Community Engagement Post #2: On being genuine and building trust

Building trust is paramount for genuine community engagement

As I mentioned in our first community engagement post, Arnstein’s article on citizen participation (1969) shows us that there are wrong and illegitimate ways to do community or stakeholder engagement. In my research and my classes at Price, I’ve found that the first step to a legitimate process seems to be a legitimate desire by the engager to listen to the stakeholders and take their input into account when making decisions.

Melani Smith, Playworks Encore Fellow and an Adjunct Professor of Planning at the Price School agrees. She says: “The only bad reason to engage a community I can think of is doing it under false pretenses. If you really don’t want to hear the community, and pay attention to their aspirations and concerns, then better not to engage them at all.”

Similarly, Josh Gertler, CEO of Consensus Inc., says that their brand is all about legitimate engagement and that stems from being truthful in their work. Consensus is a public relations and community engagement firm that operates out of Burbank. They will not work with clients they feel are opposed to being forthcoming with and respectful of the communities where they are intervening.

Source: National Parks Service

All of this boils down to the issue of trust and how important trust is in order to engage people effectively. However, trust does not come easily —especially when working in historically disenfranchised communities. Distrust from these communities is not unfounded: there is a recorded history of private and public officials being dismissive, neglectful, or even deceitful when working with low-income communities and communities of color. The poisoning of Flint Michigan’s water source is one recent example, and these failings towards vulnerable communities are the inspiration for movements like the Environmental Justice Movement and Black Lives Matter.

Currently, a general feeling of distrust towards government and institutions is actually quite pervasive in the U.S. generally . This disdain for institutions and centralized power is also reflected in LA’s recent Measure S debate, for example. So, how do you engage people in this environment of distrust? In the end, I think leaders just need to be more trustworthy; they need to earn communities’ trust with their actions.

How do you build trust in communities?

If the first step is to have genuine interest in engaging communities, the second is to actually show up and listen to the concerns and opinions of the community in question. Reinstating trust in planners, developers, policy officials and private leaders as a whole begins on an individual level. The more communities have positive experiences with these institutions, the closer we get to people being open and trusting of practitioners who come in and say they’re here to listen, and they’re here to help.

Melani Smith says: “You have to meet the stakeholders where they are, literally and figuratively. You’ve got to have meetings where and when it works for them, and understand the constraints of the stakeholders – if they have kids, you’ve got to provide for childcare. You need to provide clear information, in plain language, not planning-speak, and encourage folks to ask questions, in whatever language they speak.” She also recommends partnering with already established and reputable community leaders and organizations when taking on a project: “I would never just go into a community I didn’t know, and in which I wasn’t known, ‘cold’.”

Cooperative processes give stakeholders a sense of ownership of the project. It is a lot more likely that later implementation stages will be less contentious when community members feel like they are part of the project in its initial stages—and so it is more likely that the project will actually come to fruition. A good way of signaling to the public that you want them to feel like part of the process is the way you frame or brand your project. You should frame your ideas in a way that is attractive and comprehensible to constituents. If you can, frame your project in a way that will make constituents feel like they are part of the project and the decision-making process.

For example, Melani worked on a project to create multimodal street improvements along the Figueroa corridor and called it My Figueroa: “On the MyFigueroa project, our website was a crucial place to share information, and our social media program was key to keeping stakeholders informed of our activities. The minute the project was nicknamed “MyFig” by the community, I knew folks were attached to it and would fight for it”. Another good example is a campaign by Consensus for the redevelopment of a mall in Downtown Burbank called “I heart Burbank.” In it, they ask community members and visitors what it is they love about Burbank and ask them how they would want the new redevelopment to be like.

I bring up these projects because their branding specifically encouraged the community to feel that the project was theirs too and that can be really powerful. However, you should do more that just signal to people that you want their input and you want them to feel ownership over your project: how you communicate is supremely important, but how you act says even more. In order to do this, you have to go out of your way to convince community members that they should trust you. If this seems like hard work—it’s because it is. But legitimately engaging the public when taking on projects in their communities is especially rewarding in the long-term.

In summary, if you want to genuinely engage people in your decision-making processes, do so in a thoughtful, respectful, and inclusive manner. Being effective means that you have to thoughtfully research who your stakeholders are, and that you adequately plan and prepare your interventions with them. If your intentions are less than genuine, you should consider not taking on such a task at all. Engaging the public is time- and resource-intensive; if it’s not genuine, it’s not really worth it. In our next post, we’ll look at innovation and how to inform the public so that they can participate meaningfully in these processes.