Four principles for equitable public engagement

Jennifer Butcher is a Community Well-being Specialist with BC Healthy Communities.
Jacob Cramer is a Researcher & Planning Assistant with BC Healthy Communities.

Making sure public engagement processes are equitable is no easy task. For far too long, underrepresented and underserved community members have not had adequate opportunity to meaningfully contribute to the decisions that determine how we build our communities.

To right this wrong, those involved in designing and implementing public engagement have worked tirelessly to ensure that diverse voices are brought to the table; allowing for the community to provide representative input. The diversity of perspectives who are present at public engagement events is always important, yet often challenging. The field of public engagement has evolved to recognize that in order for public engagement to be an effective tool for reducing systemic inequities, the diversity of those participating cannot be the only aspect of equity that public engagement looks to balance. Beyond opportunity, public engagement processes can also offer a more equitable share of public resources and power to community members who need it most.

This fall, BC Healthy Communities, through PlanH, hosted a webinar on equitable public engagement. The presentation and ensuing discussion centered on navigating power when engaging underrepresented populations. Our panelists included Charla Huber, Director of Communications & Indigenous Relations, M’akola Housing Society; Ruth Sulentich, Communications and Public Engagement Specialist, District of Lake Country; and Sue Wheeler, Social Development Manager, City of Kelowna.

Fuelled by the insight of these three community partners, all with unique experience and well versed in community engagement, the webinar delivered some key principles for moving beyond opportunity for underserved groups to participate, into opportunity for them to affect change. Here, we share four notable principles from that discussion:  

Intentionality

Public engagement processes that seek to meet requirements or ‘tick boxes’ are rarely equitable. It is vital that when designing public engagement processes, we ensure it is done for the right reason and that an intention exists from the outset to redistribute opportunity, resources and power more fairly.

Before beginning any engagement process, Charla Huber asks herself three questions. 1.) Why am I engaging? 2.) What is the outcome I’m hoping to achieve? And 3.) Is this engagement mutually beneficial? If out of the gates you don’t believe the answer to the third question is reciprocity and equity, it’s critical to go back and revisit why you’re engaging and what outcomes you hope the process will bring.  

Authenticity

Authenticity builds on intentionality. In addition to a project having equitable intentions, it is essential for the process to come from a place of authenticity to ensure the engagement process unfolds in an equitable manner. Authentic equitable engagement is about honouring the choice of those who are most affected by the issue under deliberation and being responsive to their voiced concerns, rather than coming into the conversation with a predetermined agenda. 

Ruth Sulentich gave us some valuable insight into how authenticity shows up when we don’t have an alternative motive in mind. When she engages communities in her work, Ruth focuses on communicating the project’s intention authentically, ensuring anyone who is a part of the engagement process feels a true sense of transparency and honesty in the relationship.

Trust

Building trust with underserved community members is key, and doing so requires us to look inward to ensure that our ideas and actions are worthy of the public’s trust. We need to foster a sense of trust with others by actively seeking ways to share power.

“Believe us”—in Sue Wheeler’s experience with the Kelowna Lived Experience Circle, those involved wanted to feel that their truth matters. When engaged members felt trusted, it empowered them to move into positions where they are now leading the process of change that everyone envisions but which impacts them most.

Paradigm-Shifting

Public engagement has a history of working to benefit the same community members and maintain the status quo. As individuals who design and implement public engagement processes, we hold the power to disrupt the systems that reproduce status quo community engagement processes. The question is, when we build them back up, how can we make sure the power that was inequitably held is more fairly redistributed to all community members?

Creating a paradigm shift was a sentiment expressed by all panelists. A central part of ensuring public engagement is more equitable involves shifting how we conceptualize public engagement as a whole. It requires a switch from knower and expert to learner and listener. It develops understanding and conviction in the value of equity, not just within an engagement team, but across entire cohorts and organizations. It means moving away from engagement ‘facilitators’ to advocates for and conveners of the underserved groups who continue to live out the effects of other people’s decisions. It is a relinquishing of control over the process to create space for the process to evolve as the community needs it to, supporting the decision-making authority to be placed in the hands of the experts – the community members.

“How do we properly acknowledge your traditional territory? How can we honour your nation? And how can we include you in this project?” — Charla Huber, on the three questions she returns to each time she reaches out to a Nation.

At BC Healthy Communities, all of these principles play a critical role in how we view equitable community engagement. A process that is designed and implemented not only to capture a chorus of voices but one that also ensures that what has been determined as priorities by those most affected, is then meaningfully translated to a fairer distribution of resources and decision-making power.

The topic of empowering communities through public engagement garnered such great interest that by the end of the webinar we had more outstanding questions than we could answer during that hour together. But that’s more than okay, it’s inspiring! This wasn’t a conversion that was going to start and end in 60 minutes, and we promise you’ll be hearing more from others on this topic, through us, in the near future. In the meantime, look for ways to start applying these principles in your own public engagement practice and if you weren’t able to join live, make sure to check out the webinar recording here as well as these additional resources.   

Get more information on strategies, tools and resources to make community engagement more equitable. View our on-demand webinar, Equitable public engagement: Navigating power when engaging underrepresented populations.

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