Written by Aaron Goodman, CDAD Community Engagement Manager

Equitable Public Involvement

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“When engagement is treated as an add-on to the “real” decision making or something that is done only to minimally satisfy legal or community requirements it leads to decisions, plans and developments that likely don’t reflect the input of the whole community.”

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cdad-blogWe’ve all been there: the dreaded community meeting that features more argument than dialogue, leaving residents feeling unheard and disempowered, while meeting organizers wonder why they are getting beat up by angry neighbors. This circumstance is linked to the fact that all too often, public meetings and hearings are looked at as the beginning and end of public engagement around policy and development decisions that affect local communities. When engagement is treated as an add-on to the “real” decision making or something that is done only to minimally satisfy legal or community requirements it leads to decisions, plans and developments that likely don’t reflect the input of the whole community. Such decisions can actually end up being more costly in time, money and energy as lack of meaningful community by-in and engagement at the front end of a process results in anger and organized opposition at the back end. So, if we know what an insufficient engagement process looks like, what exactly is good community engagement and how do you know you are doing it in an equitable manner?

Who Cares About Public Participation?

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“…A practical framework for analyzing various kinds of engagement strategies and tactics as they move from just informing the public to actually empowering residents in decision-making for the future of their communities.”

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This question was on my mind as I recently attended the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) North American Conference. IAP2 members are community engagement professionals working in a range of fields and dedicated to promoting a holistic approach to engagement. They are perhaps best known for publishing the “IAP2 Spectrum of Public Participation” which provides a practical framework for analyzing various kinds of engagement strategies and tactics as they move from just informing the public to actually empowering residents in decision-making for the future of their communities. The theme of the conference was “Who Cares About Public Participation?” and it was inspiring to spend two days with folks working across many fields who are passionate about this topic and work hard to increase the impact of meaningful public participation. This question of “who cares?” also made me think of the tireless neighborhood advocates and organizers in the community development field in Detroit and across Michigan. Whole-hearted and intentional community engagement and decision-making that drives development speaks to the very core of why I am proud to be in this work.

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“‘Nothing about us, without us, is for us’ is particularly relevant for community development work in a time of rising economic, social, and racial inequality in cities.”

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For many of us, it is the mission of community development to move the needle for the equitable rebuilding of our neighborhoods that includes everyone, in particular the most disadvantaged, and historically dispossessed members of the community. As our cities and communities continue to evolve and change, we know that meaningful and equitable community engagement is critical in pursuing this goal. The community organizing saying: “Nothing about us, without us, is for us” is particularly relevant for community development work in a time of rising economic, social and racial inequality in cities.

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Raising the Bar for Equitable Community Engagement

By now you may be thinking that these are all great ideals and slogans, but how do we exactly raise the bar for engagement so that we can have better, more inclusive results in our communities? CDAD’s work in recent years in community planning and engagement has helped us learn a lot about what works and doesn’t, and we have been inspired by innovative practices across the country that center residents in decision-making such as Community Benefits Agreements (currently a hot topic in Detroit), Participatory Budgeting, and expanding access to local Boards and Commissions. There is also a growing body of research and advocacy that is helping to raise the profile and expectations for meaningful community engagement for both nonprofits and local governments. Some of our favorite resources include: Building the Field of Community Engagement, Policy Link Guide to Community Engagement, Authentic Community Engagement – Voices for Racial Justice and plans for equitable community engagement published by municipal agencies in Seattle and Minneapolis.

To further explore these themes and best practices, we invite you to attend the upcoming Destination Vibrant Communities Conference on November 10th in Detroit. CDAD staff are excited for our workshop which will discuss foundational ideas about equity in community engagement and how to implement strategies and tactics that will build trust and relationships by including the whole community in your efforts. Learn more about the training and register here.

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