Growing together: Reflections from the IAP2 Conference

Celeste Zimmer is BC Healthy Communities’ former Community Engagement Coordinator. 

In 2018 we attended the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2) North American Conference in Victoria, BC. The conference provided great insights into the evolving practice of public participation (P2). More profoundly, it also stressed the role of place in the community engagement process—a great reminder of the importance and creative potential of a place-based approach. Celeste describes her most important takeaways when it comes to dynamically and equitably engaging communities, no matter their size, layout or make-up.

IAP2 & BC Healthy Communities

As an organization, IAP2 focuses on building better approaches to the process variously called “public engagement,” “community engagement,” “civic engagement,” or “public participation,” depending on the field of the practitioner. In our work, we generally call it community engagement. This is the process by which governments, institutions, and other organizations that make decisions affecting the public ask for the public’s input into those decisions. At the foundation of IAP2 is the engagement spectrum:

As much as possible, IAP2 encourages decision-making organizations to engage their communities in ways more to the right of the spectrum, such as collaboration and engagement, rather than simply informing communities of decisions made without their input. IAP2’s approach to community engagement aligns with the Healthy Communities Approach, which sees authentic, empowering community engagement and multi-sectoral collaboration as two of five important pillars. Together, these pillars allow us to create communities that make it easier for citizens to be healthy and well.

The IAP2 Conference: Letting people & place guide the process

The theme of this year’s conference was “Growing a Culture of P2” and it started out with a full day of experiential field trips and workshops. The Beyond Indigenous Engagement session held at the Songhees Wellness Centre, I found that this experience set the stage for acknowledging that P2 work is very much evolving. There is not always an answer for how to best work with certain populations—you just need to jump in with a willingness to learn as you go.

Many difficult questions were asked to better understand how we might be able to decolonize decision-making and the public engagement process. Several of the local Lekwungen people in attendance shared their perspective on engaging with settlers and how it too often hasn’t been a beneficial experience, even when they knew positive intentions were there. The common theme was the need to have more Indigenous involvement with greater opportunity for empowerment within the decision-making spectrum.

Days two and three were full with sessions on every topic imaginable, from using storytelling for deep engagement, benefits of stakeholder mapping, adapting process to place and sessions on the inclusion of vulnerable populations in public engagement. Miranda Eng, Senior Consultant with Context Research Ltd. presented on their Model for Inclusive Engagement with Communities of Colour. She talked about understanding what makes the communities feel included or excluded, and how her organization has re-aligned their priorities to put the focus more on accountability, trust and cultural respect. Joel Mills & Erin Simmons from the American Institute of Architects presented on the Benefits of Adapting Process to Place. They shared that each place has its own narrative, and that in order to have a successful process we must ask how to bring this narrative into the process to better adapt it to the local context. These two sessions resonated with me, as they align with our own approach at BC Healthy Communities: understanding the importance and value of cultivating relationships at the community level, and knowing that the uniqueness of any particular community we work in is just as important in determining approach as any of the knowledge we bring.

“The common theme was the need to have more Indigenous involvement with greater opportunity for empowerment within the decision-making spectrum.”

The biggest realization came from participating in the Indigenous Empowerment and Community Planning: Implementing the IAP2 Spectrum session with Jeff Cook, President, & Paula Hay, from Beringia Community Planning, Inc. They had deconstructed the IAP2 spectrum of engagement and transformed it into a new spectrum of empowerment. The idea was that each culture and community would see greater value in using their own tactics to engage. We discussed the tools used (in this case a spectrum) and how the community should be heavily involved in co-creating the methods used to engage those who will be most involved.

There were lot of new connections made and inspirational discussion that sparked a greater interest in learning how we can grow the culture of P2 within our organization and in the communities we work with. Although we might not always have the right answer, as long as we are asking the right questions and diving deeper to go beyond the platitudes of diversity, we’ll gain a deeper understanding for how we can cultivate more inclusivity into our processes.

Author Credit: Celeste Zimmer

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