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Engagement does not equal inclusion

What is purposeful engagement and how can you implement it when seeking community input?

Women participating in a public engagement session. Image: Ismail Esen
Image: Ismail Esen

Published on May 13, 2019

In order to create impactful, inclusive programs that help cities flourish, meaningful input is needed – meaningful input from individuals, community groups and city builders. Cities and organizations are getting better at shaping engagement opportunities and engaging large numbers of people, but how can we ensure that those opportunities truly capture an inclusive and diverse viewpoint?

Many engagement mechanisms are open to the public, or seek out specific demographics or populations. However, traditional engagement frameworks do not work for everyone. Often those who attend engagement sessions are those who rank highest on the community engagement scale. The same voices speaking up may not lead to an all-encompassing picture of the community, especially when the community is made up of a diverse population.

Traditional engagement methods can be exclusionary, intimidating or inaccessible. Sometimes accommodations may need to be made to reduce barriers.

Some ways to increase inclusivity during the engagement stage:

  • Meet people where they are: Hold your meetings or workshops in a central community meeting place or location. Another option is asking for engagement within a pre-existing program. Don't ask or expect people to travel to you.
  • Design your engagements to elicit the best information from participants. This may mean breaking out of traditional workshop or survey structures and getting creative!
  • Educate and empower: Send experienced team members who can educate the community and give them the tools to make decisions, and are comfortable speaking with all members of the public.
  • Don't forget about the feedback loop: Ensure that information or reports that comes out of your engagement process are shared with the communities that participated.
  • Be respectful and appreciative of time: Many community members are juggling jobs, families or ensuring that basic needs are met. They are offering their expertise to you, so thank them!

In Evergreen's Vancouver office, we are putting inclusive engagement strategies to the test with our Climate Risks – Engaging Vulnerable Populations Project. This project aims to gather grassroots input from vulnerable populations, including seniors and Downtown Eastside (DTES) residents, in order to understand and reduce their vulnerability to climate change impacts.

Climate Risks is an innovative project that works to address the complex challenges that vulnerable and/or frontline communities face with climate adaptation. This includes (but is not limited to) individuals who are homeless or marginally housed in the DTES; seniors with limited English skills; seniors with low incomes; frail seniors, and seniors with limited mobility etc.

Though there are some examples in the U.S., there has been little direct engagement of vulnerable populations on the issue of climate adaptation in Canada. Most work examining the impacts of climate change on vulnerable populations have been academic studies, focused on the analysis of data primarily with respect to heat; instead of speaking with vulnerable citizens, listening to them and ensuring that the learnings bring about policy change.

The program is designed to engage with residents of Vancouver’s vulnerable populations but in order to do that, we want to engage them in the process. As the Climate Risks Project has prioritized vulnerable populations, a number of creative engagement activities have been planned to best engage them and learn from their lived experiences to determine their needs, priorities and interests in shaping the tools, programs, and adaptation strategies that would be most helpful.

Planned engagement activities include:

  • Tea and conversation program events;
  • Celebrate the Summer Beauty Night Event;
  • Summer Jeopardy Trivia Game;
  • Facilitated surveys;
  • Health-related workshops with a guest speaker;
  • Pet outreach event;
  • Community celebration events;

It can be easy to assume that by hosting a public engagement session, you are hearing all voices. But in reality, those who are most engaged can represent a small segment of the community you are trying to involve.

Being thoughtful about public engagement and implementing strategies that help you reach out to all members of a community can make your engagement process more inclusive and rewarding to both your work and the community it serves.