I often hear a criticism from peers in the industry — and have experienced it myself — that while we do engage communities in our work, that engagement doesn’t always feel authentic or even significant. I wonder if it’s because we view “community engagement” as another task to be completed by the experts, rather than an integral piece of the puzzle. We often place significant emphasis on our learned expertise, with lived experiences of community members, taking a backseat until they are needed to validate the work we do.
One rationale for this is that this work could not happen without experts. How can we relinquish our control to individuals who don’t always know the facts and may not understand the science or art behind the work? After all, we have years of schooling, training, certifications, and experiences in the industry that community stakeholders simply don’t have. While this may be true, it overlooks the value that lived experiences bring, particularly in contexts with rich histories, cultural nuances, and generations of communal knowledge. These are the things we can’t bottle up in a diagram or find best practices for in a textbook.
Taking an alternate view, imagine what might happen if we did relinquish some of that power. How might we bring in these unique perspectives and engage local leaders and stakeholders to actively participate as designers on a project?
Opportunity: Elevate and build the capacity of local leaders for sustained change
To combat the effect of entering into communities as experts, at Greater Good Studio we tested a different role for ourselves on the Raising Places project and the results surpassed anything we could’ve imagined. We formed multi-disciplinary design teams of local leaders in each of the six communities we worked in, and allowed ourselves to fade in the background providing facilitation, coaching, and technical assistance when needed.
While at a higher level our goal was to build child-centered communities, what we really wanted was for stakeholders feel empowered and equipped to do that work themselves. Recognizing that we were only in a given community for a short amount of time, and that implementation of any idea would actually take much longer, it was important that the design team felt ownership over the ideas so that they could seamlessly continue moving ideas forward long after we left. After all, while these projects may have deadlines for consultants, they are lifelong endeavors for the stakeholders that live and work in those communities. So we offered the design teams a modest stipend and trained them to conduct research and develop relationships and solutions with their community members.
At community workshops, the design team was the face of the project, presenting and having conversations directly with stakeholders, while the GGS team stood in the back available for support if needed. The design team then developed prototypes of ideas and went back to stakeholders for feedback, and finally the design team put together pilot projects to test ideas in real-time. Months after formal completion of the project, many design team members are continuing to lead the charge on projects in their communities.