I came to the work of community engagement through the world of urban planning. It is widely accepted that shaping something as complex as a city requires multiple voices to have input into the decisions being made. However, now more than ever, the value of engagement is being recognized before making decisions involving everything from policy to designing products and services (often called user-centred design, as I experienced at the University of Cape Town's d.school).
Decision making within large democratic institutions is where engagement can have the most impact. Of course, engagement is happening all the time in communities trying to get their voices heard - it sometimes looks like angry tweets, letters to city councillors or protests on the streets - and it sometimes looks like a gathering initiated by decision makers for people to gather and share their views on a particular subject.
Who initiates, frames, shows up to, and interprets what is said at these gatherings? How can we increase who is heard through engagement? Can we go beyond just thinking about the needs of the powerful? What about going beyond the needs of humans and considering other species' needs? Can we hear the voices of past and future generations articulating their needs? For me, these are the questions that make engagement exciting and a creative pursuit where there's always room to improve!
As an engagement specialist for the City of Vancouver's arts and culture plan: Culture|Shift I got to collaborate with great colleagues, facilitators and artists to think about how to bring greater equity into the planning process. From giving money to communities who could host their own engagements, prioritizing the voices of racialized folks in focus groups and following Indigenous leadership in many aspects of the plans design we were able to create a plan that challenged norms and worked towards justice and decolonization.
After our day-long symposium we were exhausted and celebrated with sparkling pomegranate juice in the lobby of the Vancouver Playhouse.