This blog was originally published on the Building Better Regions website.
Authors: Sally J. Guzik, Ralph Tavares, and Jessica Wilkinson
Community involvement is foundational to sustaining healthy communities. Ensuring community involvement requires crafting pathways for everyone to voice their opinions and be part of decision-making processes that significantly impact their existence. Implementing equitable community engagement not only promotes trust but encourages active civic participation. It instills a sense of ownership and belonging among community members, which in turn fosters positive investment in their community and its growth.
The Building Better Regions Community of Practice hosted a dialogue featuring Sally Guzik, Vice President of Fourth Economy, and Ralph E. Tavares, Jr., Lead Consultant at Huckel Inclusive, to delve into this important topic. Their discussion focused on the typical barriers to inclusive engagement and how best to navigate these challenges. The recorded webinar is available here. We have summarized five key actions that are crucial to facilitating inclusive community engagement.
1. Listen Actively and Invest in Genuine Relationships
Building an environment conducive to effective listening right from the start of community engagement planning is vital. All too often, organizations approach community partnerships with an established power dynamic that can impede relationship building before it even begins. It is critical to remember that community leaders will likely discern insincere intentions; and that there are countless historical reasons that may make community leaders and members—especially those of color—hesitant about engaging with outside organizations.
Listening sessions are a type of facilitated discussion with a community that, if designed well, can be highly effective at gathering and sharing information about community members’ lived experiences. These sessions should be meticulously planned, considerately designed, and accessible to the community members the initiative aims to involve and uplift. The design of these sessions must be inclusive, considering factors like timing, venue, and the communication of the meeting’s goals and objectives. For instance, scheduling multiple meetings during a variety of timeslots will help to ensure robust participation. When choosing a venue, organizers must factor in the benefits and costs of virtual versus physical sessions, as well as venue accessibility in terms of public transportation and suitability for individuals with physical challenges. Once logistics are in place, organizers must ensure the participants are briefed on the session’s agenda, goals, and intended outcomes. This process will ensure effective engagement and convey your commitment to participants’ involvement.
A key aspect of community engagement is continuous interaction beyond the confines of a project or initiative. This includes engaging with community members and leaders by participating in their events and spreading awareness about their work. Remember, reciprocal presence and support make community engagement more fruitful.
In 2023, Grow Blue, the Blue Economy Partnership for Rhode Island, created Rhode Island’s 2030 Blue Economy Action Plan. The University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island Commerce, Partnership for Rhode Island, One Rhode Consulting, Huckel Inclusive, and Fourth Economy partnered to lead the planning process.
Together, these groups conducted in-person and virtual sessions to inform the Blue Economy Action Plan. In total, 250 Rhode Islanders provided input during the planning process. In addition to engaging with community members, the partners held meetings with many different types of organizations to drive education about the blue economy and increase project involvement.
Via its website, Grow Blue continues to solicit feedback from diverse community members across Rhode Island to inform the initiative’s vision and plans.
2. Co-create Processes and Solutions
Co-creation, a fundamental tenet of equitable community engagement, emphasizes the importance of collaborative problem-solving. It’s about fostering a participatory environment where community members are not mere spectators but active contributors to the solution-building process. Co-creation values and prioritizes community input, recognizing that as those most affected by a program’s outcomes, members of a community are the people best equipped to devise effective and relevant solutions.
This collaborative model centers the incorporation of community input into the decision-making process and the creation of channels through which community members can take ownership of the results. It encourages community members to actively participate in all stages of the process, from planning to implementation and review.
Furthermore, co-creation promotes the forging of partnerships with various local organizations, businesses, and other stakeholders. Such alliances enable the pooling of expertise, resources, and capacities, enhancing the potential for effective, sustainable outcomes. By fostering shared ownership of the process and its results, co-creation can lead to solutions that are more tailored to the community’s needs, promoting long-term engagement and investment in the community’s future.
One co-creation method municipalities have recently employed is participatory budgeting. Participatory budgeting is a democratic process by which members of a community ultimately decide how to spend part of a public budget. Participatory budgeting (PB) started in Brazil in 1989 and has since been implemented in over 7,000 cities around the world. Durham, North Carolina started its PB program in 2018 and is embarking on its third cycle. Durham’s PB cycle has five steps: idea collection, proposal development, vetting, voting, and implementation and evaluation.
3. Design Inclusive Entry Points
Creating inclusive entry points is a critical factor for boosting participation in community engagement initiatives. This involves deliberately designing engagement strategies to prioritize inclusivity and being mindful of not unintentionally constructing barriers. Providing the right resources, information, and access to community members empowers them to transition from passively attending meetings to actively contributing to the engagement process.
The goal is to facilitate their full participation in discussions, decision-making, and implementation of strategies, thereby fostering a sense of ownership and belonging within the community and initiative.
