Engagement moves at the speed of trust - Connect The Dots Insights
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Engagement moves at the speed of trust

Sylvia Garcia-Garcia is Connect the Dots’ Project Manager of Community Engagement, based in Philadelphia. She is a bicultural multilingual experienced social impact professional, passionate about centering inclusion and sustainability. Sylvia holds a Master’s in Strategic Thinking from Tec de Monterrey and has since worked as a consultant and project manager across sectors and countries. Her 15-year career in social impact and collective change informs her work while prioritizing knowledge sharing as key when creating social impact. She works guided by the idea that the future is created today.

Let’s do an exercise together

Think about someone you met at a conference a while ago. Maybe you both are now friends. (Yay!) Did you become friends immediately after you met? Well, maybe there were a few more steps. Perhaps you exchanged business cards, then a couple of emails, maybe then grabbed some coffee together, and after a while you both met at another conference or happy hour. Over time, it became not only about business but more personal so you both introduced your partner or a friend and went together to a baseball game on a Thursday evening. But – after all those months, you don’t know everything about them; you still do not know that your new friend is concerned and a committed advocate of traffic infrastructure because of an accident that occurred to a relative a decade ago.

And that is all right. It takes time (and much more) to create a relationship where those sensitive topics are shared, right? It’s about creating trust – identifying in the other someone on which you can rely based on their character and much more. It takes time to get there.

Now let’s think about community engagement (because that is our stuff at Connect the Dots!). Community engagement is about defining who the communities are, who the members are, and then building meaningful conversations with them; being present in their lives – multiple times. After repetition we’ll be able to start a conversation either about a park improvement in the neighborhood or a redesign of transit signs in the city. That’s how we get to know each other. It is like you with your new friend – you see each other once, once again, once more… and after some time, you begin to trust.

Why should someone be motivated to talk to me as a member of an engagement team about a park or transit signs? Considering that it could be anything from a sensitive topic to an irrelevant one for them. Even if they know me, why should they talk to me about it?

Outreach is a key piece of the engagement process. It is how we let the community members know that they can rely on us.
Project: Framing the Future of the Roundhouse, 2022.

Here are a couple of ideas for why community members may say yes or no to participating in an engagement process:

YES

  • Their input could have an impact on their neighborhood development.
  • Their daily life will be impacted by the changes that are about to happen.

NO

  • They have much more important and urgent things to do.
  • They don’t trust that their voices will be heard.

If we pay attention to the examples, the YES reasons are all about things we as a Community Engagement team need to share. The community won’t have that information otherwise The NO reasons are about the community context, the as-is conditions.

Could that scenario be changed? Well yes, but it takes time. Every engagement project we do at Connect the Dots intentionally has a Phase Zero or Pre-Engagement Phase which allows us, our partners, and clients to set up the project management dynamic and even more importantly, set up the dynamic for relationships with community members. Tasks such as “stakeholder mapping” ”introductory phone calls”, “setting partnerships” and more ways to meet people where they are are included. Behind those titles there is unique and challenging work related to creating trust and building that relationship over time through repetition…. just like with your friend from the conference.

We meet people where they are and we adapt to their social dynamic.
Project: Gorham Westbrook Portland Rapid Transit Corridor – Portland, Maine, 2022.

Sometimes the relationship will advance quickly because we will find so much in common – like a baseball game on a Thursday evening. Sometimes it won’t. Maybe while you are trying to talk about traffic infrastructure (a shallow, superfluous topic for some), your friend will be evasive because of the memories of that accident.

It takes time.
It takes repetition.
It takes both sides opening up.
And the length of time is not under anyone’s control.
Engagement moves at the speed of trust.

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