Member spotlight: Alex Cousins
MEMBER PROFILE – By Lance Robertson
Member spotlight is a frequent feature of the IAP2 USA newsletter. If you have a suggestion for a future profile, please email Lance Robertson at email@example.com.
Member spotlight: Alex Cousins
Briefly introduce yourself. Who are you, and what do you do?
I am the Public Involvement manager in the Northwest for HDR Engineering. We are a large site-civil infrastructure firm. I have been with HDR for three years. I was practicing P2 before I had ever heard of the term “public involvement.” In the early 1990’s I was working as Executive Director for a non-profit, rural community development organization for seven counties in central North Carolina. We worked with community volunteers, businesses and public agencies to advance rural economic development strategies. Basically, I was involving the public in projects important to these communities and seeking new ways to engage and interact with stakeholders. I moved to Portland in 2000 and joined a P2 consultancy here, where I worked my way up to principal before leaving for HDR.
Like many “older” practitioners, I stumbled into this field. This was before you could study and get a focused degree in it. I attended the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill and Greensboro) and have degrees in Political Science and Public Affairs. I started out in travel and tourism, working at a historic living-history museum and then a convention and visitors bureau in Winston-Salem, N.C. I honed my marketing and communications skills at those places, which has helped me greatly in my P2 career.
I am half-British. I was born in Puerto Rico and have lived in England and throughout the U.S. I think this exposure to other places has benefited my career. I love to travel and am very comfortable being in new environments and around new people.
How long have you been a member of IAP2? How did you first hear about the organization?
Our Cascade Chapter is large and very active. It’s impossible to work in P2 in the greater Portland area and not be exposed to IAP2. I joined the organization and have maintained a membership since 2003 or so. I have been president of the Chapter for the last two years.
In your day-to-day public participation or community outreach work, what gives you the most satisfaction?
I enjoy seeking out non-traditional P2 audiences and incorporating new voices into public planning projects. It’s most satisfying when you can go the extra mile to reach people who traditionally don’t engage in a public process. Often I find that many people – especially lower income, senior citizens, students, immigrant communities, English as second language, etc. – are simply waiting for someone to approach them and ask their opinion. I find that purposefully going to them on their terms works much better than expecting them to engage on their own. Just having an open public process isn’t enough, I think.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve found in doing P2 work?
Elevating the importance of P2 in project and program delivery cannot be overstated. Determining a technical or policy solution to a challenge is typically not the hard part. It’s obtaining public or political acceptance of that solution that requires focused effort. P2 is often what makes or breaks a project and yet is often the element that gets discounted or overlooked.
Why did you decide to get more involved in IAP2?
The Cascade Chapter has such a wealth of talented people who are passionate advocates of good practice and innovation. They are a lot of fun also and it’s hard not to want to get involved. I learn so much every time I am around them.
In several parts of the country, there is interest building in re-launching or re-building chapters to connect local folks on the ground. The Cascade Chapter is very robust and active. What advice would you give to IAP2 members interested in forming chapters or starting the conversation? What’s the starting point?
People get busy in their own day-to-day jobs and routine. IAP2 is volunteer-led. For chapters to be sustainable, you need a critical mass of practitioners who are passionate about advancing the field and who see value in networking. I say start small. Figure out who are the P2 “stakeholders” in your community and organize a professional education opportunity, something people will find to be a valuable way to spend some of their time. Then tack on a social networking aspect to that event so participants can get to know each other a bit informally. That formula has worked well for us in Oregon.
What is your most memorable, or favorite, public participation effort or campaign to date?
I have had several that stand out in my mind, but the one I am most excited about is currently under way. I am working with the Oregon Department of Transportation on a corridor improvement in a lower income, multi-cultural part of Portland. We are organizing community events with specific cultural audiences that are spoken entirely in their native languages. Interpreters are telling us what is important to these stakeholders and we are reflecting their input into the planning. Recently, I participated in a two-hour walking tour with 20 people all speaking Cantonese. There is no way I would have obtained their feedback through a traditional open house or even online. How cool is that?
What are your off-work passions and interests? What do you like to do for fun?
I am a season ticket holder with the MLS Portland Timbers. I also enjoy the NBA Trailblazers. Beyond that, I occupy myself with travel, gardening and home improvement. Penny and I try to go abroad for vacation every other year or so. Last time was Brasil this past summer for the World Cup. I am planning the next big trip for 2016 and my 50th birthday.
Tell us about the World Cup.
It was amazing – really a bucket list experience. I visited Salvador and Recife on the northeast coast of Brasil. We went to three matches. I saw Germany, the eventual champions, play twice and the U.S. team once. The Brasilians really knew how to put on a world party and they have a beautiful country for it. Everyone was so friendly and I met people from all over the world. It was awesome being in a place where so many people were there for the same reason as you and everyone having a good time. I’ve been to Russia once before and I am actually contemplating going back in 2018 for the next World Cup.