Blog post by Kem Lowry, adjunct senior fellow at the East-West Center, with Micah Fisher
In the past few years of delivering coursework, workshops, and trainings on vulnerability assessments for climate adaptation and resilience we are often asked about effective practices for working with communities. Community engagement comes in many forms and for multiple purposes, but too often community surveys, meetings, workshop, charrettes, or other forms of engagement are organized simply to get community comments on plans that are already completed or decisions that have already been made.
Because the impacts of climate change in some communities are likely to be so consequential and potentially disruptive and the public and private costs of adaptation so high, the necessary community engagement for such communities is likely to be prolonged and emotionally charged. Planners, community organizers, local politicians and others will be working with communities to make decisions that affect residents’ sense of place and social identity, their financial security, and their faith in their fellow citizens and in government. Those of us engaged in this work need to be attentive to some of the predictable dilemmas likely to arise—and to consider how we should prepare ourselves. We have identified several of these dilemmas below:
- How do we present ourselves to vulnerable communities as authentic partners? Before we unroll our maps, assemble our newsprint stands and set up the PowerPoint presentation at a community meeting, it’s useful to ask ourselves who we are in the lives of community residents. Are we seen as anonymous [or familiar!] bureaucrats or experts about to bury them in information they won’t know how to use? Are we regarded as imperfect messengers to public officials? How do we jointly establish expectations about roles, responsibility and authority for a deliberative process that may engage us over the next several months or years?
- How do we earn and maintain community trust? Every planner, community organizer or facilitator should understand that in starting a community engagement process you are part of a history of engagement or non-engagement about which you may be ignorant or misinformed. Every ineffective meeting, perceived broken promise, misunderstanding or lack of follow-through is part of that history. The best intentions may get you in the community door, but previous community experiences are an invisible shadow that is sometimes manifest in rude comments, tightly folded arms and passive aggressive questions. Trust building can be a long process but one usually successful way to begin is by jointly setting expectations for the process, keeping commitments about seemingly small things [meeting times and places convenient to the community] and larger ones [providing information which the group has requested, getting commitments from public officials]. Because of the technical uncertainty about the timing, severity and geographic scope of some climate change impacts, there is a danger that revised estimates may undermine the trust of the group. Continuing conversations about the implications of uncertainty about technical estimates of impact and uncertainty about the “best” adaptation strategy are essential to maintain trust.
- What do we want from community engagement? Pressed to candidly answer this question, many of us might mention “shared recognition of the issues as we see them,” “support for our analysis,” or something similar. Too often we spend too little time reflecting on the knowledge and expertise within the community and how we might tap that knowledge more effectively. First and foremost, residents are knowledgeable about their own community. For example, most of the sites we have visited have an intimate knowledge of how frequently they are flooded and the areas that are most frequently flooded. They are often aware of how watershed management or mismanagement has affected the frequency and severity of flooding. They know how solid waste disposal activities have resulted in blocked drainage canals and who is most responsible for those waste disposal practices. They know what types of household level and community level adaptation activities have already been tried. They know which government agencies have been most accessible and helpful in addressing flooding and other community problems. They know who in the community is most vulnerable to the impacts of flooding or other impacts. Many of them have thought about the types of interventions that might make their community less vulnerable to flooding and other impacts and how public agencies could support them most effectively. They are also more acutely aware of their own adaptive capacity; their ability to deal with periodic flooding as a predictable nuisance and to weigh the costs of that nuisance against potential adaptive measures that might involve relocation or other community dislocations. Our challenge as outsiders is to figure what questions will help us mine their knowledge and understand their value priorities in the development of adaptation strategies.
- How do we listen effectively for meaning and understanding? Some communities have complex histories of injustice and public neglect. As outsiders, we can’t necessarily expect residents of such communities to engage immediately in conversations about climate risk, vulnerability assessments and adaptation measures. Rather than discuss options for reducing flooding, residents may want time and space in meetings and forums to bear witness to long-standing issues of lack of access to public services, lack of economic opportunities and feelings of social, economic and political marginalization. They want to be acknowledged, listened to, and taken seriously. Before we can engage communities about climate adaptation, effective engagement may sometimes require us to take the time to listen to stories of community pain and to seek to understand the meaning behind that pain.
- To whom are we accountable in community engagement? What is the nature of that accountability? Public agencies, private firms, NGOs, or universities employ many of us engaged in working with communities. We work within a web of formal and informal obligations and expectations created by contracts, schedules, professional codes of ethics, other responsibilities and norms of “good practice”. Some of these obligations and expectations may complicate our community engagement efforts. Done conscientiously, community work often requires prolonged engagement. Clients, like government agencies, want predictable schedules and budgets. We need not demonize declining budgets for community outreach or romanticize community work to recognize these constraints are real. At the same time, efficiency cannot be our sole or even primary guiding principle in working with communities. Having worked together at the outset of a community engagement process to establish a set of expectations about the design of a community deliberation process and intended outputs, we are accountable to them our fidelity to that set of expectations. Faced with conflicts between declining budgets, pressures from directors or CEOs and our accountability to the expectations of the communities with which we work, practitioners employ a variety of stratagems including bargaining with their employers for more resources, suggesting the possibility of a new community contract, working on a “no cost” basis or finding some other means of meeting their commitments. Working with integrity requires us to be constantly attentive to the expectations we are creating and the obligations associated with those expectations.
 A point made years ago in Shelly Arnstein’s much cited, “A Ladder of Citizen Participation” [Journal of the American Institute of Planning, Vol. 35, no. 4, 1969, pp. 216-224.