Here are some initial thoughts on the community engagement process:
Government agencies frequently accept public comment on proposed plans or projects, but the primary purpose is often only to fulfill a legal requirement. Members of the community often do not have the information they need to offer informed comments, and the public participation is often too late to produce meaningful change.
Even when good open meetings are held, it doesn’t necessarily produce real engagement, for a number of reasons:
- Legal notices of meetings do not reach most people and rarely contain enough information for people to understand the issues.
- Many people aren’t comfortable speaking up in public, because they don’t feel sufficiently informed or aware of the ramifications of the different issues or because they don’t think their opinion or ideas will be taken seriously or affect the outcomes.
- Members of marginalized groups — including racial & ethnic minorities, people who are not fluent in English, and people who did not complete school successfully — are even more likely to feel this way.
- Many young people don’t learn about environmental, sustainability, & public-policy issues in school and may not understand them too well. (Students should be included in outreach and educational efforts, though — partially because their views can be valuable and partially because it will help them learn about the issues and planning processes.)
- Out-of-school youth, including those who had been problems in school or were in the juvenile justice system, are usually ignored when planning outreach. While it’s true that many members of this population have little interest in the issues, there are some who can become quite interested and can provide new insights and understanding. (At the same time, it tends to improve their participation in the community, so it benefits both the individuals and the community.)
Meaningful outreach & engagement can help overcome these barriers by building a level of awareness and trust that permits people to feel comfortable asking questions and offering their insights. The typical ‘public hearing’ rarely produces much in the way of results. Even highly-structured surveys and focus groups, often sacrifice depth of information for ease in reporting — but appropriately designed in-depth individual and small-group processes can produce rich & meaningful results.
The importance of these processes has been widely recognized by community-based organizations and federal agencies such as HUD and the EPA. Even the Pennsylvania DEP — not known for being particularly interested in or responsive to people’s concerns — has published a set of Environmental Justice Public Participation Guidelines.
Before becoming involved with the Alliance, Peter coordinated an extensive and effective in-depth community assessment in Plainfield, NJ, using an attitudinal-experiential approach with in-depth interviews and small group processes. He also participated as a core team member with the NJ Juvenile Intensive Supervision Program and was a member of the Lehigh County Youth Crime & Violence Task Force.