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Engagement by Listening

I just returned from ISC’s Sustainable Leadership Academy: Empowering Community Resilience. The two-day intensive workshop was focused on helping communities across the country better prepare for calamitous weather caused by climate change by reinventing the way they work together, communicate, and engage across many different groups.

Many great things came out of our workshop, but one essential truth really rose to the forefront in my mind. When discussing resilience with community members, one should never forget how much language and ideas can produce different meanings to different people. City planning, for example, has been used at times for segregation and gentrification. Don Ewards, Empowering Community resilience SCLASo, when a planner approaches historically oppressed communities – even with the best of intentions – it is natural for them to be met with skepticism and distrust. Understanding, or being open to understanding, that a humble city planner could be a symbol of institutional racism or past pains is an essential first step to authentic engagement.

And if you’re doing it right, authentic engagement will not always be comfortable. It means recognizing the reality of institutional racism, and shining a light on the repercussions of past and present choices, circumstances and actions. In Don Edwards’ (pictured above) keynote he compared community engagement with romantic engagement between two people. It requires a commitment to understand and respect different points of view – regardless of how hard things become.

One of our participants, Fort Lauderdale Public Affairs Officer Petula Burks, said that when she began outreach for their 2035 Vision Plan, she attended as many community meetings as she could, and simply listened. In being present but not imposing on these meetings Petula managed two things:

1. She learned a great deal about the community – much more than if she had insisted on running the meetings.
2. She garnered the community’s respect. They understood that she was there as a partner.

Over time, the community began to seek out Petula and ask her for help and information. Petula says that listening and not speaking – in effect giving up control – was often hard, but that the end result was worth it.

One of the more innovative approaches in engagement that nearly every team said that they would put into place when they returned from our workshop came from the National Capital Region. They created the Sustainable DC Ambassador program where volunteer members from communities are trained on the area’s sustainability plan, and then go back to the communities to discuss what the plan means to them and provide feedback to the city. This again means giving up control, but these community members already understand the language and symbolism that make up their community. They in essence act as translators for sustainability. This type of understanding and approach is precisely what is needed to build more resilient communities through community collaboration.

This post is by Mike Crowley, Senior Program Officer on ISC’s US Team.