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Engaging for Equity in a World of COVID-19

SPARCC’s second Virtual Learning Conversation: Engaging for Equity in a World of COVID-19 included over 175 participants from Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Memphis. It brought together local and national advocates, planners, policymakers, and development partners working to advance radically re-imagined community engagement practices that government can utilize and fund to improve the quality of projects and plans, ensure that current resident and local business needs are met, and strengthen public, private and community partnerships.

Presentation from SPARCC’s Engaging for Equity in a World of COVID-19

Featured speaker and long-time SPARCC collaborator, Mariia Zimmerman of MZ Strategies, LLC, led the event and shared emerging practices highlighted in the 2019 SPARCC white paper she authored, “Inclusive Investment Starts with Equitable Engagement.” 

SPARCC partners are working to write a new chapter in community development — one that is centered on “inclusive investment” that prioritizes a more equitable and healthy future for everyone. Inclusive investment is defined as community-centered investments in the built environment for communities traditionally underserved or for which investment has been largely extractive and has not benefited existing residents, particularly communities of color. Equitable engagement is a key strategy to design and deliver community-centered investments. 

The SPARCC equitable engagement white paper offers a set of tools and strategies public agencies, developers, philanthropy and non-profits can deploy to resource local organizations and engage traditionally underrepresented community members as partners to shape community development policies, plans and investments. Equitable community engagement processes lead to better outcomes. Collaborative tables are an important lever for extending community reach, valuing the lived experience of community members, providing appropriate resources for community engagement, and designing metrics that matter. During the Virtual Learning Conversation, members from a variety of sectors across the six SPARCC regions shared lessons they have learned on equitable community engagement, particularly in the context of COVID-19. 

For example, The Center for Transforming Communities shared how they integrate arts and culture into their organizing work to shape cultural placekeeping practices that reinforce community pride and authentic community voice. Restorative Organizing, CTC’s brand of network organizing, intentionally frames healthy conversations around democratizing and moralizing power. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to stress our social systems, it’s clear that equitable community engagement, and these lessons, are even more critical due to the impacts disproportionately affecting communities of color and low-income communities. 

We know that engagement with marginalized communities is more challenging than before and this crisis serves to further alienate these communities from the processes that affect them. One key learning was that as we strive to be resilient and return to the conditions before COVID-19, we also have to be honest about the starting point. Common methods of community engagement, whether charrettes, online information sharing, or in-person town halls, haven’t always engaged or even explicitly sought to engage marginalized and impacted communities. As noted by groups like the International Association of Public Participation, there is a wide spectrum of engagement practices. 

Community members are experts in their lived experiences, neighborhood, and community dynamics, yet are often not directly included in the decision making processes to design engagement efforts or the investments and plans they inform.They must be partners in the process from start to finish.The COVID19 pandemic creates new challenges and opportunities for how and when to engage community voice and agency.

“Public input processes are a part of our democracy, so when in-person meetings are the primary method of gathering input, and those meetings are inaccessible or traumatizing, people who are kept out are excluded from the public square.” – The Century Foundation

Every community is unique and so are its engagement needs. Many are facing engagement barriers including language, access to technology, and wifi access. As Roberto Requejo with Elevated Chicago, which has developed its own Community Engagement Principles and Recommendations, mentioned during the event, “Broadband internet is the new sanitation” and new infrastructure is needed to allow our communities equal access to engage. 

Some organizations and government agencies are going high tech with platforms like Zoom, Social PinPoint and Miro but others are returning to more basic methods tied to a personal connection like phone trees, Whatsapp, and mass texting. With data and hardware limitations, practitioners are choosing outreach methods accordingly. Shifting to a new form of technology for communication and engagement requires cities and organizations to ensure their audience has compatible devices to use to be able to participate. It also requires training options like the guide to Online Better Meeting Practices developed by Neighborhood Planning Unit S.

To see a list of resources shared by sites during the Virtual Learning Conversation, click here.

To see SPARCC COVID-19 resources, click here.

One example at SPARCC came in Atlanta when the TransFormation Alliance hosted a competition to increase participation in the national census.Residents were invited to shoot a video on their smartphones to share why they filled out their census and were awarded a cash prize.Translation methods should also be prioritized to ensure that people with different language and audio or visual abilities are able to participate and to be informed.

If you’ve received emails from every fast food restaurant you’ve ever patronized since the beginning of this pandemic, you know everyone is trying to connect right now. Some community members are experiencing “engagement fatigue” from being bombarded by requests for connection and engagement while they continue to deal with their own personal issues, ranging from having to homeschool unexpectedly to dealing with illness and trauma. Everyone is adjusting to a new reality, and for some, these, social and economic repercussions are making it impossible to engage as much as they would like.

The pandemic and its social and economic repercussions also highlight ongoing challenges participants are facing like adapting to working while being home with kids, partners, and extended family in some cases.These new patterns are shifting traditional place-based and tenant-based organizing. For example, some organizations that traditionally built resident-based campaigns are having to shift their techniques to still organize while socially distant.There are barriers to what can be done virtually. Leadership development  and building trust across organizations while working and living remotely continues to be a challenge.

Yet there are also new opportunities. Before COVID-19, historic inequities were entrenched in the systems that we all rely on, including in the development process. Previously cities and public agencies hosted town halls and other venues for feedback that had to happen in-person, often during working hours when many are simply not able to participate. Now city and regional governments are breaking down these barriers to host online events that create greater flexibility in when and who can participate. Institutions that utilized outdated modes of communication are beginning to transition toward more inclusive and accessible practices.

The adaptability we have shown around this pandemic reveals how systems, institutions, and individuals can change when needed. As we move forward, there is the opportunity to build a shared vision of the world we want to live in — one with more racially equitable systems.True partnership with community as co-designers and co-implementers is the first step in realizing a just and inclusive recovery

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