Pursuing Citizen Engagement and Equity in "Corona Times"

When Sara Walsh was in third grade, her folks put the family house in Columbus, Ohio, on the market and agreed to sell it to a Black family. 

Then something untoward happened, recalled Walsh, an agent with RE/MAX in Westerville, Ohio, a suburb on the northeast side of Columbus. 

“Our neighbors stopped talking to us and some started spreading rumors about the condition of our house,” she said. “They clearly did not want a minority family living in the neighborhood.”

Ultimately the deal fell through, but the incident made a lasting impression on Walsh, who grew up in a home that she said valued diversity and differences in opinion. (Her father was a Democrat and her mother a Republican who argued “respectfully,” she said.)

When she became president of Columbus REALTORS® in 2018, Walsh put her beliefs into action and led efforts to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act. With the support of a REALTOR® Party Diversity Grant, she helped facilitate two successful diversity awareness programs, strengthened relationships with local minority real estate professional boards and established a standing Diversity & Inclusion Committee.

Those endeavors to educate, broaden participation and pursue equity were important, she said, because while Columbus is a dynamic city and home to Ohio State University, it remains largely segregated by race. And they remain important in the time of Black Lives Matter and lingering racism in Columbus and throughout the United States.

The highlight of her year at the helm of Columbus REALTORS®, she said, was a mock trial dealing with the community of Zanesville, where an impoverished minority neighborhood known as Coal Run was deprived of water until 2005. (That’s right, 2005.) Ultimately, the neighbors sued the city and Muskingum County and won a $10-million settlement. 

“This wasn’t something that happened 100 or 50 or even 30 years ago,” she said. “People were shocked that it was so close to Columbus. It was a real eye-opener.”

Walsh now serves on a Columbus-area zoning commission and she still hears comments like “‘I don’t want those people living near me,’ be it because of income or race or both. Some sentiments are hard to change.”

The key, she said, is education and reaching out to diverse groups “because in real estate, that’s what brings people to common ground. I believe when we understand each other and help others, we help ourselves. And you have to show doubters examples of where, for example, higher-density housing has worked well, even if they don't want it near them.”

The key is education and reaching out to diverse groups.

To reach a variety of groups during the ongoing pandemic — especially those that have been historically neglected — Walsh suggests communicating through schools, community groups, nonprofit organizations and faith communities. 

“We should make every effort to be inclusive, because I believe it benefits us all,” she said. “Communicating is the first step to being inclusive.”

Karen Parolek is co-founder and principal at Opticos Design, in Berkeley, Calif. Her architecture and urban design firm focuses on healthy, walkable and equitable communities.

Be intentional in your community engagement process.

She lauds organizations that are trying to be more inclusive in their planning efforts and reach out to overlooked groups, especially during the pandemic. But there is no magic bullet,” she said. “The most important thing is to be intentional in your community engagement process and be serious about reaching out to people where they’re at.

“That’s because the people who are coming to you are already coming to you. They know how the system works. But if you really want to include people who have not been able to participate in the past, you need to identify that as a goal and be creative about ways to make that happen. Then follow up with accountability on whether or not you did that. Just publishing that a meeting will be held doesn’t work anymore.”

Planners and developers need to design communication strategies.

She said planners and developers need to design communication strategies that are in tune with the times, and that could mean more use of smartphones, “which is very different than being on a website on a computer.”

But she said some communities may not have access to the internet or have smartphones. Others are struggling with time, especially if they are working several jobs and raising children. 

“There are a lot of underserved communities when you are talking about equity and different kinds of racial and ethnic diversity,” she said. “You might need to have shorter, quicker touchpoints to get input from them that doesn’t require them to sit down for an hour. But there is no getting around intention.”

Planners also need to be transparent about who will benefit and who might be hurt by redevelopment projects and other efforts in order to build links to groups that have been neglected or even seen their neighborhoods harmed by expanded roads or other public infrastructure projects, she said. 

“They will see right through you if they think you are using their group to get your project built,” she said. “They absolutely have to trust you.”

In the past, she added, planners might have ignored some black or brown communities because they simply didn’t care about them or their concerns. 

One benefit of the pandemic, she noted, is that many groups are willing to find ways to get connected technologically.

“A lot of faith communities are reaching out and helping their members with connecting digitally,” she said. 

“But you can't stop there. You need to reach out to other organizations, such as Black Lives Matter groups. They are worth contacting because they have a lot to say. But some people still aren’t connected, so you always have to have a multi-pronged effort with very clean intentions about who you want to engage and make sure they have the opportunity to participate.”

