Best Practices in Community Engagement from a
Diverse Panel of Expert Women
The annual KWEN Forum on Environmental Issues has become one of our signature events, one that spotlights women working in the environmental field through professional or personal ventures. This year’s panelists joined us to discuss their diverse approaches for engaging the public toward an issue or initiative that affects the environment. The KWEN leadership team solicited our members for the panelists’ questions. The questions selected reflect the larger theme of community engagement. KWEN is a politically neutral organization, but we encourage our network of women to take a stand against, advocate for, or organize around the issues that are most important to them. Because of this, we sought to draw from the experience and lessons learned of those who engage audiences often.
As the Senior Transportation Planner for the Lawrence – Douglas County Metropolitan Planning Organization, Jessica Mortinger is responsible for managing the region’s current transportation plan, called Transportation 2040. Soliciting feedback from community members is a large component of this project. During the panel discussion, Jessica shared details about the project, and elaborated on the strategies that she and her team employ to make sure they hear every voice:
What are the major priorities for transportation planning in Lawrence and Douglas County in 2017?
“The Lawrence – Douglas County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) is responsible for updating the long range Metropolitan Transportation Plan every 5 years. The current plan, called Transportation 2040 is being updated throughout 2017 to be approved before March 21, 2018. The Plan is the blueprint for our future transportation system; it identifies future transportation needs, investments, and system improvement recommendations for all modes of transportation (automobile, public transit, bicycle, pedestrian, etc.). Transportation planners evaluate existing conditions, solicit public input on issues and priorities, and propose programs and projects based on projected growth and financial realities. The planning process to develop a new plan will need to consider a variety of diverse issues like the plans to add lanes to K-10 between I-70 and US-59, the funding/implementation of bicycle and pedestrian planning and federal requirements for performance measures. The plan will reflect the feedback we hear from the public in the future vision for transportation in our region.”
Public input and participation is a big part of the Transportation 2040 plan. What are some best practices for soliciting community participation in a long-term, community-wide initiative?
“Transportation Planners follow a Public Participation Plan for our public processes that details how, when and where we will engage the public at large, stakeholders and underrepresented groups in our community. Of the strategies we use, mobile meetings and online surveys are the most effective at engaging the largest number of people who might not attend an open house or a committee meeting to voice their issues. Both techniques provide the most flexibility for people to provide input on their own time or at an event they are already attending, which helps us engage people who would not necessarily identify themselves as transportation advocates.”
Throughout this public input process, what has been the biggest revelation or has surprised you the most? And, is there still time for community members to participate?
“The public process hasn’t yet formally begun, but already we are amazed at the amount of time required to develop the materials for public engagement. We want to ensure that every question we ask is easy to understand and provides us information that we can use to help write a plan for our communities’ transportation vision. The public process for the T2040 Update includes two phases of public engagement during 2017. The first project survey will be released soon. Sign up to receive updates about the planning process atlawrenceks.org/subscriptions. Make sure to select the Transportation Planning list.”
Rachel Myslivy has worked and volunteered as a community organizer and environmental activist in Kansas for the past ten years. She has used her strengths as a community organizer to co-found the Kansas Women’s Environmental Network; established the St. John School Green Team and St. John Parish Earth Care Committee; and was a founding member of the Lawrence Ecology Teams United In Sustainability (LETUS) initiative. As an oral historian and independent filmmaker, Rachel has produced videos for the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, Kansas Rural Center, and independent agricultural field schools. Rachel has used these skills in her profession to highlight the sustainable practices of food producers in Kansas and coordinate the Double Up Food Bucks program from the state of Kansas. Rachel answered questions about her experiences as a community organizer:
What strategies do you recommend to managers of non-profits who need to gather community support around an issue?
“Be mindful of money. The most important things that I’ve done in my life didn’t have any financial backing, we did it because we cared.” Rachel went on to describe her methodology, “FLARR – Free opportunities (social media, talking to people); Listen (ask people what they think about the issue make it broader than you); Approach your issue from several different angles (reframe what people are telling you to help tell your story); build Relationships with people and organizations that can help you (uncommon alliances can be the strongest ones, like conservationists working with hunters, or working with utilities while toward a goal of energy efficiency); Repeat.” She went on to state that, “we win or we lose is the wrong approach. If you have something that is important, it is always going to be important. We need to be able to reframe your cause to fit every situation.”
As one of KWEN’s founders, you have spoken about the importance of passing on the leadership baton. In your experiences how have you known when an initiative is gaining momentum and is strong enough for the original leaders to step away?
“When I first got involved in community organizing someone said to me, “if it’s not going to happen if you don’t do it, then the community isn’t ready for it to happen.” I know that there are probably 10 or 15 people in this room that I could say played as big a role in founding KWEN. What happened is there were all of these other people who needed KWEN in their lives. You need to be mindful of who else is there with you. I am fond of the shared leadership model, where you inspire people around you to take leadership roles…the rhizome model of social change (in contrast to the dandelion taproot model). That is how Kim and I have tried to inspire other people to take leadership roles to inspire one another and to learn from one another. It is a delicate balance. When the movement comes down to me…I know I need to go. It should never be about me, it should always be about we.”
Do your paths as an oral historian and an activist cross? If so, how does telling people’s stories affect your ability to advocate for a cause? Can you share one example of a time you brought people together through story telling?
