MEET A MEMBER: Catherine Smith, CP3

POSITION Partner in charge of engagement and communications, Cityworks

How long have you been in P2, and where have you worked?

I have been in P2 for 25 years: I’ve had three jobs in my career – two of them, in P2. The first was at PC World Magazine where I worked my way up to Assistant Editor before becoming a freelancer for a year or so for them. Then I landed my first job in P2 at the San Diego Mediation Center, doing community mediation. My longest job has been at CityWorks. We’re an inter-disciplinary team of a dozen people on staff – six on the engagement side and six on the design side.

What turned you on to P2 in the first place?

I started out going to law school at the University of San Diego. I actually went to law school because I thought I wanted to be a journalist, covering legal issues. But then I learned about mediation and started volunteering at a local mediation organization. It’s through that work that I found out about public involvement, and forgot all about journalism.

I didn’t forget about it entirely: as I’ve practised P2, it became really clear that providing information was key and the journalism aspect was important to accurately distill complex information into language people could understand and use.

Basically, in law school I got really interested in how people solved problems. Mediation was supposed to be early conflict resolution; so I view P2 is early-early conflict resolution. And that fascinated me. I like involving people to head off a conflict before it starts or takes hold.

One of my first projects was working with the Economic Development Department with the City of San Diego. We were coordinating with the Public Works Department to revitalize older business districts. We helped on beautification projects in communities to strengthen the main streets in these neighborhoods, and help them recover from the past three decades when malls sucked business away from them. That led to working on streetscape and public art projects, as well as public transit and land use planning projects.

Have you had any “big wins”?

An early win in my career was helping a working group establish a non-harassment policy for sexual orientation at a Catholic university, which prevented potential litigation. In the last decade, we helped San Diego build a culture around water conservation and exceed its water conservation goals.

Recently, we helped the economically disadvantaged area of Encanto develop the state’s first near net-zero master plan for its community. That project was funded by the California Energy Commission. In it, we supported the local non-profit organization that was the lead, along with its partners of the school district and the University of California, San Diego. Our role was to design an engagement plan for the project manager, including its supporting communications, facilitate a stakeholder advisory group and project team meetings, and support the final editing of the master plan document.

A career highlight is being on the IAP2 USA board and working with the quality people that manage the board and are on it. I’ve been the chair of the Communications Committee for the past two years, and we have had two major initiatives that I hope are helping all of our members and grow the culture of P2 as a whole. The first initiative was to simplify how we talk about P2, so the non-practitioner “everyday-person” can understand it. That’s our Brand Initiative, based on the messaging, “Pursuing the greater good: good decisions made together.” Those phrases can work separately or together and are meant to inspire us to continually strive do our best. It expresses our role in the marketplace of other organizations and the benefit of good p2.  In fact, IAP2 Canada has picked up on the same idea with “inspiring better decisions together.” That means North America is starting to talk in the same way about P2 — phrased around benefits of good decision-making.

The other initiative is launching a new Ambassador Program to help share that message across the country, raise the profile of IAP2, and describe how to have good P2. We’re piloting the program this summer through the end of the year. In the current polarized climate, it’s a challenge; but those challenges are also opportunities. Mainly, they are opportunities because people are searching for an answer and for a way to do something positive. IAP2 can give guidance on how to help them move forward together. Really, we’re all having one experience and we need ways to tell one another about it and work together.

Have you had any “golden learning moments” – any time when something has gone wrong and you’ve learned from it?

There have been times when our clients wanted to do what they were familiar with rather than what might work best for the situation and their objectives. In those times, we try to talk through the benefits of limiting or expanding the public involvement process and present possible scenarios to them, so that they have clear understanding of the consequences of the choices. They need to know what to expect, and think through how to manage those expectations with people above and around them.

Have you ever been tempted to just walk away from a project?

Sure. I think we all have. My first challenge was when I got my first phone number for our firm back in the 1990’s. I wanted to create a section in the Yellow Pages for public involvement, but it didn’t exist that way. Now, there’s the internet, so there isn’t that hoop to jump through. I’ve also learned that a client usually isn’t one person: it’s the project manager and everyone around them – up the chain, peers that are lateral to them, and the people that support them. So, we’re always looking to understand and engage the whole system of a client; it puts ourselves in their shoes and that helps us understand them and them trust us.

What does having your CP3 mean to you?

I feel good about being evaluated by my peers and hearing from them what they see in my skills. So often, we are operating in our own little box, so it’s good to go through a process with peers. It’s hard to have objective perspective on our own practice because it’s so close to home that it is actually home. Having outside perspective of peers who are committed to the quality of the practice sheds some new light on aspects of our practice that have become so familiar that they aren’t thought of.

I’m also really proud of helping the organization grow this next phase of P2 of having standards and having IAP2 recognized for those standards. I think the certification is helpful to my company and to the organization. When people see that new acronym “CP3” by my name,  they ask, “What’s that?” That question is an opportunity to describe what CP3 means and what good P2 is all about.

Also, an unexpected benefit of going through the certification process is that it has improved my skills. It reminded me of things I had forgotten and brought forth some new approaches that I hadn’t yet incorporated into my practice. I know I’m delivering better service as a result.

What’s next on your plate?

We’re doing a lot of work in water planning and in sustainability generally – we’re really excited about that. I’m also looking at the steps to becoming a P2 trainer, as part of helping extend this practice across more communities.

And I’m bringing more writing into my day, both professionally and creatively. I’ve just had my first creative writing published in the anthology by San Diego Writers, Ink., a non-profit group. In creative writing, there’s no budget or scope so there’s a lot of freedom. A blank page is the biggest open-ended question there is. Part appreciative inquiry, part facilitation, part problem-solving. It’s a great metaphor for taking the risk to ask those open questions: what do you care about, why do you care about it, what would you like to see, what are you willing to contribute, what are you willing to change. Those are needed in writing and in P2, and I think needed in life generally.

If you had anything to say to someone just getting into the P2 business …

Join our community! You don’t have to go it alone. You can be part of this community and have a lot of support and have a lot of people to help you figure out the challenges that come along.

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