What does it take to meaningfully and effectively involve the members of a community in decisions that affect them?

This was at the heart of a discussion involving a dozen or so people from Seattle nonprofits and institutions as they met on February 24. Convened in this two-hour “Information Exchange” sponsored by the Yesler Community Collaborative, the discussion focused on what works well for community engagement, and what does not.

Led by Futurewise Executive Director Hillary Franz, participants shared their experiences along the public participation spectrum of inform, consult, involve, collaborate and empower. Everyone was in agreement that the further along the spectrum one goes, the more challenging the engagement.

Examples of successful community engagement activities were shared by staff from Futurewise, Seattle Housing Authority, Seattle University and Enterprise Community Partners.

One significant core value of this work was identified early in the discussion: community engagement processes should reach all segments of the population affected by the decisions at hand. This often takes significant effort.

Another principal that emerged f was how important it is to truly meet people where they are. General public meetings held in the middle of the work day will rarely succeed in engaging a community at its core. If small business owners are the target for engagement, for example, then one-on-one meetings at their businesses during their down times are much more productive.

Everyone also agreed on the concept that authentic community engagement is about building a long term relationship within the community, not swooping in for a quick series of meeting then disappearing.

Several helpful resources emerged from this exchange, including a white paper compiled by Seattle Housing Authority Community Builders that outlines their core principals and strategies.

Here are a couple of additional observations from participants:

From Seattle Housing Authority’s Joy Bryngleson: “In low-income neighborhoods the first inclination of planners is to focus on the needs and gaps. Focusing on community assets is equally important. Every community has them. Check out the “equity atlas” approach to asset mapping.”

Spencer Williams of Futurewise pointed out that, “We plan what we know. Sometimes the planners’ job is to help people envision a future that’s different from their past experience.”

Links for more information: