public outreach

Communities Need a Bigger Table

There is a very popular saying with regards to public policy: one is either at the table, or on the menu. Because of this behavior, many communities are dissected, studied, “renewed,” and replaced without the residents even becoming aware of the changes. Community outreach efforts are slow to change, and inequities have drastically increased over the past thirty years without acknowledging the impending implosion. Therefore, public and private entities need to work harder to include members of marginalized communities who have genuine, recent experiences with hardships included in making decisions about the future.

Waiting outside the room with the table is no longer acceptable for many neighborhoods. Residents are constantly told that if they are patient, then the displacement will reverse itself and opportunities to invest will arise. However, such advice tends to come from people who have not only been allowed to sit at the table, but have been offered several helpings. Many advocate groups have patiently formed coalitions with neighborhood organizations that have either not followed up with said groups, or disappeared at the bond proposition meetings, meaning there is no public acknowledgment of an alliance. It is not in the interest of disadvantaged constituents to avoid confrontation when their communities are seen as viable options for inequitable development.

Standing in the back of the room is also no longer acceptable because even when players from impoverished communities are invited into the room, public entities are less accountable to include them. Residential and professional backgrounds are everything in planning, and several decision-makers are chosen among the people who come from the best neighborhoods with the most respected professional history, or, in the case of college towns, the right school. Problematically, this means that too many public entities receive the same types of responses which then further alienate distressed areas because policies are allowed to maintain inequities. Training and education only matter for people from strapped communities if the decision-makers recognize such effort.

Being invited to the table with the expectation that one is silent is, unfortunately, the most common outcome in the practice of community outreach. Yes, members of the area are allowed to have a response, but it has to come in such a specific format that many constituents are intimidated and avoid such circumstances. When an advocate finally has the presence of mind to participate, those from a position of knowledge disparage the efforts based on that knowledge, and such behavior discourages further advocacy. There is no such thing as calm advocacy: either one is working to change the situation, or one has decided that the situation is tolerable enough.

Instead of relegating all the members of distressed communities to irrelevance, it is time to build a bigger table. With the advent of social media, the tools exist; with the increase in the educated population, the players exist; and with the current political climate, the will is available. The question is will public and private entities participate in building the table or sanding it down from the populace?


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