You have a project. It can benefit a lot of people, but for whatever reason, you run into a major roadblock: hostility from the very people it’s supposed to benefit. How do you approach these roadblocks and overcome that hostility?
The November Learning Webinar featured the winners of the IAP2 Core Values Awards for Project of the Year, and both of these had to address a very skeptical public. In fact, the City of Calgary had to shut down its plan to upgrade the Crowchild Trail – a major transportation corridor from the north end of the city to the south – because of hostility from the public. And the Mental Health Center of Denver learned to change one often-used term and leave out another altogether, in order to create a branch in an impoverished area of the Mile-High City.
“You can come and talk to my group, so long as you don’t use the words, ‘mental health’.” Those words were from one block captain in North East Park Hill, when Dr Lydia Prado, MHCD’s Vice-President, Strategic Community Partnerships, first came to the community of North East Park Hill.
The area, where about 25,000 people live, is generally typified by poverty, failing schools and, as MHCD’s Dr Lydia Prado put it, very negative judgment on people who live there. At the beginning, people were not thrilled with the idea of an outsider coming in, telling them what they needed. So creating the Dahlia Campus for Health and Well-Being involved two parts: creating a focal point to meet the needs identified by the community members themselves, and bringing the local attitude from a position of outright skepticism to enthusiastic support.
Winning that support, Dr Prado says, involved deep listening. There were deep discussions about racism, prejudice, inequity and discrimination. “It was about sitting in the fire long enough,” she says, “so that both people could be in there together – and then cool off together.” She had some of her most informative conversations with gang leaders, finding out that no one understands the impacts of early trauma and early deprivation like members of gangs.
One of the lessons for a P2 practitioner facing a similar situation is to go in with an attitude of “learning from” rather than “learning about”. It’s a nuance many outside researchers – particularly with non-profits — have failed to appreciate in the past, and had led to the foul taste in the community’s mouth. Dr Prado also decided to change a term often thrown-around without much thought: “at-risk”. Instead, she turned to the phrase, “at-promise” – another example of strengths-based thinking.
The resulting project met needs in ways people couldn’t have imagined at the outset. The Dahlia Campus offers a variety of programs, but more than that, conversations with community members found they wanted to be more self-sufficient, so there is food production like vegetable gardens and aquaculture, and, significantly, the Dahlia Campus has never been “tagged” – defaced with graffiti.
But there’s more to the Project of the Year winner than the project: how was it successful and how can that success be amplified? Enter Amanda Trosten-Bloom of the Rocky Mountain Center for Positive Change, which worked with MHCD on engagement. As a specialist in appreciative inquiry, she understands that the way to amplify success is to study it. So they launched a second round of engagement to find out how the attitude of community members shifted so dramatically. It was also necessary to build and enhance the relationship between the community members and the staff – who, up till that point, had not been connected with the project and its planning. Part of this process was intended to keep building on the success to that point; the other part was to provide tools and insights for other practitioners working on similar initiatives.
They set up one-on-one, voluntary interviews between staffers and members of the community; the interviews were transcribed and then a qualitative analysis was done to find out what the short- and long-term implications were and where to go from there.
Six themes emerged from the interviews – themes that defined what was important to people in North East Park Hill, and could be applied to other projects (“not rocket science,” says Amanda):
- Assuaging people’s fears
- Transparency and truthfulness
- Listening, hearing and responding
- Honoring the elders
- Following through
- Honoring local interest and expertise
Point #4 was vital: Dr Prado identified, early on, people who had over eighty years’ experience in the community. She found out from them who needs to be involved and what local expertise and interest needed to be kept in mind. As a result, the many of the programs at Dahlia, such as the community kitchen and activities, are run by people with local interests.
Dahlia is an example, in the words of one local philanthropist, of “a neighborhood taking itself back”. Rather than another program coming in from “outside”, the Dahlia campus is “our thing”.
When the City of Calgary first set out, in 2012, to improve and upgrade Crowchild Trail, the engagement format was to develop concept options and solicit community feedback on them. This approach was not well received. Indeed, City Council directed Administration to stop the study and develop a new process for these types of transportation studies where those affected by the changes were involved in the development of the plan (Core Value #1).
