to understand potential project impacts. Of particular value are the questions presented in the Engage Tool, such as: “What do you fear?”
Boddy then provided some highlights of engagement features that might have some value, but Boddy lays no claim to “best practices.” Instead, she cites these items that could provide fodder for research, as these tools are currently based primarily on “I tried this, and it worked. I tried this, and it didn't.”
Boddy described how she works under the philosophy that there is no such thing as the general public, and everyone's a stakeholder. When it comes time to do engagement, the real challenge is trying to reach everyone. No single message connects with all stakeholders. Boddy noted one key way to involve folks is to invite them to the organizing table—not simply “outreach” once the project is underway. “Invite people to the party at the beginning,” she notes.
Boddy further offered examples of how intense listening and understanding can lead to finding compromises that are meaningful to many (if not all) parties in the room.
She also spoke of the importance of going to the stakeholders and not expecting them to come to you. Meeting people where there are—both figuratively and physically—is an important part of effective engagement.
The session concluded with small roundtable discussions where each table was given an audience and scenario and asked to design a community engagement approach that would help lead to the project or plan’s success. Table top reports were informative and well-considered.
This event is supported by the National Science Foundation, Award #1929601. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.