Impactful Community Engagement

The Importance of Hearing Minority Voices When Planning

By Pam Jones

When examining the landscape of urbanism throughout Arkansas, the value of community planning and engagement is paramount. It means very little, however, if it lacks input and direction from minority voices. Following many years of disinvestment and neglect, mistrust is widespread among minorities. Many institutions have not fully realized the benefit of collaboration and community partnerships, furthering tribalism. As communities continue to grow and evolve throughout the state, advocacy groups, planners, business leaders, policymakers, local development organizations, universities, foundations and local residents must work together within their respective communities to unify diverse and disparate interests and craft an authentic vision of equality and prosperity for everyone. This is only possible if members of historically marginalized groups see themselves as full partners, having a voice and decision-making input to own the changes they want to see in the space they inhabit. How is this accomplished? Community engagement.

Community engagement is a process through which individuals are empowered to help generate positive change within their community through communication, problem solving, governance, and decision-making skills and strategies. Ultimately, this process fosters the transformative relationships and increased ownership necessary to build sustainable communities of opportunity. It also helps to forge and deepen partnerships by connecting the concerns of communities to the decisions that allocate local and regional public investment dollars. Engagement brings meaning and relevance to sustainability goals across a broad spectrum of players; and it encourages local innovations in sustainable development through creative problem solving.

Understanding that an intentional focus on community engagement can lead to transformative change, emphasis must be placed on the inclusion of marginalized communities in the planning process. Community engagement, in this context, should focus on developing an inclusive process where community-institution partnerships can identify the creative solutions necessary to solve distinct local problems; for example, revitalizing a transit corridor, developing new transit stations or business districts, or redeveloping a brownfield, a former industrial area, or a downtown.

While community engagement is often used to solve specific local problems, it is important to point out that community engagement is not just a set of activities and methods confined to a particular project, policy or process. Rather, it is a way of communication, decision making, and governance that gives community members ownership over the change they wish to create, leading to equitable outcomes. Public agencies have a variety of tools to foster basic public participation and protocols for using them; however, many of these are ineffective because 1) they do not address the legacy challenges faced by low-income communities and communities of color and 2) they fail to tap into their expertise and organizing capacity.

Community engagement encompasses a more comprehensive approach, creating practices and institutionalized mechanisms that share power and vest decision-making control in marginalized communities. When utilized to increase community power and agency for problem solving, community engagement, guided by the following key principles, becomes transformative engagement:

1. Honor the wisdom, voice and experience of residents.

2. Treat participants with integrity and respect.

3. Be transparent about motives and power dynamics.

4. Share decision-making and initiative leadership.

5. Engage in continuous reflection and willingness to change.

Transformative engagement can be the difference between a successful initiative and one that misses the mark. It enables highly technical or routine projects and processes to produce real, tangible and lasting benefits for communities. Summarized below are some of the benefits of community engagement:

Legitimacy and increased support for plans and projects
With the substantive engagement of affected communities, developed plans should reflect legitimacy, community support, and incorporate equity outcomes. Legitimacy builds trust, political will and ownership for effective implementation.

Improved community/government relations
Community engagement can build trust between diverse stakeholders and help facilitate difficult discussions about racial disparities, economic conditions, and community development needs. By creating a multifaceted process built upon relationship building, trust, respect, and affirmation of community knowledge and power, more effective ways of dealing with differences emerge.

Deeper understanding of key issues
Input from the people facing and addressing housing challenges will result in stronger regional housing plans. Engagement from residents and organizations who possess not only first-hand knowledge of the barriers to job access, but also experience in problem-solving these challenges boost regional economic opportunity.

Increased community capacity
A meaningful engagement strategy will improve capacity for problem-solving. Engagement builds stronger networks across racial, ethnic, generational, gender, and socioeconomic divides—a vital component to achieving equitable outcomes and leveraging additional resources (outside of public processes).

Reduced long-term costs
Negligible community engagement can result in lack of consensus, causing plans and development projects to end up in litigation. While conflicts may arise during planning, the community engagement process creates an environment of positive communication where creative and inclusive solutions can be devised to resolve conflicts.

Democracy in action
In many respects community engagement is a microcosm of the American democratic system of government. It is one of the best ways that community residents can help shape local and regional decision-making processes.

Fundamentally, community engagement is about sustainability. And sustainable communities are communities of opportunity. They are places where all residents have access to the essential ingredients for economic and social success: living wage jobs with health coverage, good schools, affordable homes, transportation choices, strong social networks, thriving businesses, safe streets, parks and playgrounds, and healthy food. Economists are increasingly recognizing that regions and nations that are more equitable also perform better economically.

How is successful, sustainable community engagement achieved? While the methods and techniques used to increase participation of traditionally marginalized groups may differ depending on the context, the following strategies are useful in making informed decisions about how to generate proactive and targeted engagement:

Identify key community leaders to work with through existing networks of community-based organizations that serve diverse groups.

1. Attend community meetings and cultural events as a participant. Identify key issues and listen to how they are discussed. Enter with a sense of humility and awareness of potential power dynamics related to race, ethnicity, citizenship, class and gender differences.

2. Develop an awareness of city- or region-specific racial and economic disparities and why they exist.

3. Seek out relationships with leaders from non-English-speaking communities. Collaborate to identify barriers to engagement with the community and ways to bridge the divide.

4. Translate educational materials and provide interpretation at community meetings. Additionally, work with local leaders to identify trusted facilitators with experience working in the community.

5. Engage faith-based organizations in the community to help bring hard-to-reach residents on board.

6. Host a “meet and greet” with community organizations and advocacy groups to build connections across sectors and develop partnerships.

7. Build incentives for engagement that reduce barriers to participate. Many residents in low-income communities and communities of color are from working families with busy schedules and childcare constraints. Meetings should be held in evenings and on weekends. Whenever possible, provide childcare, meals and transit passes.