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Can You Hear Me Now? Reaching Out to Engage Increasingly Diverse Communities

February 6, 2014 by Sue Enger
Category: Public Participation

Can You Hear Me Now? Reaching Out to Engage Increasingly Diverse Communities

According to the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Planning Association, “when it comes to effective communication … the ‘general public’ doesn’t exist.”  Rather than consisting of a “general public,” America (and Washington State) is increasingly made up of diverse groups having diverse interests, and that trend is continuing.

Nationally, the non-Hispanic white population constituted 63% of the total U.S. population in 2012.  But by 2043, they are projected to make up 43% of the total U.S population, outnumbered by members of minority groups including Hispanics, Asian/Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, and Blacks.  The tipping point for children under the age of 18 will come in 2018. (See Brookings Institute “tipping point” article.)

In Washington, non-Hispanic whites constituted about 73% of the total state population in 2010. Hispanics were the fastest growing minority group in the last decade (71.2% rate).  But between 2010 and 2030, the Asian/Pacific Islander population is projected to take the lead with a 57% growth rate, followed by the Native American/Alaska Native and Hispanic populations at 46% and 45% respectively.

To understand the changing interests of our diversifying community residents, and to connect with them, Washington jurisdictions will need to recalibrate their citizen engagement strategies.  Seattle, for one, has identified underrepresented communities that have been “conspicuously absent from meetings where the general public is called to participate … due to cultural, linguistic, or other barriers such as access to information.”  Seattle now has an active program to reach out to identified groups including immigrants and refugees, persons with physical disabilities, seniors, and renters.

Diversity Outreach Program Examples

Seattle’s long-standing Public Outreach and Engagement Program serves to increase awareness and access to city programs, services, civic processes, and resources for the diverse groups in its neighborhoods, including historically underrepresented populations.  The city succeeded in engaging over 6,000 community members in its 2009 award-winning process to update some 24 neighborhood plans. The city reached some people through traditional open house neighborhood meetings with small group discussions, facilitated by “Public Outreach and Engagement Liaisons” (see below).  Its highly successful “status check” virtual online meetings reached almost 5,000 participants.  Also in 2009, the city surveyed members of focus groups composed of different ethnic groups to gauge access to and use of computers, cell phones, and other technology. Some key features in the program’s ongoing success:

  • Neighborhood Matching Fund – This program provides city funds to neighborhood groups for community-driven projects that enhance and strengthen the neighborhood.  Three types of funding range from “small sparks” to large projects.  All require a  neighborhood match of volunteer labor, donated materials, professional services, or cash.

  • Neighborhood District Coordinators – These coordinators serve as resources and liaisons to promote neighborhood awareness and to facilitate access to city programs, policies, civic processes, and services. They provide support to district and neighborhood councils.

  • Public Outreach and Engagement Liaisons – This program is specifically directed at broader inclusion of the traditionally underrepresented groups mentioned above. The city contracts with (and trains) the liaisons, who are bi-lingual, bi-cultural members of their respective communities, to serve as “bridge builders” between city and community.

More recently, Renton employed some targeted and creative outreach measures to engage its diverse residents in the process of developing the Benson Hill Community Plan 10/14/2013 (See Part 2: Public Engagement).  This type of effort could be adapted to work in any community.  After some initial unsuccessful efforts to grab attention, the city achieved success by piggybacking on neighborhood events, and mixing in some fun with the community plan outreach. Early on, city staff attended neighborhood picnics and informally interviewed residents about their desires for the community.  A steering committee of community members (some recruited at the picnics) advised on best approaches to involving residents.  The city established an active online presence with a website dedicated to the Benson Hill community, which offered information, forums, and blogs where comments were welcomed and questions answered. The city employed social media to reach the young.  In addition to traditional surveys and open houses, a city-staffed mobile workshop made the rounds to neighborhood events and picnics.  A particularly successful mobile workshop was combined with a Moonlight Movie night event that was cross-promoted with the community plan outreach effort.  Flyers about the two events were distributed at a summer lunch program to reach traditionally underrepresented groups.  City staff contacted all Benson Hill churches, schools, PTAs, neighborhoods, and community groups, including the Somali Youth and Family Club and the Ukrainian Community Center about the workshops.

Some other notable programs:

  • Bellevue Multicultural Outreach - The city provides a range of  services for Bellevue’s growing multicultural population including foreign language webpages  and phone lines, interpreters available at meetings, and “cultural navigators” at mini-city halls.

  • Multnomah County, OR offers 90-minute brown bag Diversity Outreach Workshops to train staff in creatively expanding outreach to cultural and minority communities. Government and community organizations share outreach experiences, strategies, tools and tips, and evaluate current outreach effectiveness.  See Summary of Tips from one of the brown bag programs.

  • In the Austin, TX comprehensive plan outreach process, the city tracked demographic statistics about what groups attended community forums.  When gaps were identified, alternate outreach approaches were employed. Several focus groups were used to test engagement principles for underrepresented groups.
America has long been a land of immigrants, and we have often celebrated the synergy resulting from our “melting pot” history. To best capitalize on the energy and potential of the latest arrivals to our shores, we should explore new ways, as these communities have done, to reach out to and engage with the full spectrum of diverse groups in our communities.

