“It’s not a numbers game”: Getting to the heart of equitable engagement with Jessica Delaney of Delaney + Associates

Claire Sauvage-Mar is BC Healthy Communities’ former Grants & Engagement Coordinator. 

In a recent blog post, we noted that Canadian communities are now more than ever expecting to be part of creating and evaluating public decisions. As we enter a new decade, “equity” is the hot-button word that municipalities and citizens alike are coming to grips with, including in the realm of community engagement.

Equity is the fair distribution of opportunities, power and resources to meet the needs of all people, regardless of age, ability, gender or background. People who have unfair access (women, Indigenous communities, racialized people, people who have been incarcerated and many other equity-seeking groups) are typically those with poorer health outcomes. These are also the folks who are less likely to be involved in public engagements. Equitable engagement lifts up seldom-heard-from voices early on in the decision making process by identifying and lowering the many barriers that might prohibit participation.

Engagements are increasingly led by people who are from the groups bearing the burden of inequality and invisibility. Putting lived-experience at the heart of the discussion and decision-making process is equity in action. There are excellent examples of this across B.C., from engaging the Nelson street community in order to identify service gaps which perpetuate the cycle of poverty to working with members of a local Indigenous community to create a more equitable Housing Needs Assessment in Strathcona Regional District. BC Healthy Communities regularly shares these and other stories of equitable engagement efforts from across B.C. through our PlanH program’s Community Success Stories page.

“When you think equity, and not just equality, it means that you’re working to hear from people whom are impacted and often experience barriers to participation,” says Jessica Delaney, Principal, Strategic Communications and Engagement for Delaney + Associates. “I think there’s increasingly a recognition that those who are going to live the solutions need to be part of defining the problem. For engagement processes and their results to be seen as genuine, people who are impacted need to have been engaged.”

A commitment to an equitable process often means scaling resources so that different, and often more, supports are directed at equity-seeking groups, ensuring that they have equal access to the process. For example, scheduling events to have childcare so that single parents can attend may take more time, but allows for their perspectives to be included. While the public sector is becoming more comfortable with and skillful at equitable public participation, there are still barriers to uptake. Time is one such “non-renewable” resource, according to Delaney.

“You have to first understand where people are, what their preferences for the engagement are, what they care about related to the project, what kind of conversations they want to have. And then we need to be able to facilitate those with humility and with an open mind and an open heart. And then we need to be able to translate for our decision makers so they understand how to consider it in their decision making process. All of those things do take time.” The lessons learned in each successful engagement can be used to develop strategies that benefit the community, but in order to learn those lessons, an upfront investment of time is a non-negotiable.

“It’s not a numbers game,” says Delaney, emphasizing that an engagement should do no harm. “Above all else, be humble and know that any given day, you are going to learn something from someone… because I don’t know what it’s like to experience homelessness, but I can learn from someone who does. I don’t know the physical and social impact of being on methadone, but I can learn from someone who’s in a methadone program. Come with really good questions. And know you don’t have all the answers.”

Municipalities have a golden opportunity to build their capacity through equitable, healthy community engagement. For those individuals conducting the process, each engagement is a chance to create an environment in which they are able to express and work through their own conscious or unconscious biases, privilege, uncertainty and guilt – all in addition to bolstering community support for a given decision. Plan to learn something from each person you connect with. Bring bravery to your practice. Curiosity is more important than knowing things when it comes to meaningful engagement.

Are you part of a local government in B.C. looking for funding and support to make your engagement processes more equitable? Grants of up to $15,000 plus in-kind planning supports are now available through our PlanH program. Applications close July 15. Learn more at planh.ca/grants or give us at call at 250.590.1845.

Author Credit: Claire Sauvage-Mar

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