Real Talk Recap: Community Engagement is Hard Work
This week, more than 50 community members attended the Center for Civic Innovation's May Real Talk panel on the trial and error of community engagement. As Atlanta continues to grow and local governments launch increasingly ambitious projects, community engagement is increasingly important.
CCI team member Kyle Kessler introduced the topic, emphasizing that community engagement is a spectrum that ranges from informing the community and inviting the community to participate, to empowering the community to make decisions. Later, CCI team member Bem Joiner introduced the panelists, who worked to engage the Atlanta community on projects such as the Atlanta Beltline, the Better Together Decatur campaign, and the Downtown Master Plan. After Kyle and Bem's introductions, participants all gave short presentations on their experiences and challenges engaging their communities, such as including difficult-to-reach communities, and the resources needed for successful community engagement.
Panelists and audience members discussed the promises and challenges of community engagement, including difficult-to-reach communities, the resources needed for successful community engagement, and challenges of accountability during the implementation phase. Nathan Soldat and Whitney Fuller from the Beltline explained how 20% of Atlanta residents will be directly affected by the project, and stressed the need to use both new digital tools and old school methods like postcards, as many older, legacy residents may not have access to high speed internet. Additionally, Whitney Fuller explained that while meetings typically are held during dinner time, she does not have a budget for food, which can be challenging community members balancing many responsibilities. Finally, Nathan emphasized while the process of building community trust takes time, this trust is “crucial because the community is your real partner in this process, and those relationships really mean a lot when you need advocacy for your project, for what you’re trying to accomplish.”
Audrey Leous described how Central Atlanta Progress hosted several open houses at Georgia State, where community members could interact with maps and photo boards, explaining how she tried to move past the old meetings model to make community engagement exciting and, well, engaging. Cassie Yoder who led the Decatur Together Campaign explained how communities have the most influence during the first stages of any project, but often only become engaged once construction begins in their backyard. Additionally, she highlighted the importance of community engagement managers who look like the community, live in the community, and have similar lived experiences as community members. Finally, panelists expressed how crucial resources are in leading a successful community engagement process.
Audience members asked the toughest questions, challenging the panelists to work more closely with community organizations, and asking why projects sometimes do not look like what communities agreed to. Panelists explained the challenges of financial and political constraints, as well as the difficulties of keeping community members involved during the implementation phase. At the end of the event, panelists encouraged audience members to stay involved.
On June 4, the Beltline will host its quarterly briefing meeting 6-8:30 pm at the Friendship Baptist Church.
Central Atlanta Progress recently formed a Downtown Master Plan Task Force and encouraged community members to join and sign up for its listserv to stay informed.