Engagingly So: Bringing DEI into the Public Engagement Process

Engagingly so

On March 1st, 2022, the WTS Philadelphia and Central PA chapters hosted a webinar titled “Engagingly So: Bringing DEI into the Public Engagement Process.”

The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee brought together industry leaders and professionals who lead public engagement for infrastructure projects throughout the country. This panel discussion was moderated by Joanna Reagle, and the panelists included Victoria Adams Phipps, Monica G. Tibbits- Nutt, Nexa M. Castro, Patricia Codina, and Marisa Denker.  

There is a renewed focus and importance given to public engagement on infrastructure projects. Engagement efforts look to gather information to best understand the community challenges when it comes to accessibility and connectivity to amenities and infrastructure. Through the process, it is easy to lose quieter voices, as well as voices that belong to underrepresented demographics. The underrepresentation can be a product of unrecognized barriers. The responsibility falls on the planning and design community to get an accurate understanding of the community and possible barriers to ensure that they are best represented in the engagement process.

One of the major takeaways is the inclusion of a “Phase Zero” in the engagement process. This involves gathering data to understand the demographic, community leaders, history of the past engagement efforts, and the level of trust between the community and the project team. It also involves beginning to build relationships with community members. The sooner the trust is established, the more likely it is to get momentum and effective engagement within the community. One speaker noted that public engagement moves at the speed of trust.

In addition, there was an emphasis on transparency of the process and including the community early in the process. Often the planning and design team comes in with a vision for the whole project. However, the panelist recommends allowing the community to help set the vision. It is important for the planning and design community to have the framework but give an opportunity for the community to put their own imprint on the project. In doing so, the community will see that their voices and needs are heard and addressed.

In unprecedented times of a pandemic and the resulting rise in virtual engagement, the panelists discussed the benefits and disadvantages of virtual engagement. There are a variety of virtual engagement platforms which have allowed some individuals to attend events that would not be able to attend otherwise. On the other hand, this approach shed light to the inaccessibility of technology to others. Therefore, it is imperative to provide multiple methods for the community to be a part of the process. In addition to the virtual events, the panelists encourage going to the community and meeting people. Some recommendations included attending their community events such as a spring fair, parades, or meeting at the church after their services or meetings.

Understanding the value engagement brings to a community and to a project should be realized early in the process. After the design team leaves, the community and its leaders should continue to grow. Providing a channel of communication throughout the process builds a stronger relationship and that loop becomes the foundation of trust.

The webinar closed with a call to action encouraging the industry to share lessons learned from public engagement efforts with those who establish the minimum requirement for engagement. Federal, state, and local governments should realize the need to incorporate layered strategies to deliver more equitable and inclusive community engagement.  

Finally, a big THANK YOU to the panelists, moderator, DEI committee, and WTS board members for working behind the scenes to pull this event together.

Check out photos and a recording of this event!