Equally important is the use of easily understandable language, eliminating unnecessary jargon that could deter involvement or lead to confusion. Accessible communication opens the process to a broader range of participants, ensuring diverse voices are heard and included. Moreover, establishing pathways for knowledge-sharing with community leaders is vital. This can be achieved by setting up regular meetings or opportunities to interact, offering educational resources, and establishing mentorship programs. It’s about guiding and fostering active community involvement, instead of merely inviting people into unfamiliar spaces.
To inform its Community Health Improvement Plan for 2023-2027, the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) in Pennsylvania conducted a robust community engagement campaign to learn about resident health concerns and priorities.
The plan was first informed by a community health assessment survey that aimed to gather resident priorities related to health. The survey was launched in 2019 and gathered information from 4,000 residents. When COVID-19 struck, the ACHD paused work on the plan in order to gather more information on rapidly changing health priorities. The ACHD launched a second survey in 2021 and gathered information from more than 2,000 residents.
At the same time, ACHD collected existing health data on county residents focused on identified priority areas such as access, chronic health behaviors, mental health, and substance use. Starting in 2022, ACHD and Fourth Economy conducted virtual listening sessions where 245 community members shared concerns and identified areas needing improvement. Concurrently, ACHD offered a survey that gave people unable to attend the virtual listening sessions the chance to share feedback, to which 400 residents responded. This data collection and community input informed the resulting plan containing goals, objectives, and metrics for a healthier Allegheny.
4. Be Transparent
Transparency mandates providing clear and comprehensible information about the decision-making process, including timelines and outcomes. It necessitates an open environment where program leaders explicitly share objectives of the engagement, the stakeholders involved, and the potential consequences of the decisions made. Transparency extends beyond mere communication; it implies a commitment to honesty and integrity, ensuring that all actions are ethical, unbiased, and in a community’s best interest.
Moreover, transparency is closely intertwined with feedback and responsiveness. Regular solicitation of community feedback provides valuable insights for decision-making and signals respect for community voices, further strengthening the trust and relationships between the parties involved. Addressing queries and concerns promptly and thoroughly is another facet of transparency. By offering comprehensive responses and ensuring that everyone clearly understands the process, a community engagement initiative can maintain alignment with the community’s priorities, foster mutual trust, and drive cooperative action toward shared goals.
5. Identify and Address Challenges
Equitable community engagement must involve identifying, acknowledging, and addressing community members’ challenges and barriers. This requires active immersion in a community, listening to stories, observing daily life, and identifying major social, economic, or political hurdles. Follow-up actions must then openly acknowledge these challenges and ensure they are at the forefront of planning and decision-making. It’s important to co-create practical and acceptable solutions with community members rather than imposing top-down strategies.
A faithful portrayal of a community’s lived experiences will help raise situational awareness among those working on your project and can motivate community action. Methods can range from community surveys and focus groups to interviews and storytelling. Simultaneously, fostering a collaborative culture and sharing best practices among community groups, organizations, and other stakeholders can leverage collective expertise and resources. By creating platforms for these interactions, communities can share successes, learn from one another, and collaboratively ideate solutions to common challenges, effectively addressing barriers and promoting development and resilience.
One example of identifying and addressing challenges occurred in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Homewood, a predominantly African American neighborhood with a long history that dates to the early 1800s. Homewood has worked hard to develop in a way that benefits its residents and prevents their displacement. In 2014, the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh worked with a team of partners (community and economic development professionals, project managers, architecture and urban designers, civil engineers, and public engagement specialists) to investigate the feasibility of a Transit Revitalization Investment District (TRID) and whether its use would benefit and align with the community’s goals.
In Pennsylvania, TRIDs are meant to create a mechanism to fund public projects within a half-mile radius of transit stations that will attract mixed-use, high-density development. This work was guided by a 31-member advisory committee that met monthly, in addition to three public meetings and multiple modes of communication (flyers, notices, email, and online communications). This combined analysis and community engagement revealed that a TRID alone would not meet the needs and desires of the Homewood community. To address these challenges, the partners worked together to develop recommendations on how to create a more appropriate TRID boundary, phase priority public projects, and implement TRID in ways that would benefit residents and businesses.
These five key actions ensure that all community members have an equal say in decision-making processes that affect their lives. By integrating these considerations into community engagement endeavors, we can foster trust, stimulate civic participation, and help community members cultivate a sense of ownership and investment in their communities, leading to stronger and more resilient communal structures.
Additional Resources for Inclusive Community Engagement
Equitable Community Planning Toolkit by Fourth Economy. This toolkit includes examples of how communities across the United States are “rising to meet the equity imperative,” as well as applicable tools for equitable practices and systems change processes.
Reflecting Community Priorities in Economic Development Practices by Darrene Hackler, PhD, and Ellen Harpel, PhD. This report provides specific ways local governments and communities can work together toward economic development. It also includes case studies and metrics examples.
Inclusive Community Engagement Toolkit by Capire. This toolkit provides detailed descriptions of the different ways to engage communities, from one-on-one meetings and small group gatherings to large group gatherings and surveys. It provides a step-by-step process for designing an inclusive engagement approach and discusses the barriers to participation different community members may face.