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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

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Photo of Sue Enger

About Sue Enger

Sue served as one of MRSC's Planning Consultants for many years and wrote about a variety of local government planning issues. She is now retired.