Parolek praised planners in Memphis, Tenn., for their efforts to include members of underserved communities when the city re-did its comprehensive plan.

“They won the American Planning Association’s Daniel Burnham Award and a lot had to do with their outreach efforts and use of local consultants,” she said. “Theirs is a gold standard.”

Ashley Cash, comprehensive planning administrator for the city of Memphis, said she uses a number of technological tools to contact groups she wants to reach. 

“The most important thing, though, is that you have to know the community that you want to communicate with,” she said.

“There are some great new apps that might really be good and appeal to techies. But when it comes down to it, the groups you want to reach when you are talking about equity are in some ways often disadvantaged and have been either ignored or purposefully left out of planning conversations. One reality of planning is that when we go into certain areas, we need to listen to the hurt and the heartache and the disappointment that has come before us.

“So, before you can reach them electronically, you need to make contact and build trust by getting to know organizations that have deep ties with their communities. And you need to know what tools they use to communicate when they can’t meet face-to-face. They might include Zoom, GoToMeetings or Webinar presentations.”

Cash said some techniques are clearly old-school, though they now require social distancing and wearing of masks during meetings. “We use poster boards where people congregate and they don’t have to touch them,” she said. They include libraries, community centers, grocery stores, coffee shops, barber shops and beauty salons. 

The key is to connect with the groups that are working there every day.

“And because Memphis is deep in the Bible Belt, the faith community is huge and churches are an important part of many people’s lives,” she added. “Many of them have already done a great job of transitioning their in-person services to electronic.”

She said when the pandemic first hit in March, her department paused much of its outreach work.

“But in the past six weeks, we’ve re-entered the world of community planning or what we call ‘smart planning,’” she said in late August. “As part of that, we asked neighborhood groups if they were ready to engage. We’ve gotten good feedback, so we’ll be proceeding.”

Cash said she and her four-person staff are “always thinking about being out and building relationships so there is trust. We need to learn who lives in the community, what are the issues they are facing and what is already being done, if anything, to address those issues. 

Planners have to build on the rapport they developed as they deal with pandemic challenges.

“So, when you come in, you’re not just a brand-new face. You actually have an understanding of the area and already have relationships with organizations. We can’t promise a $10-million sports center, but maybe we can get code enforcement to get a building cleaned up that is a nuisance and a hazard. Baby steps are important.”

The key, she said, is to connect with the groups that are working there every day, such as churches, small business owners, community centers or parent-teacher organizations. Their directors usually have good knowledge about what is going on because they deal with people in their neighborhoods on an often-daily basis.

“We just wrapped up the city’s comprehensive plan, which was a two-year process that engaged 15,000 people,” she said. “And we got a lot of folks who had never participated in something like that before, perhaps 25 percent.”

To reach that many people, they paid neighborhood organizations as consultants because they had expertise about their communities.

“We believed that their services were of value and should be compensated,” she said. “We often pay out-of-city and out-of-state consultants, so why not use people with local expertise who have been there for 20 or even 50 years and pay them a stipend? That worked a lot better than us just coming in and telling them we wanted them to get their people to our meetings. And if you have a pastor or head of a community organization vouch for you, that means a lot.”

Now, she said, planners have to build on the rapport they developed as they deal with the challenges presented by the pandemic. And that will be through both old-fashioned and electronic methods. 

Ebony Walden, founder and principal of Ebony Walden Consulting in Richmond, Va., said her clients can use a wide range of electronic tools and techniques to reach historically underserved communities during the pandemic. 

“But how you engage people is absolutely going to depend on a particular community,” she said. “In general, any way that you can go to a community and be present in a safe way is important. 

“I’m involved in an engagement process around the redevelopment of a public housing community in Richmond. One of the ways that we have engaged is through the tenant council. They are the advisory board in the community that has some power.

“Our first interface was a socially distant, virtual meeting, working with the resident services coordinator at the housing authority. There were only five residents in the room, so they could be socially distant, wear masks and be safe. There was a screen managed by the housing authority, so they didn’t have to worry about the technology.

“Restrictions mandated by the pandemic require smaller meetings, but I think with those sessions you can get more into the content with people.”

Co-hosting meetings with groups to build trust is a great way to start.

Walden concurred with Cash and said working with organizations that already have strong relationships with communities her clients want to reach is important. Co-hosting meetings with those groups to build trust is a great way to start, she added. 