Photo Courtesy of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods


"I’d like to thank those who took the time to respond to this blog and to provide their views on the immigrant experience and participation. Although my grandfathers were both immigrants, I am removed from that experience, and I hesitated to write this blog. From my lengthy experience with public meetings, and from the volumes of materials on public participation pages that I review at MRSC, it is clear to me that many groups are missing from the table, and that we aren’t reaching them with some of our traditional public involvement strategies. These groups can include disabled, senior citizens, people who have difficulty for whatever reason speaking up at public meetings, and just plain busy people who live stressful lives, in addition to various ethnic groups. So it is helpful to hear from readers with different experiences. It is also worth reconsidering what are the most effective approaches for reaching as many of our community residents as we can in these changing times. Technology and some interesting small group processes bring new opportunities to better involve citizens. I believe it should be possible for diverse groups to share in the rights and responsibilities that come with living here. And that there can be both allegiance to country and enjoyment of the richness of different cultures. A brief blog is not an adequate format to cover a complex issue such as this. But if it generates a dialog, comments and some promising, constructive ideas, it will have a value beyond that of my initial blog."

Sue Enger on Feb 18, 2014 1:34 PM

"Sorry amitra2013 (an intellectual-I am sure-who remains anonymous), I believe you have eaten the socialist food of Identity Theft. Your statement “a “melting pot” is at best a derogatory term. This new generation is finding that instead of melting into the “vast nothingness” of what is today called American Culture,….” , is, in my opinion, absent of knowing about American Culture, which is far more than a “vast nothingness”. This “melting pot” is what made America great— E pluribus unum "Out of many, one" ( the motto of our still great Nation. If this is a “new generation” that has abandoned what our forefathers gave to us, then woe is us. Why did I use the words, “Identity Theft”? Because the first thing that a socialist wants to do for everyone, but themselves, is take away pride of and identity of being Americans. Put them in separate ethnic/economic pockets; make them dependent on the state; class warfare. People came to America to become Americans; otherwise they would have stayed in their downtrodden former nation. I never met anyone who came here to create a “little Italy” -- they did it because those who discriminate against people (like my Mom’s parents were discriminated) try to prevent their entry into our “melting Pot”. If that is a goal for this “new generation”--to create little (or big) enclaves to keep immigrates from experiencing being part of “many” we will rapidly become culture against culture and we all lose. We should welcome all legal immigrates who come to our shores, to learn our culture, our language and become citizens. Planners who dream up little boxes of people storage do nothing to help current residents or those who adopt the USA as their home. Why I believe amitra2013,speaks socialism, is the statement “…a “feel good” article that gives city administration and planners the permission to continue to be obscure about the failure of state to plan meaningfully”. Fortunately in a free society, one cannot believe that or begin to allow the “state” to dictate every move including what hovel we live in, how we live, what we eat, where we live, what we can own and who can live near us. To believe that or even want the “state” to be all powerful for this “new generation” sucks. It is not why I gave six years of my life in the military and 22 years in law enforcement. By the way, I am descendant of German, Italian, Spanish, English and American Indian peoples, but my culture is pure USA and I am proud of it!"

Ken Estes on Feb 13, 2014 3:45 PM

"The Americas were inhabited by indigenous population for generations. These populations were varied, had a rich cultural heritage and traditions that were systematically denigrated and practically obliterated over a mere 300 years. The predominant culture today is neither british, french or any other specific culture. Even in Germany, residents from one region take pride in distinguishing their cultures and traditions from others. I would encourage Mr. Estes and the author to learn more about the cultural complexities that every country is facing. Tell me that neither have visited Boston or Chicago that are distinguished by their "Italian" or "Polish" or other neighborhoods and the wonderful food to be had in each. More recent immigrants to the US also bring a wonderful sense of identity that does not compromise their dedication or allegiance to the State. They are reluctant to adhere to the broader culture that fails to speak to their heritage or social values. Therein there is a feeling that a "melting pot" is at best a derogatory term. This new generation is finding that instead of melting into the "vast nothingness" of what is today called American Culture, there is a rich experience to be had from learning and respecting other cultures. We see the exciting outcomes of this in our children's music, in our media and in our literature. It is easy to hang onto the immediately familiar and give into the fear of the unknown. Let Washington State not fall behind others that are exploring this new diverse cultural arena. A peek into wikipedia will alert one to the exciting work happening in the realm of cultural intelligence. Language and cultural barriers are preventing cities from maximizing this rich resource in our state. Eurocentric values are taking precedence over the pride of culture and identity that is evident in our immigrant communities. Cities have not developed the tools or true understanding of this social phenomenon to plan for it, thinking instead that by ignoring or simplifying it to fit our limited understanding - it will go away. This article does injustice to the real social crisis of isolation and apathy that these populations are experiencing. Without an attempt to meet the diverse populations that this and other plans apparently attempt to address, quoting relevant data and being a thoughtful examination of involving the diverse population in our state, it relegates itself to a "feel good" article that gives city administration and planners the permission to continue to be obscure about the failure of state to plan meaningfully. Lets not allow MRSC to devolve into a light read of feel good articles and demand that it maintains its legacy of high quality thought provoking articles."

amitra2013 on Feb 12, 2014 8:59 AM

"Mom's parents were immigrants in the early 1920's from Germany. They struggled in manual labor (farm workers) at the same time attending night school, to learn to speak the English language of their adopted home, with one goal: to be citizens. They achieved this within 10 years of arrival and by 1935 had bought their own farm. Between 1938 and 1950 they were subjects of bias and verbal harassment because their former nation was at war with the US. But they stood up to this by proudly showing their citizenship papers and told all who would listen, of their pride in being Americans. They never ask to be treated different than any other citizen and they loved America regardless. Today we move from a melting pot to diverse multi nationalism--the first steps in destroying a nation. Today Grandma and Grandpa K. could be coddled into being dependents to the state, never learning the language, culture or love of America. We are on the slippery slope of not knowing our heritage, why many have died to keep our freedoms or even learning our history. I feel the dishonor to our ancestors."

Ken Estes on Feb 10, 2014 12:44 PM

4 comments on Can You Hear Me Now? Reaching Out to Engage Increasingly Diverse Communities


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