Member Profile: Sarah Rubin

POSITION. Outreach and Engagement Coordinator, CA Department of Conservation

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

That depends on exactly how one wants to define public participation/ engagement. I worked at the Sacramento Mediation Center starting in 1995; then I did Americans with Disability Act mediation at a non-profit during grad school in Virginia. It was rewarding work. I started doing public policy related engagement in 2000 when I got a job at the Bay Area based non-profit Community Focus. This was my first experience bringing together diverse stakeholders to work on local projects they chose and implemented. Our approach was strengths based – and that model really resonated with me. I liked helping stakeholders to figure out how they could successfully contribute to a project. For one stakeholder it could be getting the mayor to participate; for another it was baking snacks and or getting food donations.

I worked for the Center for Collaborative Policy for ten years and then the Institute for Local Government. Between those two jobs I spend a year in Hawai’i, where I did some consulting with a colleague I adore – Linda Colburn. We designed a stakeholder engagement process for dealing with freshwater issues and helped the Hawai’i Health Connector – the implementation agency for the Affordable Care Act in Hawai’i.

Overall, like anyone who has been in the field a while I’ve worked with colleagues and stakeholders who have both made work a joy and a major challenge!

What turned you on to P2 in the first place?

I took an Alternative Dispute Resolution class during my undergrad years at UCSB. It struck a chord. After a few years of being an administrative assistant at a couple of trade associations in Washington DC, I went through a “What do I really want to do?” crisis; and that’s when I came back to ADR. I got into mediation, then decided I wanted an academic foundation in the work, so I applied to the Master’s program at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (now S-CAR – School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution) program at George Mason University in Virginia.

When I was ready to leave the east coast and move back to California in the year 2000, I found a job focused on stakeholder engagement around specific public policy issues (air quality and tobacco control). From there I got more into environmental justice work. I find working with folks from disadvantaged communities especially rewarding because I like to support people to find their voice, in a way that makes sense for them, and communicate (generally to those with more power) in a way that (hopefully) makes a difference.

I encourage those coming up in the field to always be on the look out for mentorship. That worked for me. Two of my former executive directors have had significant influences on my career. One is Malka Kopell (Community Focus) and the other is Susan Sherry (Center for Collaborative Policy). During the ten years I worked at CCP I learned so much from very talented colleagues. Beyond Susan they include Lisa Buetler, Gina Bartlett, Adam Sutkus, Mary Selkirk, Surlene Grant and Greg Bourne.

Have you had any “big wins”?

Truthfully, although it is corny, I think of all the “wins” as belonging to the groups I have worked with rather than my own – from a process or engagement point of view. Things that feel closer to ‘my’ wins are when I pushed to get a colleague a raise or title change they deserved or got a grant we really wanted.

But some examples come to mind, like helping the Mountain View Day Worker Center find a permanent home. This was in 2005 and 2006, and part of what worked was getting the mayor to be the convenor. When that happened, the bank and the newspaper and other major stakeholders committed to the process. The Day Worker Center is more than a place where people get picked up for casual labor: it puts on classes in English and basic arithmetic, so people – many of whom have very little English – can tell if they’re getting paid what they’re supposed to.

My next example does not sound glamourous, but it was important in my career. It was supporting a Water Management Group to adopt new bylaws. Among other things, the bylaws required the WMG to have diverse membership, and some of the more conservative members were reluctant to make the changes. Part of my charge, specifically, was to bring disadvantaged community members into the process. I tried many approaches to move the group forward and had all but one member on board. This one person was particularly challenging. I tried a variety of approaches with him but they all failed. I even cried a couple of times after phone calls.

Then I read Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, and decided to try what became my “Plan G” (since Plans A-F were unsuccessful). I thought about how to appeal to this person in a new way. First, I pretty much stopped communicating with him. Second, I targeted two other members – one that he respected and another that had more power in their local ‘politics.’ The main ‘bargaining chip’ I pushed was that his colleagues would not receive millions of dollars of grant money (that had been conditionally awarded) if they did not adopt the new by-laws. But focusing on what others [within his ‘tribe’] would lose, he agreed (reluctantly) go along with the new by-laws. (I had tried the tactic of this appeal myself, but it had not worked months earlier.)