Walden said many of the communities she’s worked with in the past have been hurt by developments and often marginalized and even excluded in the planning process in the past, sometimes even having the history of their black or brown neighborhoods razed. 

“So even if you have the best of intentions and have no connection to bad things that happened in the past, you might still be seen as an outsider,” she said. “I often try to connect with groups that are working with young people on some type of transformation, whether it is personal or community. 

“I say, ‘hey, this an effort that we are doing and we want to get your feedback' and explain to them why it is important they participate. Then these groups are usually more than happy to help coordinate or provide space. 

“A lot of them already have community engagement folks who can help with this and advise you on the best way to reach people and do outreach. They may have the technology that’s already in place for virtual meetings, too. One statistic I saw recently said 80 percent of Americans have smartphones and 98 percent have hand-held devices. That gives you a lot of technological options.”

In addition to using Facebook and Instagram to do surveys and reach people, she uses the post office to send out post cards to let residents know what is planned for their public housing community. “But nothing works better than face-to-face for reaching underserved communities,” she said. 

“That means going to places where people are already gathering. We wanted to do a focus group, so we went to a community garden. Those folks obviously cared about their community. We hooked up with the person who coordinated the outdoor space and asked for some time to talk in a manner that was safe and comfortable for them.”

She said trying to get large numbers of people together for virtual meetings hasn’t worked well in lower-income communities of color that she’s worked with. 

“And the technology can be problematic in the best of circumstances,” she added. “I just had my internet go down during a meeting and I use technology all day, every day.

”But when working on a charrette, they put up a tent, offered people snacks after they’d used a hand sanitizer, invited people in a few at a time and had conversations from an appropriate social distance about the public housing community redevelopment. 

You have to use a combination of techniques, old-school and high-tech.

“You have to use a combination of techniques, old-school and high-tech,” she said. “How you do that depends on the community you want to reach. And the bottom line is you have to be sincere.”

Way out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Melissa May is taking part in a project bordering the village of Hanapepe on the west side of Kauai, one of the Hawaiian Islands. She is a senior planner with the Honolulu-based SSFM, an international consulting firm providing planning, project management, construction management, civil engineering, structural engineering and other services. 

She is working with the State Department of Hawaiian Homelands, helping develop a master plan and environmental assessment for a 365-acre community that is being created for Native Hawaiians and leased to them for a small fee. It is called the Hanapepe Homestead Project and is being developed from some 200,000 acres that were set aside by the federal government in 1921. Some of the land will be used for three-acre agricultural homesteads for residents to grow taro and other crops.

May said communicating with residents of the area has special difficulties — not only because it is somewhat remote — but because some people who live near Hanapepe speak only a dialect of Hawaiian called Olelo Ni’ihau. The tongue comes from the island of Ni’ihau, to the west of Kauai and is the only remaining place where Hawaiian is the dominant language.

That has meant hiring a translator fluent in Olelo Ni’ihau so all residents can understand the scope of the project. 

“We are trying to plan out that community and consult with the [Native Hawaiian] beneficiaries on what kind of homesteads they are interested in, what they can afford in terms of homes and what they would like the community to look like,” she said.

“It can be a challenge to reach them, with around 10 percent speaking only the Ni’ihau dialect,” she said. “And some don’t have access to the internet or smartphones, so we have to be creative.”

As with her counterparts in stateside communities, May said she is using mail to reach those who might be eligible for the homesteads and people who live in and around Hanapepe, which has about 1,000 residents. 

“We also have a website, but we are using other available methods to contact folks, including the U.S. Postal Service,” she said. “And we have a contact person who can answer questions and field inquiries. We’ll also be recording our meetings, so that if people can't join in the original ones, they can view them later online.”

May said her consulting company has also worked on a project for low-income people on the west side of the island of Oahu.

“When you are thinking about equity and disadvantaged native populations, you’re often dealing with people who may or may not have access to resources,” she said. “So, part of our outreach earlier in the pandemic was to put fliers in food drives that had information about an online Q&A and a virtual open house. 

To be equitable, you have to try harder than was common in the past.

“You may not reach everyone, but you have to try a variety of different techniques, both old-school and virtual,” she concluded. “To be equitable, you have to try harder than was common in the past.” 

Advertisement

About On Common Ground

A free, semi-annual magazine published by NAR, On Common Ground presents a wide range of views on smart growth issues, with the goal of encouraging dialog among REALTORS®, elected officials, and other interested citizens.

Learn more and subscribe