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Being a Stranger in a Strange Land

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By: Lauren Wirtis

“You have to recognize that you are a visitor into someone else’s space.” – Jessica Delaney, IAP2 Federation Trainer

Core Value 5: Public participation seeks input from participants in designing how they participate.

Core Value 6: Public participation provides participants with the information they need to participate in a meaningful way.

Core Values 5 and 6 remind P2 practitioners that everywhere they go in their profession, they are the outsider. When talking to Jessica Delaney, Mary Hamel, and Cheryl Hilvert, the action they spoke most about in terms of these two Core Values was asking questions. What I learned from them and their stories was how to be a good visitor, who maybe might just get invited back. From what I can tell there are three good rules of thumb:

  1. Don’t assume anything
  2. Ask questions and take the answers seriously
  3. Speak the language
  1. Don’t Assume Anything

It is easy to project our own behaviors onto others. I find x, y, or z comfortable, so everyone else must as well. This can get you into trouble quickly as a visitor. Mary Hamel was able to think quick on her feet in order to avoid this exact issue. She was asked to step into a project as a facilitator in a Wisconsin community that had gone through a contentious mining proposal soon before. She had heard that the community did not like being split into small groups, because they felt like it was a divide and conquer strategy. However, that had been the meeting process the project managers wanted to run as there were about 150 attendees. As Mary began the facilitation the group reacted to the idea of being split up. Prepared for this, Mary worked with her team to reorganize the meeting. To the community being split up was about distrust, and the fact that Mary’s team was willing to rearrange their process help to build that trust back.

  1. Ask questions and take the answers seriously

When I talked with Jessica about Core Value 5, she said it “calls on practitioner to be humble in knowledge and experience with process design.” She described two ways to look to implement Core Value 5. First, you can hold a series of stakeholder interviews. These questions should give power to the interviewee to answer however they choose. Some of the questions Jessica likes to ask include:

  • What’s of interest to you in this decision?
  • What’s going to make it easier for you to engage?
  • What info do you need to engage?
  • What barriers do you have to engaging?
  • What don’t I know that I need to know?

Second, you can embed stakeholders into an engagement planning committee or team. Jessica took part in a committee design workshop on opioid substance use that invited patients into the planning team, asked them how to make participants more comfortable, and shaped the process around their input. “They helped us understand that there are many different patient voices going through different journeys. We needed to understand that we were not serving patient populations but a lot patients within a population.” One practical example was that many people recovering from opioid addiction used methamphetamines to help in the process. The use of methamphetamines raises the core body temperature. Jessica and her team kept the room colder than usual to ensure that participants would be physically comfortable during the workshop. This was just one of many insights the patients on the planning team provided. Other advice provided on the engagement design level included timing for breaks, location, and special requirements for those in the program.

  1. Speak the language

Another way practitioners can seem foreign to the communities they enter is with the language they use. Talking about the MX-II zone or Bill HDC-4739J can be alienating. Cheryl talked with me about how important it is to her to take a bit of time to explain the project and the terms that were going to be used in the discussion. Make people feel like they are equipped to participate and provide a sense of self-efficacy.

One way Cheryl did this on a larger scale was to create a citizens leadership academy, a 10-week program to provide education to citizens about the community they live in. The program educated participants on how government is structured, how decisions get made, the highest tax generating businesses, how economic development is organized, and the purpose of community development. Each class consisted of 25 students. Cheryl and her team went out of their way to invite people who weren’t typically supportive of the city.

Cheryl said the best outcome was that community members were now armed with information out in the community helping other citizens understand what was happening in their city. These people became ambassadors in the community. They went on to conduct their own independent citizen education around initiatives in the community. This program empowered people to take what can seem like a foreign language and bring it home.

It’s not enough to put the information up on a website or send out a press release when the community needs to be involved. P2 practitioners have a responsibility to learn how people want to be engaged and then reach out to provide the information they need to do just that. Mary embodied this philosophy in what may be my new favorite quote:

“Telling people the information is on the website is kind of like telling people it’s somewhere in the Library of Congress.”


This article is the third in a series of articles about the Core Values. Keep an eye out for the next article in upcoming newsletters.

Do you have a Core Values story to share? Please tell us about it here

Many thanks again to those who spent time talking with me.

Jessica Delaney – IAP2 Federation Trainer

Mary Hamel – EOP2 Trainer

Cheryl Hilvert, IAP2 Core Values Judge


Categories: Core Value Awards
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