Community engagement is a process!

Community engagement is a process. It’s more than a meeting or an email blast or PowerPoint that alerts the affected community about your project. People who take this single-handed approach often find that these tactics don’t fully engage with those who are impacted by the project.

As with anything, your messaging must be customized for the target audience. Any disconnect can lead to a project’s failure. When developing your community engagement strategy, take into account the community’s history, including economic investment, socioeconomic shifts, psychographics, etc. Then, determine the most appropriate vehicles for information.

Bottom line: there are no easy, one-step answers. Think of it like a PB&J sandwich: it might seem basic, but there are multiple options for bread, jam, how the sandwich is sliced, and so on. You need to build the sandwich that best matches the affected community’s preferences.

Making Emotional Input Part of Community Engagement

Before you embark on a project, gather feedback from people who live in the affected community to assess their opinions and needs. You’ll also want to understand the history of such projects in the community, then anticipate any objections. For example, transportation tends to divide communities, and people know that. They may balk at this and other projects they perceive will negatively impact their neighborhood.

Another example is that industrial projects can have lasting environmental effects, and people are increasingly nervous about this, especially if they don’t understand the project’s purpose.

When rolling out your project, you must also keep power dynamics in consideration. No one likes to feel like an institution is doing a project in their community with no consideration for the impact it will have. Ensure that people feel like their time is being respected and their voices heard and valued. In other words, community engagement is an emotional process. It needs to take a community’s history and complexity into account and honor people’s voices rather than sending token messages. Understanding and accounting for these factors is crucial to any project’s success.

Life goes on for projects needing community engagement despite COVID-19 and protests

Disparities of all types are being amplified by COVID-19. Every community’s health, environments, economic, and other issues are being thrown into sharp relief. Meanwhile, community engagement tends to involve conversations, face-to-face encounters, and so on — activities that are potentially dangerous during the COVID era.

Now is the time to shift to virtual platforms and innovate new approaches to projects. Even if it’s not convenient, life goes on, and the fact is that few of these industrial, environmental, or public works projects have stopped due to the pandemic.

That’s why it’s crucial to mitigating disparities to develop meaningful conversations surrounding these projects. Don’t be afraid to be proactive in communication to help facilitate these projects and maintain community engagement.

There is a wide range of platforms to empower communication, so ensure that you are taking advantage of new virtual technologies as well as good old-fashioned conference calls. It’s crucial to maintain a consistent connection to the affected community and provide accessible opportunities for engagement.

Why You Need to Cultivate Specific Feedback

Most projects include a public hearing or town hall phase in which you gather community feedback. Where many projects fail is in taking that feedback into account and demonstrating that you have heard it. After you have heard all complaints, questions, and opinions — without shutting down or minimizing conversation — make a strategy to incorporate this feedback into your project approach.

Remember that not everyone sees things through your lens, and the solutions you see may not be the same as those stakeholders see. For best results, be specific in your requests for feedback from your community. If you don’t ask for what you want, you’ll get something that you don’t want. This goes for both project managers and stakeholders.

Use a visioning session to facilitate discussion among stakeholders to gain a variety of perspectives. What does success look like? What needs to be present or happen? Ask these questions to help the project stay in tune with feedback.

Why Accountability is Important for Community Engagement

Community engagement isn’t enough; you need to show your receipts to build trust among your stakeholders. Receipts include the tactics you take to ensure accountability.

Where does your funding come from? What are your accessibility guidelines? Are you taking immigrant status, mental health, and demographics into account? What are your political donations? All these pieces of information need to be shared with the affected community.

If you say that you are trying to reach a particular segment of the population, show how you’re doing it and report on results. Don’t just hold meetings or post ads and call it a day. There are no participation trophies in community projects!

Did you do your due diligence to collect feedback from and minimize harm to the affected community? Did you customize your strategy to align with the community’s needs and interests? Remember, no one looks good in a one-size-fits-all garment, so don’t rely upon a one-size-fit-alls approach to make your project happen.

If you want results, do more than making a statement. Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk.

Why do people riot?

Riots do not develop out of thin air…they are the language of the unheard. Social justice is the guarantor of riot prevention. These were the wise insights of Martin Luther King Jr.

Riots are not unique to America, but as Dr. Shonda Craft of Saint Cloud State University observed, a need for being heard and connected comes to a boiling point during times like the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s important to understand the impulse for protest before embarking on a community project.

If you’re communicating with a neighborhood whose residents have experience  in feeling unheard — whether for access to healthy food, transportation, or jobs — you need to understand the impact that your project may have. Promising new parks, infrastructure, and so on that has nothing to do with their priorities can lead to pushback from that neighborhood.

You could get the cold-shoulder treatment if they make up your mind that you’re not on their side — and from there, you’ll struggle to get buy-in and support you need to make the project a success.

Try to speak from a place of authenticity and keep your target audience’s priorities in mind throughout your messaging. Sensitivity to their needs should guide your strategy, rather than a “do-gooder” approach that ignores their pain.

Making a Good Impression Through Community Engagement

What impression do you want to leave when you finish a project? Think of the legacy we want to leave in our schools or workplaces. It’s the same in our community projects.

Did you show the results, or did you pop up and then disappear? It’s important to stay engaged with the affected community and demonstrate your results to them — not through a white paper full of technical jargon but through messaging that resonates with that audience.

People remember when you don’t follow up, and for projects that take a long time, e.g. roads, bridges, development, etc., you need to maintain communication even if there’s little progress. Manage your impressions — they last forever.

Was your “engagement” transactional, in which you collected input then didn’t put it into action? Or was it true engagement: a give-and-take in which you built trust and made a lasting, positive impression?

Community Engagement Chats

How can you ensure that your community engagement is authentic and valuable? If you’ve ever filled out a survey from an institution for some project, then never saw any results or followup, you probably felt taken advantage of. That’s the last thing you want from the community affected by your project.

When talking to your stakeholders, focus on sharing the benefits they will experience rather than talking up your aspirations and values. Be transparent about your endeavors, and communicate with stakeholders’ feelings in mind.

Many communities have been burned by organizations that took a transactional approach with stakeholders. Members of those communities tend to be skittish, and when you try to claim or carve out space for your platform, it can often backfire. Instead of shoving yourself into the mix, take a step back and let people come to you.

For example, identify the events and traditions that are important in the community, and use those opportunities for a pop-up event where you can engage with stakeholders in a more natural way. You’ll likely gain better insights into the effect your project will have.