What do you want? What do you need?  

In the world of community development, these two questions jumpstart an equitable approach to resident engagement. At least, that’s what they’re intended to do. But increasingly, they’ve become “check the box” questions, almost rote for any organization working with communities. They frame a conversation not about community members as empowered, but about powerless people asking for help. These questions, it turns out, rarely create opportunities for full partnership in decision-making and—if not paired with tangible outcomes—actually can be exploitive.

Sometimes the answers that “what do you want” and “what do you need” elicit don’t align with the purpose of the engagement, essentially saying: “We know you want to improve business facades and clean up the neighborhood, but we’re talking about green infrastructure and complete streets in this charrette.” As a result, community responses don’t get acted on and don’t reach the people and organizations that need to hear them.

These questions have a long pedigree in community-engagement efforts, yet the examples of effective engagement in this book show that we need to do more. Funders frequently require community engagement, but the process often proves anemic or memorializes results in planning documents that either sit on a shelf or get duplicated mindlessly in subsequent reports without true implementation. In addition, the plans frequently don’t deliver the resources necessary for implementing the projects and services that community members have said they want or need. Many well-meaning conveners of engagement processes for new plans have no access to or information about plans that came before, perpetuating a cycle of recreating plans. Trust breaks down, planning fatigue thins the ranks of participants, and the possibility that community members can actually shape the future meaningfully grows increasingly remote.

Read the full article about equitable climate action by Madeline del Carmen Fraser Cook, at LISC.