Reading the article, I dont see anywhere a concrete objective(s) set out for the meetings. Did they have one? Or did they just want to hear from the community about their thoughts on racism? Which is far to nebulous and open ended for any constructive consultation.
Also, it was very naive of panel not to realize there would be traumatized speakers, listeners, and it all compounded by racism deniers. Alberta, Calgary in particular, is founding home/Canadian home of many national and North American wide extreme far right, racist hate groups including Proud Boys and 3 Percenters. Racism was going to happen and be legitimized in a public engagement setting – and they didn’t do enough to stop it with their broad unfocused appeal for experiences by community members.
At the same time, the public stories of racism experienced by people of colour in Calgary was a powerful message to other citizens about the breadth and depth of racism in their city’s structures and operations. Research shows that personal storytelling is one of the strongest tools to shift thinking of undecided populace. I don’t know if the impact would have been as powerful in more controlled, less public, and streamlined engagement. Nor would people of colour felt heard if their testimony was not as public and high profile. This brings up the question of whether the hearings were PR or actual engagement. The way Council did it feels more like PR for them to show support for addressing systemic racism while providing a needed release valve for people who had felt silenced for too long. In either case, the intent and objective of the engagement was not clear and people were left disappointed as a result.
If council does take systemic racism in their city services seriously they should now develop more effective engagement to build on this reactive attempt at listening. This engagement should have clear objectives and include an education campaign about the engagement, its purpose and planned outcomes to best manage expectations of participants and populace.
Techniques chosen with a clear objective in mind should ensure guidelines for engagement mapped to ensure a safe space. Story sharing is powerful for raising awareness, but for developing solutions the engagement needs to be objective led so using techniques like resident feedback, and questionnaires (that could have been filled out while waiting in line, or done online for those who didn’t want to go down to wait in line during a pandemic.) Engagement interviews could be done with leaders and front line workers serving different communities of colour, including victims services. (Since systemic racism is a long term issue, an advisory group made up of council members, city staff, and relevant community leaders could emerge as part of solutions.) To educate decision makers and city staff, tours/field trips into neighbourhoods of colour to see the disparities in housing and services can help illustrate systemic racism. It should be a year long process with regular updates and information that captures media attention so it stays in the public imagination during the long consultation process.
Pulling back the lens, the PR of establishing that an issue exists has been done with the city council circus, now they can move on to solution focused engagement.