The New York Times was recently criticized after an article about the Democratic presidential candidates’ debate included the comments of only Caucasian men – 11 of them, in fact.
What happens when a diversity of voices is left out of the conversation?
That question was part of the discussion at Simon Fraser University’s downtown Vancouver campus this afternoon. The topic at today’s City Conversations session was: “Would cities be different if they were designed by women?”
But one of the panelists, Iglika Ivanova, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, turned that question on its head: “Would cities, Canada, the world be different if more voices were heard?” That’s the question we should be asking, she said.
Because it’s not just women who are underrepresented in politics, at planning tables and in other positions of power. Different cultural backgrounds, immigrants, people living with disabilities – the list goes on. And when women and others face barriers to reach their full potential, we are all poorer for it – because really good ideas are not being heard, Ms. Ivanova said.
So how do you start including more, diverse voices in the discussion and the decision?
Another panelist, Carla Guerrera of Darwin Properties, said a great start is to provide childcare at public meetings so that mothers can attend. Another way is to go where people are instead of waiting for them to come to you. She used the example of reaching out to a local Parent Advisory Committee (PAC) for a recent project.
Ms. Ivanova said one of the first steps is simply recognizing that different people have different experiences and views. Even though she’s a woman, she doesn’t and can’t represent a single mother’s perspective or a senior woman’s view. Work to identify what voices are missing, and seek them out, she said.
These ideas and strategies align so well with our work here at Delaney + Associates. In public engagement, we spend a lot of time, planning and focus on identifying all the stakeholders in a project or decision, and then designing engagement activities that work for them. We work hard to capture a variety of voices and perspectives in our engagement projects, and have found some additional strategies to help achieve that goal:
- Hold engagement meetings or events at different times of the day and on different days of the week. Many people work outside of traditional office hours. Providing a variety of days and times means more people will have a chance to participate.
- Providing childcare is great, but also consider allowing people to bring children to events, or even planning inclusive, family-friendly engagements where the whole family might get involved (as the project/topic allows)
- Partner with organizations that already work with the groups/demographic you’re trying to reach. Such organizations can usually provide great information about the group’s preferences for involvement.
- Provide more online options for engagement. Attending an engagement in person is a barrier for many people. Effective online options can make it easier to participate. The message of going where people already are applies here too.
- Provide information about the project, decision and engagement opportunities in language that is clear, accessible, free of jargon and easily understood. If busy people have to read a 20-page, high-level report in order to get involved, they likely won’t.
In the longer term, it’s key that women and other underrepresented groups have more seats at the decision-maker table – senior city staff, elected officials and private sector leadership positions. But until then, the role for effective public engagement is even more crucial to ensure a variety of voices are being heard.