Equitable Public Involvement
A reflection on the 2016 IAP2 North American Conference from a U.S. conference scholarship recipient
Community Engagement Manager at Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD)
We’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?
This question was on my mind as I attended the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) 2016 North American Conference which took place in Montreal this past September. 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.
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.
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 non-profits and local governments. In addition to IAP2, 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.
For me, attending the IAP2 North American Conference was an energizing experience where I was able to dig in to the best ideas and practices around community engagement, learning and sharing with peers and experts across the field who are working to raise the bar for better, more equitable community engagement. I am excited to bring what I learned in Montreal back my work at CDAD as we continue promote strategies for building trust and relationships that empower the public to meaningfully participate in and impact the changes and development taking place in Detroit.
Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD) is Detroit’s association of Community Development and Neighborhood Improvement Organizations and we are a catalyst for the transformation of our neighborhoods, led and inspired by residents, community-based organizations, and other community stakeholders. CDAD works to enhance the capacity and effectiveness of Detroit’s community-based organizations, initiatives, and residents through advocacy, training, technical assistance, networking opportunities, information sharing, and facilitating common action.