Community Meeting

Ask. Listen. Ask Again.

Gretchen Wahl

BY Gretchen Wahl

August 21, 2018

Community Outreach

After decades in public involvement, communities continue to intrigue me. As unique as individuals, neighborhoods and towns live differently, dream differently, and react differently to outside influences. That’s why it’s critical that people who are engaging with communities meet them with endless curiosity. Ask questions. Listen to the answers, then ask your next questions. Act on your knowledge. Repeat throughout the planning, implementation and maintenance of your project. Repeat forever.

I began my career managing community relations for US EPA Superfund cleanups in towns across the center of the country. I was shocked at how differently communities reacted to the environmental cleanup of an abandoned hazardous waste site, something that I saw as an unmitigated good. Some communities met the challenge with practical committee meetings, applying for technical grants to help them understand scientific reports and participate in the decision-making process. Some closed ranks, communicating with agencies, potentially responsible parties and each other through lawsuits and whispers. Others reacted with rancor and yelling. So much yelling.

The tool we brought to every community was the question. Rather, a questionnaire. A paper questionnaire that we carried to introductory meetings throughout a community and filled out ourselves as we listened to the answers to our questions:

  • What makes your community unique?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • What are your community’s strengths?
  • What would you change?
  • Who are the leaders in your community?
  • What is your community’s vision for the future?
  • Who else should we talk to?

We talked for a long time before we asked any questions about OUR purpose: What do you know about the environmental problem? What do you want to know? How do you want to be involved in the decision-making process? What is the best way to communicate with your neighbors?

I learned that two Kansas farm towns could be as different as Orange County and San Francisco, as Lake Forest and Logan Square.

I also learned that we could never communicate enough. I worked on a large cleanup, which covered more than 100 acres of land. Activists and neighbors were vehement in their demands for transparency, and rightly so. We helped them form a community advisory group. We also met with them in small and large groups, posted weekly reports on our progress on the web, mailed newsletters, and used traffic message boards to alert drivers to construction work.

Our team came up with an idea to build an observation deck on a hill overlooking the site. From there, people could watch the work going on, monitor progress, and read about our work on posters we would install and update. We were thrilled with the idea, and our crew started building the deck right away.

It was a simple project, and construction was almost completed when we proudly announced the observation deck at the next community advisory group. They were livid. What we saw as a new gold standard in transparency, they saw as a place where strangers might come to gawk at the disaster that had befallen them.

We were so excited by our idea, that we didn’t wait two weeks to ask the people we were trying to help what they thought about it. We hurt them, and we hurt our credibility.

Our team worked out a solution with the community. Our crew finished the observation deck, but we did not leave it open to all visitors. We arranged to open it weekly, by reservation, to interested stakeholders who would be accompanied by a member of our project team, who explained cleanup progress and answered questions.

The community advisory group used the observation deck frequently, and now the view from that deck includes a nature preserve and baseball diamonds. Commitment to community engagement means that sometimes mistakes can be turned into opportunities to rebuild trust.

Ask. Listen. Ask again. Act. And start again.

Gretchen Wahl

BY Gretchen Wahl

August 21, 2018

Community Outreach