A Placemaking Journal

Equity, Engagement, Community: Empathy ain’t enough

So you’ve finally aligned the stars to get something important done in your community. Maybe it’s a corridor plan that nods to the needs of pedestrians, bikers and transit riders, as well as car drivers. Maybe it’s an ambitious mixed-use master plan for your downtown. Or a revamped zoning code to enable the development and redevelopment everybody seems to want.

You’re about to wrap things up with a meeting to remind folks of how far you’ve come, how all the meetings and workshops and interim stakeholder check-ins informed the ideas that emerged. You invite questions. And here comes the most predictable one:

“I look around this room, and I see the usual faces. White faces. Comfortable middle-class people. But our community also includes lots of people who aren’t here. Who are historically left out of the conversation.

“Where are they? How can we say we have a community plan when their voices haven’t been heard?”

There goes the vibe of hopefulness — and along with it, some of the confidence it will take to hold together the coalitions necessary to overcome barriers to the plan’s adoption and implementation. Worst of all, there’s no satisfactory way to answer the question.

Miss-measuring success

You can list all the outreach efforts, all the ways you sought participation from minority populations. You can point to recent examples of inclusion and maybe success stories here and there. You can enumerate all the ways in which the evolving plan touches on broad-based concerns about equity and opportunity. But it feels like excuse-making. Despite your best efforts, key targeted community members didn’t show. And you — we — know that if a community planning effort is to be judged by the degree to which all voices are heard, then anything short of a big turnout is going to feel like failure.

So here’s the question: Should participation be the metric for measuring success?

In just about everything else humans do, from the most mundane to the monumental, that’s not how we judge success. Take the simplest sort of transaction: You drop your clothes off at the dry cleaners’, handing over something you value to people you don’t know who’ll be manipulating a process you don’t understand and in which you have zero opportunities to monitor in person. Your participation ends at the service counter.

Why in the world would anybody do such a thing? Why trust a process in which you have so little direct involvement?

The real-life success metric: results

You could say it’s a leap of faith, but that understates the bottom-line calculation. You trust the transaction process because it generally provides the return on investment (of time, money, trust) you were led to expect. As a matter of fact, in the case of everyday transactional relationships, when results have been satisfactory frequently enough and there’s an occasional glitch — the cleaners lose a shirt or don’t have clothes ready when they promise — you cut them a little slack and continue the good-faith arrangement. As long, that is, as what they do matches what they say consistently enough to justify your investment.

The reason it’s so hard to get people historically left out of community planning conversations starts with the fact they’ve been historically left out of whatever was supposed to be the conversations’ outcomes. Based on their experience, the decision to avoid participation couldn’t be more rational. The dry cleaners lose their stuff most of the time.

It gets worse. When it comes to community planning, those who fail time after time to deliver on their promises often invite even more disappointment — and more disengagement — by doubling down on stuff they can’t do. They invite those they underserve to believe they’ll not only stop screwing up but will also come through with even better deals, if only their customers show up to put their dots on the maps. Again.

Empathy ain’t enough

Guilt about past failures have driven mandates for elaborate outreach efforts and visioning exercises in scopes of work. Lots of sincere listening and note-taking. Empathy abounds. So much empathy, in fact, participant sign-in sheets and wish lists that grow from all the note-taking take on more importance than aligning promises with strategies for implementing them.

Conflicting demands are insufficiently resolved. Unrealistic expectations — ones conditioned on funding or political support beyond the capacities of the promise-makers to manage — metastasize. No one wants to kill the can-do buzz.

But the outreach documentation? Nailed it.

The body counts. The hits on the website. The tweets, the FaceBook likes, the key pad polling. People were heard. Never enough people, of course. But the evidence of momentous efforts is all there in the charts and bullet lists that make for such terrific reading on reports (and for cover-your-backside alibis when questions arise).

And questions do arise. Like: When will this stuff happen? Especially in the places where the historically underserved are still waiting to be served.

Means and ends 

Let’s go back to the dry cleaners. Would customers consider they were treated fairly if they almost never got their clothes back the way they were promised but got to participate in a lot of facilitated meetings in which their concerns were noted? Only if the time they invested was rewarded with a measurable change in promise delivery. Like immediately.

Talking about how to fix things is worth the time only if the talk leads to fixing things. In the absence of timely outcomes, more invitations to more talk are likely to be greeted with the cynicism they deserve.

By making a fetish of participation, we’ve misunderstood the relationship between process and outcomes, means and ends. Future success is not conditioned on participation. Future participation is conditioned on past success. It’s earned. So the focus of every planning effort should be about repairing or building onto a track record of linking planning with implementation, on developing and following through on strategies in line with community goals.


In setting those goals, we’re right to seek out diverse perspectives. But here again, we too often judge the quality of the effort by the body count. The more people, the more authentic the vision. But if that’s true, each person missing from the conversation diminishes its authenticity. Which means those who don’t show up have a stronger voice than those who do.

Fortunately, we’re rescued from this depressing possibility by the foundational assumption of all cooperative endeavors: Human beings, across a broad range of incomes, ages, geographies and physical capacities, share certain core beliefs. Talk to enough people, and you can infer values that just about everyone agrees upon, at least at the 30,000-foot level. So instead of documenting individual voices, what’s important in a participatory process is that a sufficient number of folks are engaged to understand the full range of perspectives.

That shifts the test question of authenticity from: “Was your voice heard?” To: “Was your perspective represented?”

Getting s#%t done

All of this is bad news for elected officials and their staff who hope they can download the hard parts about long range planning to community members. Getting a grant for yet another visioning process, another poll, another website redesign or even a digital “town hall” app — those are no substitutes for better connecting the promises they already make with the stuff that gets done. And it’s not going to get any easier anytime soon.

Issues of equity and opportunity are only getting thornier. While the very rich are getting richer, the numbers on the other end of the income scale are growing, as well. The middle class is shrinking. The frustration and anger inspired by these trends are animating the 2016 election process. But there’s little evidence that what will emerge after November will clarify the way forward and lead big, positive changes. The highest hopes are mostly for slogging forward with fewer disasters and incremental mini-successes.

The best way to feel less depressed when questions about the underserved and under-heard arise is to do the kind of work ahead of time that makes the issue less relevant. That means repairing the connections between what we already promise as fundamental guarantees in the social contract and what we routinely deliver to all citizens.

Do we really need people strapped for time and resources to show up to affirm yet again their desires for the predictable and equitable allocation of government services — particularly those related to public safety, housing, health, education and transportation? Do we even have a right to expect them to join a new conversation about future promises without proof we can deliver on the old ones?

Until we can provide that proof, maybe we ought to ratchet down the handwringing and start matching passion with performance.

Ben Brown

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