Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Respectful Outreach to Disadvantaged Communities

This morning I found an excellent list of outreach tips in my inbox. I often hear from leaders of bicycle organizations who are frustrated with their lack of success in connecting with residents of distressed neighborhoods. I always start such discussions by applauding these leaders for trying, because too many bicycle projects bypass such neighborhoods. Then it is a simple matter to offer tips to help them build trust and respect with the residents they want to learn from.

Most of the tips I have offered over the years (including a detailed section in Defying Poverty with Bicycles) center on empathizing with these residents who have very little time to spare and who’s time has often been wasted by government-run meetings. In order to engage these important people in your bicycle campaign, you must first show them they are important, that the project needs their input in order to succeed.
This goes for transportation projects like a bike path or lane as well as launching a bike community center to provide bikes and career training for these neighborhood residents. No matter how obvious you think the benefits are, don’t expect your neighbors to see past their suspicion, especially if they believe that your program is just another of the multitudes that have promised great things only to waste their precious time.

This morning’s discovery comes from Jessica Roberts, a Principal at Alta Planning + Design. Alta is a consulting firm that specializes in helping cities implement bicycle and pedestrian projects. Jessica’s tip sheet includes fabulous details. Enjoy!:

  • Host events at churches, libraries, or community centers - should be locations that people are going to for regular activities anyway. Don't host at police department, courthouse, or other authoritarian locations. If you're trying to reach Hispanic/Latino community members, consider circulating at soccer games and inviting people to have an informal conversation about the project.

  • Radio is an important medium that a lot of people overlook. In most cities there is a Spanish language or other culturally-specific radio station that is a central source of information for the community. There may be a morning commute or lunch hour talk session where you an plug your event or project, or better yet get people involved in a discussion.

  • Provide childcare and food. In some communities, it is disrespectful not to feed people a full meal if you are asking for their time.

  • Don't require people to sign in & provide personal contact information - can feel intrusive and like "the government is tracking you." Provide opportunities for people to provide input informally, as opposed to requiring them to submit written comments. Make sure staff are prepared to engage people and take notes after each conversation.

  • Similarly, provide opportunities to talk to people that don’t have an established status. Talking to community leaders or consultants can be intimidating…have some staff hang off to the side looking approachable for people to talk to.

  • Visual recorders can be helpful for visual learners and ESL audience.

  • In some communities it is disrespectful to address elders by their first name, or to "get down to business" too quickly. Greet people warmly when they come in, ask them how they are doing, and listen to their answer before rushing into directions for the event. Ask for guidance and feedback from trusted community members on your tone, style, and format.
  • Use storytelling and personal anecdotes in addition to technical work.

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