Nine Critical Steps to Authentic Community Engagement

This piece was written, in consultation with community leaders, for How Housing Matters, a project of the Urban Land Institute with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

We all know the drill.

There’s a notice in the back of the newspaper and tucked away on a government website, maybe some flyers posted at a community center or two. A bureaucrat stands at the front of a gymnasium, displaying a color-coded map and some indecipherable schematics to explain a project or plan in so much jargon it’s virtually a different language. Maybe the handful of residents who show up get to put a pin on the map. Maybe they just get a chance to share their “input.” Then, after an hour or two, the show is over, and only the persistent (and probably paid) advocates hear from that bureaucrat again.

In too many cases, that’s what passes as community engagement.

In 2016, 13 government agencies and nearly 20 community-based organizations in the Twin Cities threw out that model to try something different.

It all started because of a fair housing complaint against the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul that alleged governmental bodies administering federal resources in the Twin Cities were perpetuating racial segregation. The fair housing advocates charged that the critical document those jurisdictions had to complete (an “Analysis of Impediments”) to get their US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) dollars didn’t address segregation and integration. To settle the complaint, the cities agreed to update that document with a focus on those absent areas and to do it with robust and meaningful input from community-based leaders and affected residents.

Over a year, more than 30 stakeholders—including local city and county governments, the organizations that filed the complaint, and community-based groups representing the Equity in Place table—came together every month to create an addendum to the Analysis of Impediments and chart a new course for community engagement.

While facing challenges and tripping along the way, the process resulted in hundreds of affected residents from different cultural communities contributing their insight and community-based organizations, with trust in their respective communities, being used for their efforts to convene those conversations. As the HUD-funded facilitator, Minnesota Housing Partnership had a unique perspective on the process, outlining the steps and sharing our recommendations in our recent report: “A New Approach to Fair Housing Community Engagement.”

Here are nine key lessons we learned.

Whose priorities? In this case, many communities of color and grassroots leaders felt the process was instigated by outsiders and focused on an issue that was not a key concern in their communities—namely, segregation and integration. Many community organizations were wary of being part of the process, and many acknowledged that they joined the table to share that alternative narrative and push for a better understanding among other leaders that priorities need to be set by community, not by academics, government officials, or external groups. As one leader at the table put it, “I participated because, for me, the goal was not really to deal with the complaint but to bring a counter narrative.” You’re not going to find a solution, that community leader emphasized, if you don’t correctly identify the problem.

Create equal power, including use of language. One community leader noted, “It felt as though the government officials thought they were doing us a favor by allowing us space at the table.” Another community leader noted that “many of the community-representing organizations were brought to sit at a table that was not their turf, and there wasn’t an expression of equal power.” Some of that was mitigated by intentional steps to level the playing field, including a presentation from HUD on the history of the Fair Housing Act. But one pervasive wedge was language. Although housing advocacy is laden with jargon that isn’t accessible to the general public, the impact of language goes beyond simple comprehension. Throughout the process, community leaders consistently highlighted that common terms like “concentrated areas of poverty” or “high- and low-opportunity areas” created a deficit-oriented frame for communities of color that, one participant noted, was “offensive” and made it difficult to engage fully. Another member noted, “There needs to be a paradigm shift in how such processes are run so it’s not so exhausting for people they claim to want to hear from.”

Acknowledging history and racism is fundamental. Along with the use of language, the group needed to address a gap in knowledge or shared understanding around historic harms to community and ongoing manifestations of systemic and institutional racism. At the outset, one member shared, “Conversations about institutional racism were side notes or ignored at the table,” which was problematic in having the right kind of informed discussion. To address that, a small working group was created to find a facilitator and funding for an Undoing Racism training. That training couldn’t take place until the latter part of the Fair Housing Advisory Committee (FHAC) process, but, to a person, it was seen as useful, something that should not only be incorporated earlier but potentially required for all participants. In addition to sharing knowledge about concepts and systems, it also allowed members from government and community to connect on a personal level.

