Posted by Darrin Wasniewski

boyte_0In effective, sustained citizen action, people learn the skills of public life with which to act effectively. “Commons,” or the common wealth—the public goods that are objects of sustainable public action—become not only occasions for collaboration but invaluable sources of citizen education in their own right because they are the occasions for learning such skills. – Harry Boyte

There I was, sitting in the audience listening to Harry Boyte deliver his keynote, Small Cities: Centers of a Democratic Renaissance, at the 20th Conference of Small City and Regional Community hosted by UW- Stevens Point’s Center for the Small City in Wausau in 2015, when I made the connection. Our work in downtown and commercial district revitalization is, at its core, local democracy in action, or at least it should be. In the purest form, our work is engaging citizenry to effect change.

Admittedly, though, community engagement has become increasingly challenging. At the crux of the Main Street™ approach is the notion that the movement’s nature is grassroots and volunteer-based, yet all too often we find ourselves relying on a smaller and smaller group for input because it seems no one wants to participate. How many did you have attend your last district visioning session or town hall? Hardly worth the effort for the six (if you were lucky to have that many) people that showed up, and you would be hard-pressed to make the case that they were representative of the community. This is not just a challenge in your local community or in Wisconsin, but nationally. The true scope of this issue hit me when I viewed how many sessions dealt with community engagement at both the National Planning Conference and Main Street Now this year. The good news: solutions are readily at hand—but they will require us to abandon some past practices, learn how our communities wish to engage, and get out among the people.

Know Your Audience
coast responseThis advice applies in many contexts, but is especially important when trying to engage your community. Advertisers must evaluate which channel is best for reaching their target audience: do they put their money in print ads, online ads, Facebook ads, radio ads, or TV ads? In community development, we face a similar challenge, and if we truly want to reach a cross-section of our communities—the Greatest Generation, Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials and now Gen Z—we will probably need to employ a variety of methods to reach and build trust with each group.

For instance, Millennials and Gen Xers want to be involved if they feel like they can have real input and their opinions will be heard. If you already have a plan in mind and are just checking the “public input” box, it won’t go over well with this group. One of the biggest obstacles for engagement for the Millennials is how they feel uninformed or too ignorant to contribute anything meaningful. So to engage this group, you will want jargonless education materials that provides a solid foundation for the issue at hand.

But the biggest part of knowing your audience is to know how best to engage. Digital engagement is a valuable part of most strategies—allowing us to gather survey data, engage in conversations on social media, and disseminate information in videos and other types of posts—but it shouldn’t be the entire strategy. Remember that all of us are bombarded daily with digital messages and requests, so your message may get lost unless you use other methods to engage your audience.

Get Out Among the People
There is one method that reaches all demographic groups: breaking out of the town hall walls and getting out among the people. Hit the streets, ask questions and provide opportunities for people to share their opinions.

One simple approach is to have a chalkboard set up with a framing question. I recently saw an example set up inside the storefront for The Detroit Experience Factory. It had multiple lines with the sentence, “I want this city to be…” with blanks for visitors to fill in. To try this method for yourself, simply set up a large-format, A-frame board made out of plywood and painted with chalkboard paint. At the top, print a framing question such as “(City Name) needs _____” or “I would like to see ______ in downtown.” Attendees can write their answers below. When the board is filled, take a picture, erase and start over.

Allyson Watson, former Main Street director and now community and economic development educator with UW-Extension in Brown County, shared a recent public engagement exercise in a LinkedIn post titled “Engaging Millennials in Public Planning Processes.” The county sought the opinions of Millennials in the park planning process. In her article, Allyson outlines their approach, which included online and focus groups, as well as the outcomes.

coasterIn the area of public engagement, the Orton Family Foundation stands as a leaders. The foundation developed the Community Heart & Soul program to teach communities best practices in community engagement. At the most recent Main Street Now conference in Milwaukee, a panel of Heart & Soul communities shared their experiences with the process as well as some public engagement tactics. Three cities in the North Fork Valley in Colorado (Paonia, Hotchkiss, and Crawford) created coasters that asked “What do you love about the North Fork Valley?” and “What would you leave?” and distributed them to area bars and restaurants. Patrons would record their answers on the back, and staff would collect the coasters at the end of the day and returning them to the planning steering committee. The coasters were displayed publicly for others to read and the answers recorded. Orton Family Foundation provides a host of other resources and suggestions on their website, including a downloadable Community Heart & Soul Field Guide, topical resources and a YouTube channel.

So Where Do We Go From Here?
Community engagement is critical to the success of our communities. It has been the foundation of our democracy, and scholars such as Harry Boyte have dedicated their careers to chronicling the importance of the citizen movement. But the methods of engagement have changed, and we must adapt our approach to stay relevant. Today’s citizenry wants to be involved. Our organizations just need to provide the opportunity.