“When I worked for CEP [Climate and Energy Project] I spent a lot of time speaking to Kansans about climate change. You can have all of the numbers in the world, but you are not going to have an impact on anyone until you can relate it to them. I think the best way to do that is to tell their story. When I started with CEP I was tasked to make inroads with agriculture groups and producers. When I spoke with high-level execs they told me, “This is a really cool idea and you are a really nice person, but you are never going to get us to agree on anything”. I took this as a challenge. I put people who were on opposite ends of an issue in groups and I had them read stories about people who were using innovative practices. I then asked them to break down what they liked and did not like. Finally, I asked them, “Okay we just read a whole bunch of stories about successful innovations and are any of them from Kansas?” I told them, “No, and why not!” I used stories of what people were doing in other states to convince people to all work together instead of focusing on what they do not like about each other. I challenged them to consider: What is the story that other people tell about us?”
Sarah Hill-Nelson is the President and CEO of The Bowersock Mills and Power Company, a run of river, certified low-impact hydroelectric plant located on the Kansas River in Lawrence, Kansas. She manages the company operations along with her father, Stephen Hill. She is a member of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, is active in her children’s school communities and has served in leadership positions on several boards, including as President of the Douglas County CASA Board, and Vice President of the City of Lawrence Sustainability Advisory Board. Prior to her current position, Sarah worked as a research analyst, and, early in her career, as a history teacher. She was one of the first Kansas energy business leaders to leverage renewable attributes through Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs or Green Tags). During our panel discussion, Sarah shared her experiences being actively involved in legislative issues relating to renewable energy:
Through your experience with the Kansas Regional Advisory Committee do you have a vision for equitable methods of financing water projects throughout the state?
“First of all Dawn [Buehler] and I are on this regional advisory committee together, called the Blue Ribbon Task Force. It is the result of Gov. Brownback drawing attention to water as an issue. He has given legitimacy and street cred to water issues in the state. With the Governor’s Water Vision, he re-established the regions of the state based on the watershed. Now, we are able to think about problems based on a watershed issue and the Blue Ribbon Task Force came up with ways we can fund some water issues in the state.”
You were one of the first Kansas energy business leaders to leverage renewable attributes through Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs or Green Tags). First, can you briefly explain what that means and how it protects the environment? Second, what lessons did you learn about navigating legislation that could help others advocate for renewable energy in Douglas County and the state of Kansas?
“RECs were developed around 2000. The idea is that it gives an attribute to green power.” She explains, “When you take soup from the bowl you don’t know what soup you are getting because all energy just gets dumped on the grid. RECs were created to reward renewable energy generators. In the early 2000’s REC really encouraged green energy. Other states could buy REC’s from states that were just more capable of creating green energy. Now the RECs are kind of a mess, valuable in some states and not valuable in other states.” Sarah stated that she has been able to negotiate the value of green energy because consumers and legislators recognize the value of clean energy.
In what ways is your company addressing climate change concerns? Are you implementing or looking at any ways to adapt based on forecasted changes in rainfall, etc?
“Water patterns and rainfall keep me up at night,” said Sarah. “I thought when we turned the plant on it would start to rain and it didn’t. We went and build this giant power plant the day that climate change kicked in in Kansas. I think water is going to be a huge issue for everyone in our state. When we look at ways to adapt, I try to be civically active to help improve our farming and land use practices and preserving our water structures. It is hard not to get overwhelmed about this issue of climate change. We also reach out to people and give tours to get people thinking about the water-energy nexus.”
All panelists were asked to answer the same closing question:
How does the concept of “common good” affect your thinking and actions? How would you convince others to value the common good as much as their personal interests?
Jessica Mortinger: “Planners are trained to think about social justice, equity, environmental resources and where they all intersect in the common good. That is conveyed in our language as “quality of life”. Can we, through the planning process give some definition of quality of life that has to do with land use and transportation? When we engage people, we are hearing THEIR issues. We have to convey to them that we also have to provide options to other people who have other issues. Sometimes you have to ask people questions that they are uncomfortable with and ask them to consider other scenarios. We try to take what we’ve learned from everyone’s input and translate into something that provides a common good to everyone.”
Rachel Myslivy: “The concept of the common good is something that was instilled in me at a very young age. On a good day, I like to think that I instill this concept in everything I do, but I am human. For the first time in my life, there are people who I love that do not feel safe in our country anymore. I had to think about how this affects me when I think about the common good being so surrounded by privilege. I would encourage everyone to really think about what the common good even means. Everyone’s common good is wrapped up in their experience, so I don’t even know what the common good really means. I need to go out and find out what the common good is all about, so I don’t, as a privileged white person, tell everyone else what the common good looks like.”
Sarah Hill-Nelson: “It’s about the importance of knowing your own back yard. For me to feel the good, it’s important to feel the passion and the drive. I have to do what is true to me and what resonates to me. How can I leverage my experiences in the best way I can. The river is exciting to me, so my common good is effecting what I can effect in my daily life and knowing what I viscerally understand. When I think of the common good, I often think of the tragedy of the commons. The water is our water and it is a way that we can reach people. Water is our property right. If you are damaging the water, you are damaging someone’s property right. It is our shared resources. I’m sticking with what I know.”