MSUE in Detroit Series Part Two: Civic Engagement Field Guide

Civic engagement and collaboration with underrepresented populations.

Civic Engagement of Under-represented populations

It is important to have a civic engagement or dialogue process that provides an opportunity for everyone’s voice to be heard, and not just special interest groups or those organizations that historically support certain types of projects or programs. There are many definitions for community engagement. This article will examine The Detroit Future City Report (2012) titled: Civic Engagement: Supporting Lasting Civic Capacity in Detroit, which is an excellent example and a best practice for how municipal officials can include community stakeholders in decision making processes. Let’s break apart and examine the different components of the very successful Detroit Future City’s Civic Engagement Process.

The Detroit Future City report (2012) defined civic engagement as:

Open and ongoing two-way dialogue among all stakeholders, and people are working together and talking together to move forward together. It entails transparency, accountability, and mutual trust.

Two-way communication between municipal officials and stakeholder is very important. If a public hearing is necessary, this two-way communication should happen before the public hearing is scheduled to allow stakeholders to process the information presented to them by municipal officials. Stakeholders should also be allowed time to ask as many questions as they feel necessary to get the clarity they need regarding the issue or project that they will be asked to make an informed decision.

The Detroit Future City Report states, “Civic engagement moves people along a spectrum of support”, and it discusses how stakeholders move along this continuum as they engage in the civic engagement process. The Report States:

For some, becoming more engaged means less resistance or fear toward an idea or an initiative. For others, engagement means moving from passive indifference to active involvement or advocacy. Engagement can fuel the passion of still others to be the leaders and outspoken champions for their specific cause or a shared idea, lending their resources and skills as well as bringing others on board. (p. 219)

Based on this statement, moving stakeholders along this continuum of civic engagement will require municipal officials to pre-plan for civic engagement meetings by providing the information and resources necessary to allow stakeholders to make knowledgeable, informed decisions. Civic engagement is an organic process that will evolve throughout the meeting(s), but the organic evolution of this process requires municipal officials to be open, honest, and transparent with the stakeholders. It also requires municipal officials to have a variety of engagement strategies. Civic engagement strategies are used during community meetings to assist stakeholders to move along the decision-making spectrum resulting in either support or non-support for the issue or project being presented.

The Detroit Future City Report also states, “A civic engagement effort is often most successful when it involves a broad range of communities and sectors in conversation, relationship building, idea generation, decision making, and action”. (p. 219) This supports Michigan Prosperity Regions premise that economic growth and development happens at the regional level. Therefore, local municipalities should consult with adjacent municipalities when doing land use planning. Local municipalities should tie their economic development strategies, when possible, to their regional prosperity plans and initiatives.

The Detroit Future City Report states that civic engagement is not just based on the geographic location of people and their neighborhoods but, “Engagement exists where there are shared values or a common issue at stake; something that is of deep concern to community stakeholders” (p. 219).

Civic engagement meetings provide an opportunity for stakeholders to work together to un-earth deep underlying issues or concerns. It also allows stakeholders to uncover issues or concerns that they share a common interest. Community stakeholders and municipal officials have an opportunity to collaborate and work together in a deliberative process.  

Those in Michigan State University Extension that focus on land use provide various training programs on planning and zoning, which are available to be presented in your county.  Contact your local land use educator for more information.

Read part one of this series. 

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