On Nov. 7, about 20 community organizers from all over New York City were welcomed with bagels and coffee as they settled in for a full day of learning about effective public engagement. At the start of the Avenue NYC Public Engagement Strategy workshop, we all agreed to some ground rules which included enabling empathy and compassion, accepting a lack of closure, and recognizing the partial nature of our truths. With that small activity, the workshop, hosted jointly by Public Agenda and NYC Small Businesses Services (SBS), became a model of public engagement. The day succeeded in not only helping leaders learn how to strengthen their own engagement strategies, but consistently demonstrated what good engagement looks like.
The workshop hosted leaders from Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) across NYC. BIDs oversee and fund maintenance and improvement and are supported by SBS.
Our Vice President of Public Engagement Matt Leighninger demonstrated the importance of true engagement for personal and community health. For example, did you know that loneliness outstrips smoking and obesity to be the #1 risk factor for illness and premature death? How about the fact that cities with higher levels of community attachment have higher levels of economic growth, lower levels of unemployment, and lower crime rates?
True engagement is about cultivating and maintaining positive relationships between citizens and the institutions that serve them. Each relationship is inherently unique, and thus requires its own plan of engagement. Participants were introduced to several forms of thick engagement, which is characterized by deliberative small-group processes, and thin engagement which is fast, easy, and curated for individuals. The day’s activities didn’t stop at slides, but included engaging in small-group conversations and discussing what was covered, and how it compared to each leader’s experiences. They also got to plan how to grow out their engagement network by mapping their community’s stakeholders on tree diagrams. We also tested online thin engagement tools like Mentimeter, a polling app that our leaders loved using.
We all recognized the need for trust as a basis for effective engagement and how goodwill gestures like refreshments at meetings were small but crucial steps in building trust. Throughout the day, we worked to build trust in the room through games and conversation. The participants were given space to share the daily challenges they face, ranging from working in a community as an outsider, to balancing the needs of long-term residents and new arrivals. Many were relieved to find that they were not alone in the challenges they face.
Among the many aspects of engagement discussed that day, equity stood out as the major thought provoker. The conversation started over the famous image produced by the Interaction Institute for Social Change of three people of varying heights standing on crates trying to watch a baseball game. In the image, the tallest person has the clearest view of the game while the shortest cannot see at all. That is equality. In the next panel, labeled “Equity,” the tallest viewer stands on no crate because he doesn’t need one to see, the medium-height person stands on one crate, and the shortest person stands on two. In this scenario, everyone can see the game, and as one workshop participant pointed out, everyone is visibly enjoying the game more.
We also discussed the “curb cut effect,” which illustrates how laws and programs created to serve the most vulnerable often end up benefiting us all. “Equity is using our resources wisely,” noted Ted Baptiste of Long Island City Partnership. “Sometimes we’re limited to working with three boxes.”
Workshop participants thought deeply about what equity means in the communities they serve, and how they currently challenge or even enable inequities. The day spoke to the power and value of taking a step back, out of the trenches of day-to-day operations, and evaluating public work in an engaged community.
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