Do The Work: Public Outreach in Underserved Communities

Are You Listening?

How can the public sector serve communities that have every reason for distrust? You have to commit to doing the work. Not just the work of public improvements but the work of engaging with communities to decide what improvements to construct.

And how is the engagement work best done? Well, it’s not setting up 7:00pm public meetings at the neighborhood library or even the local high school cafeteria to present pre-determined solutions. Instead, the proper work involves allowing the decisions to come from the members of historically underserved communities themselves.

Going into communities with top-down solutions, no matter how well-intentioned, is just more of the same. “More of the same what?” you ask. More red-lining, more segregation, more forced relocation, more intentional ghettoization, more urban renewal (aka urban removal). More decisions made by the “experts” which specifically target, marginalize, and disenfranchise communities of color.

The urban planning industry has historically destroyed its ability to say, “Trust us. We’re the experts.” Urban planners and city officials engaged in urban planning projects must own up to that fact.

The work of public engagement in BIPOC communities must precede and guide all decisions on public improvements. What is the proper way of engagement? Listening.

Believe it or not, you don’t even have to ask a question. Just tune in and listen. Citizens call their city’s 311 community concerns hotline all the time. Start by georeferencing those logs. What have citizens in underserved neighborhoods shared concerns about? Parks? Sidewalks? A dangerous intersection? A fallen street sign? A broken streetlight? Poor water pressure?

Make a list. Do the work.

Only then should you reach out to speak– and when you do, it should be to say, “We’ve heard you, and we want to do right by you. This is what we’ve heard. What else are we missing?” Then close your mouth and listen again.

Go where the community members already are. Don’t ask them to come to you. Ask for time at religious services/gatherings. Attend community festivities. Set up a table outside local grocery stores. Do the work.

Once the list has been made, figure out costs and schedules associated with the different items on the list and present the community members with that information along with realistic budgets, timelines, and other constraining parameters. But do not tell the community members which items you’ve prioritized and/or green-lit. Instead, ask the community to take the information presented and prioritize the list themselves. It’s their neighborhood. It’s their list. Make it their decision. Do the work. Be a public servant.

Once the items have been prioritized, allocate resources and start going down the list.

Do the work.

Anaiah Matthew is a Partner Writer for Resident Urbanist. He previously authored The Walkist, a newsletter exploring the experience of walking through the eyes of a city planner while touching on topics of philosophy, sports, psychology, hobbies, and more. In addition to his writing, Anaiah is a planning and development practitioner with two decades of experience across the public, private, and consulting sectors. He lives and works in the Austin, TX metro area.

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