Community Engagement Post #3: On informing and educating the public, and innovation

by Patricia Quintero Estades

One of the barriers discouraging civic involvement identified in our LA Civics Initiative kick-off workshop last year was “baseline knowledge”—the idea that people need to be informed and educated in certain issues and processes in order for them to fully engage and participate. It is no surprise that Sherry Arnstein writing on citizen participation in 1969 identified “information” as an important first step towards more legitimate levels of engagement. However, as we explored in a previous post, the state of civic education in the U.S. is pretty dire.

In fact, when I spoke with Grayce Liu, the General Manager the L.A. Department of Neighborhood Empowerment (EmpowerLA), she mentioned how educating people on the basic processes of city government turned out to be a large portion of her job. Navigating City Hall’s different departments and figuring out how to get projects approved and implemented can be quite complicated and confusing. Because of this, part of EmpowerLA’s work has been in educating residents from the neighborhood councils on how to effectively navigate City Hall and how to identify partners and resources in the City that will help them achieve their goals as a community.

Source: Flickr- David Wilson

Liu hopes that by providing the information to and by acting as a liaison between neighborhood councils and folks at the City, they will reach a point of “co-creation” wherein they work together to address community needs. Although she can think of recent examples of this happening already, she envisions this becoming the norm rather than the exception. Information for the sake of information is a step in the right direction, but it is when stakeholders have enough power to sway outcomes that real and genuine engagement is happening.

However, getting to the point where information and education lead to empowerment, and that empowerment leads to real engagement and cooperation between institutions and communities is no walk in the park. In general, institutions have a rough time letting go of how things have always been done. As a local example, in a 2005 study, Musso et. al. highlighted that the neighborhood council system in L.A. was “deeply embedded in highly institutionalized, pre-existing networks of political relations”. And this tendency to maintain the status quo and opt for the “way it has always been” impacts all sectors, not just government.

To combat this, Liu prioritizes training her staff in ways of communicating and interacting with the public at neighborhood councils. She has become a champion of innovation in her department—even borrowing lessons from improv training to try to get her employees to steer away from always doing things how they have always been done, just because. “In improv you always say ‘yes and,’ and I use that principle in order to get my staff away from no, which sadly is a very common response from government staff when engaging with the public. I want them to be more open-minded and to try to get away from these automatic responses that have been slowly ingrained in our processes.”

Source: Blue Diamond Gallery

Another way to be innovative in how you interact with the public is to look for new venues to speak to the public and for the public to speak to you. During a guest lecture on public participation and engagement processes, Consensus CEO Josh Gertler expressed how new forms of media, such as video and multimedia platforms, are becoming increasingly relevant and important when trying to get any message across to any audience. Brevity, succinctness, and the art of moving and motivating people are all important for communicating with the public—even for non-commercial purposes.

As we mentioned in a previous post: if you want people to pay attention you must speak their language and meet them where they are. We learned this from Playworks Fellow, and Price Adjunct Professor of Planning, Melani Smith, who is also a big proponent of using visual aids and visually engaging tools to encourage community feedback and participation.

She says it’s always better to show rather than tell—in other words, visually engaging communities is key. “I’ve had great experiences doing Pop Up workshops where we actually built temporary installations of proposed changes to a street, and allowed the community to experience the proposed changes, and also make observations of the changes.” Visual information can be more effective at bridging gaps of knowledge and expertise between experts (or “technocrats”) and the community.

This Planetizen article provides other examples of newly popular engagement strategies such as community asset mapping and “walkshops”. These strategies tend to be more interactive than a traditional neighborhood meeting and they provide opportunities for community members to learn about their neighborhood while also providing insights into the neighborhood that only locals truly have. Planners, developers, architects, city officials, or nonprofit leaders can lend technical expertise to projects, but community members have another level of expertise and knowledge that comes from experience—not tapping into that knowledge is a missed opportunity.

Source: Buffalo Green Code

Therefore, it’s important to keep in mind that you are not only trying to disseminate information to the public. As Grayce said: if you truly want to engage a community at a deep level, you are trying to co-create. To do so, you must get information from the public as well. Last semester, we hosted Jennifer Samson of RiverLA for one of our Lunch with a Leader events. She talked about RiverLA’s Rio Vistas project, where they partnered with local high school students to help design the physical improvements RiverLA was planning for their neighborhoods. The project was a great success, and it is an excellent example of how community expertise is invaluable.

Another upside of investing in programs like these is that you start creating social capital by taking the time to educate people enough for them to participate meaningfully. You start training future leaders that now have the know-how to improve their communities, and maybe pave the way for a more civically educated and engaged public. In our next and final post, we will look at social media and online platforms, and the future of public engagement.