This experience taught me perseverance and it also brought out a competitive side of me that I didn’t know was there. I was committed to that group and their success. Even now, years later, when I see one of the local elected officials at a conference we hug and still feel pride in the accomplishment of approving those by-laws.

Other projects I feel especially proud of while at the Institute for Local Government include work with the City of Turlock around their district elections, this video highlighting community engagement in Lodi, and my contribution to the Gateway Cities Council of Governments Climate Action Planning effort. This multi-year engagement effort just won a “Innovation in Green Community Planning” award from CA American Planning Association Los Angeles Chapter.

Another big win was when my team and I provided strategic assistance to the “Engage Roseville” campaign which included overall process design, stakeholder engagement, and the design and facilitation of a 150-person dialogue focused community event. The discussion focused on potential cuts to police, fire, parks and library budgets. (Watch a video of the engagement event here.) This effort just won two awards at the California Pubic Information Officers conference.  

I am most proud of the immigrant integration work I did with my colleagues Mahvash Hassan, Hang Tran and, in the earlier years, Natalie Hernandez.  We created a video of one of our convenings (watch it here) that some readers might enjoy. At our big events we often had participants say “this is the best convening of this type I have ever been to.” But what surprised us over and over was how often local government employees (assigned to work on issues related to local immigrants) were not familiar with their own demographic numbers, or their own low English proficiency (LEP) rates (which can all be found on the Census website). ILG is great at creating tipsheets to help folks learn about who is in their community and how to reach them.

In my new job at the California Department of Conservation I am excited to be working with people across our state who care deeply about our environment. I’m hopeful that through collaboration and partnerships I’ll have some new “wins” to add to this list in the future.

Have you had any “golden learning moments”?

  1. Yes. I can think of two big ones.When Lisa Buetler helped me with a very challenging project… the line that has stuck with me and I use when necessary (that is, when a client suggests an approach that is self sabotaging or that you know is going to backfire) is something like “We could go with that approach. But I think we might spend a few minutes talking it through. Let’s make sure we think through all the consequences we might face… “
  2. When I realized the necessity of really understanding the politics (small ‘p’) of a situation. Early in my career, I was in charge of a strategic plan for collaboration among state agencies. I brought in the draft, but I used so many graphics, people thought it was supposed to be the finished product. They completely freaked out and wanted me removed from the project. My boss had to step in and take over. This was naturally hard on my ego. But it was a good learning experience. My boss provided a lot of helpful counsel.  One tough part of that guidance was when she said that I could come across as “too perky” or “too enthusiastic” and people could assume that I’m not smart. At first, I thought she was trying to get me to shift my personality– to be something I’m not. But I realized that the way I use the tone of my voice can be a tool or tactic. Just as the way I set up a room or choose process design elements are tactical choices I am making to move a group toward their goals. Now I am comfortable moving between a serious and more lighthearted demeanor.

You’re part of the group bringing the 2020 Skills Symposium to Sacramento. Why would I want to go there?

Well, we have mild weather in February, so it’s a break from other parts of the country! But more seriously, we expect to have an incredible lineup of training opportunities: we’re looking at equity, engagement of diverse populations, immigrant engagement, and engagement innovation more generally. Sacramento is the state capital and so we expect lots of participation from people who work at California state agencies. Of course, it’s a good opportunity for peer-to-peer networking, and the emerging Sacramento Region Chapter is really excited about showing people a good time.

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

Observe other practitioners and the way they run processes. When I was starting out, I’d have a pad of paper and draw a line down the middle. On one side, I’d note the agenda item and on the right side I’d jot down questions or observations about the facilitation technique or process choice. Post meeting I would debrief with the facilitator. For example, one practitioner asked a question that I thought was inappropriate, but when I talked to her about it afterwards, I realized she was being completely interntional and strategic – that was an “elephant in the room” she wanted to come out.

You should also get to know two or three practitioners who can be your sounding board to ask about techniques or talk through difficult situations. I would be lost without my go-to colleagues!

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