In 2014, the City set out again to improve and upgrade Crowchild Trail. This time – rather than using concepts to drive the discussion – the City used the discussion with stakeholders to drive the development of the concepts.
18 citizens were recruited to an Engagement Design Team and worked with the City to develop a public engagement process for the corridor study. A corridor study is a type of transportation plan that allows improvements to be prioritized and funded through the City’s infrastructure program, Investing in Mobility.
Despite the involvement of citizens in designing the engagement process (Core Value #5), the 2012 iteration of the study had left a legacy of distrust. Stakeholder response to re-starting the project was less than enthusiastic.
Stakeholders were concerned they might be excluded from the engagement process (e.g.: if an advisory group model for engagement were used), that local communities might be compromised for widening the road, or alternatively, that much-needed improvements might not be made due to community opposition.
There was no doubt something needed to be done. Engineering lead Feisal Lakha explained that Crowchild runs north-south through the west side of Calgary and is one of only two crossings of the Bow River on that side; more than 100,000 vehicles use it daily. During the morning and afternoon commutes, traffic lineups could run as long as 12 kilometres (8 miles), delaying transit service and creating concerns for emergency vehicles, as three major medical facilities are located along the corridor, and increasing cut-through traffic in bordering communities
Crowchild Trail runs through several neighbourhoods, some established as many as 70 years ago. Upgrading would mean disruptions for neighbourhoods and businesses along the corridor. Any changes to Crowchild Trail would also have to take future growth into account.
The City had to overcome the sense that decisions had already been made, and to rebuild trust and credibility with stakeholders. As a starting point, the City chose a three-part strategy to acknowledge, that the 2012 study had not gone well and that a different approach was needed; to apologize, for the missteps of the 2012 study and the uncertainty left behind by its abrupt end; and adapt, to evolving stakeholder needs.
As an example of this approach, Communications lead Peggy Chan says one of the early messages they heard was that people did not receive information about the project in the mail. So the City adapted its approach, changing its communications materials from the handout on the left to the invitation-style notice in the middle and the ad on the right.
It was important the project team consider the needs of all participants, including decision-makers (Core Value #3). While planning for communications and engagement the project team explored how, at the surface, the City and stakeholders appeared to hold different positions, but that underlying those were values from both sides that intersected.
Informed by this analysis, the citizen Engagement Design Team and the understanding that decision-making is not a one-time, at the end of a project phenomenon – the City began the 2014 study by working with stakeholders to develop goals for the study that embodied the shared values of stakeholders and decision-makers. These goals were used as evaluation criteria by stakeholders and the project team as the study progressed – ensuring that recommendations for the future of the corridor were grounded in value-based conversation.
Kirsty Neill, the City’s internal engagement lead, described how the approach of engaging early on and throughout the study worked. Each phase of engagement related directly to a phase of technical work. And, the stakeholder input and technical input from each phase informed the phase that followed it.
To be accessible to as many interested Calgarians as possible the City ran online, City-hosted and pop-up sessions concurrently in each phase. The City held face-to-face sessions with the general public – and also invitation-only sessions with targeted stakeholder groups, such as residents immediately adjacent to Crowchild and businesses and institutions along the corridor.
A key to building trust was to ensure that just as people would be told which suggestions would be pursued; they would also be told why a given suggestion could not be pursued (Core Value #7).
In addition to embedding this “if yes, why yes” and “if not, why not” information directly into engagement materials, the City built an online project library. In the library all project information, engagement materials and results as well as technical studies and relevant policies were collected in one place for easy, public access.
The Crowchild Trail Study successfully brought recommendations to Council for approval in May of 2017. The engagement process received input from 89 communities in the City of Calgary, plus participation from four outlying communities, underscoring the importance of this roadway to the City’s transportation network.
The raw numbers for participation are impressive: over 66,000 visits to the project website, story map and YouTube videos; 21,000 interactions on social media; nearly 19,000 URL click-throughs to the online tools.
The commitment of the project team and stakeholders to a process informed by IAP2 Core Values and best practices resulted in a transformation of the atmosphere of stakeholder skepticism at the beginning of the study to a much more trustful one by the end of the study.
Watch the City of Calgary’s Core Values Award video here.