Sustained conversation and engagement is central to trust and progress. Participants from all sides emphasized the significant benefit of having a sustained conversation over a yearlong process. Rather than seeking one-time feedback or insight, the FHAC created space for more nuanced conversations and relationship building, such that many felt the opportunity to engage in deeper discussion and connect with decisionmakers made the process worthwhile. An outcome of the process beyond the required Analysis of Impediments addendum has been conversation within the Fair Housing Implementation Council to better and more intentionally incorporate community members and leaders in a meaningful and sustainable way so engagement isn’t on a project-by-project basis but built on consistent conversation. As one participant reflected, “If they feel or think differently as a result of working with communities, that’s a win.”

Community leaders are not a substitute for community members. Although there was an intentional balance between community organizations and government actors, community leaders emphasized that they could help represent but couldn’t speak for directly affected people. One community leader pointed out, “People who are directly impacted constantly remind us that the decisions and choices we’re making have an impact, and they can add that little zinger, ‘Actually, that’s not how it works.’” Because of the timing and content of the FHAC meetings, the process, while technically open, was not accessible to the community in a meaningful way. That distinction led to discussion around reaching beyond the organizational leaders to community members.

Providing resources to community rather than to outside consultants. One of the hallmarks of the process was providing microgrants to community organizations that had trusted relationships with affected populations. With awards of up to $4,500, these organizations were tasked with convening conversations in whatever format they deemed appropriate for their community around barriers to fair housing. Funding from the government actors and area foundations ensured the community received equal financial resources as the outside consultant charged with executing data and policy analysis and ensured that the outside consultant integrate the insight from more than 800 community members, representing communities of color across the metropolitan region. Although most found the timeline and funding inadequate, the process was universally recognized as a fundamental shift in community engagement, bringing more affected voices into the conversation than in the past.

One interview doesn’t represent a whole community. The microgrants were essential in integrating community input, and most groups said they saw their input represented in the final report. But many struggled with how to make the process applicable to their communities’ interests and not seem like a top-down imposition of another government process. For some, a toolkit from Mosaic was helpful in navigating that, but others were frustrated by the constraints and framing inherent in the tools provided. They also cautioned that their engagement represented small portions of the overall cultural communities, communities that are composed of diversity in and of themselves. One leader, who works with the Somali community, emphasized, “One group interview isn’t reflective of an entire community; it’s reflective of a single high-rise building in South Minneapolis.”

Create clear accountability and shared understanding around outcomes. One community leader stated during one of the FHAC meetings, it’s not that officials don’t know the needs of community. Some areas of the city, she emphasized, have been “surveyed to death.” What’s missing is accountability around actions that result from that input. In the first draft of the Analysis of Impediments addendum, many community members pointed to the vague recommendations that used vague wording and sought to track or monitor issues rather than take clear action to solve them. For many, it wasn’t clear how or if the jurisdictions included in the Analysis of Impediments would be bound by the recommendations. One participant asked at the conclusion of the process, “You do this whole in-depth report and you hear that people are being displaced and people aren’t able to get housing because of criminal backgrounds and UDs [unlawful detainers]. How are you, City of Minneapolis, now responsible to do something about that? How do you make sure that the impediments of 2017 aren’t still the same in 2020? How do we gauge movement, especially with such a big issue?” That process was neither clear nor consistent across jurisdictions, which made accountability to community even more difficult.

The process isn’t over. Although the HUD-mandated process is over, the work has not concluded. One participant mused, “It was a constant struggle to remind myself and review why the process was important, and whether it was worth the time or just taking away from immediate community needs.” To make such processes worth the time and resources, there must be clear tracking of progress and implementation of the recommendations. Although many community organizations said they are committed to holding their jurisdictions accountable, each said it need additional financial resources to do so. Although funding community engagement for the Analysis of Impediments addendum was helpful, the next challenge is finding ways to provide resources to those communities to ensure there is community power to turn the inclusive visions of those documents into reality.

Read the full report here.