What is Community Engagement?

Views of a Former Detroit Works Project Strategist

by Angie Allen

The major tension in Detroit’s land use planning for decades lies in the question of involvement:  which people are engaged and how—and what these power dynamics mean for Detroit as a city of neighborhoods. Land use plans are ultimately accountable to the people most impacted by them. Mayor Dave Bing has made the false claim that the Detroit Works Project is “not top-down.”

I have had the unique experience of serving Detroit city government during two very different phases of community-oriented planning projects: I was contracted by the Detroit Planning and Development Department to co-lead the implementation of Mayor Dennis Archer’s 1997 Detroit Community Reinvestment Strategy (Detroit CRS). In the past year, I worked at Community Legal Resources as part of the current Detroit Works Project Civic Engagement Strategy team.

In 1997, Mayor Archer had community leaders collaborate with university faculty in urban and regional planning, three planning firms, city department and agency executives, and a partnership of several philanthropic foundations to collect and interpret data, and begin designs for Detroit CRS. This community visioning land use process was not the creation of community leaders, but it did have significant resident engagement and involvement.

Compared to the Detroit Works Project, which many have denounced as not having meaningful resident involvement, there are two main reasons why the Detroit CRS was effective: community leaders worked directly with the technical team to collect data, and then integrate that data into final reports after meaningful neighborhood-based exchanges; and the Mayor allowed executive level leadership to engage the community openly about their concerns with the process.

The DWP’s 55-member Advisory Task Force includes a range of community and business leaders. However, its members, who have met a handful of times since last fall, have not been used to bridge the divide between government and residents. They are vital links to neighborhood-based land use plans and programs that could help the city develop more than just a “blueprint for the city.”

Detroit Works Project held summits between March and May focused on seniors, youth, environment, the faith community, entrepreneurs and the business community, artists and cultural institutions, and new Detroiters—particularly those that are new immigrants or foreign born. Each summit planning team had a minimum of three months to plan a two-to-four hour summit for approximately 250 to 450 people to result in broad land use issue recommendations to the Mayor by topic—not addressing neighborhood-level concerns. Advisory Task Force members were kept to a limited role.

Only the senior summit planning team, led by the Detroit Area Agency on Aging made an effort to engage the community. The DAA developed a planning team representing 40 city departments, city agencies, and community organizations, and held 20 pre-summit forums upon which their six-hour March summit was based. Approximately 450 people attended, more than half the total turnout at dozens of city-sponsored neighborhood cluster meetings held between late January and early March.

Compare this to the 1997 Detroit CRS, when 20 community leaders met monthly for six months to design the year-long process alongside executive city department leaders and university urban and regional planning faculty. Drawing on community leaders’ efforts, the city administration then hosted a citywide meeting of over 800 community residents and leaders to elect leaders to ten community leadership boards composed of twenty members. These leadership boards would guide the year-long community visioning and strategic planning process.

Moreover, they established community information and data collection centers to supplement the leadership boards. The centers were housed in community-approved schools or existing community spaces, and employed youth, adults, and seniors to interact with their neighbors and collect information that would inform the plans of the community leadership boards. This entire process was funded by a philanthropic collaborative between the Kresge and Skillman Foundations. The Greater Downtown Partnership served as the fiduciary of the $1.5 million project.

The city staff that coordinated this engagement strategy advised the community leadership boards. I was one of the four contracted Planner/Coordinators who managed the city’s transfer of leadership to community boards. Planning firms worked with the community boards to develop the final neighborhood cluster plans.

These final reports were intended to be used by city planners, who would be assigned to each community’s neighborhood cluster to make the plan real. No other planning process undertaken under the leadership of the city departments had so extensively engaged community residents and leaders – setting a definable and replicable precedent for what “community involvement” meant for future efforts.

Where did the plans go? Although the Detroit CRS was completed on time and on budget in February 1998, the city planning department mysteriously chose to archive the final reports. No planners or other resources were committed to continue work with the community.

The reports identify standard areas of land use such as transportation, education, and environment. They also include non-traditional areas of focus such as youth development and quality of life on the neighborhood and street level. To this day, the Detroit CRS reports—detailing revitalization goals for a 20-year span—are accessible at the City of Detroit Planning and Development Department website.

Current Detroit Works Project civic engagement leaders dismiss the Detroit CRS reports aspie-in-the-sky community dreams. But these neighborhood reports have much more detail at the street-level than the current city has developed.

Despite Archer’s deliberate attempt to stop Detroit CRS, a few key processes took place. Several neighborhoods and grassroots organizations continued their own community planning efforts, some in combination with architects, urban planners, and engineers. The Brightmoor Alliance, for example, has had approximately four different land use plans done in the past six years.

Also, community development organizations emerged to warehouse community data and share it with stakeholders undertaking planning efforts. The best-known of these organizations are Data-Driven Detroit and Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD).

Both of these organizations work with established community development organizations and remain open to engaging block clubs. CDAD’s February 2010 Neighborhood Revitalization Strategic Framework is very similar to the many “zone” proposals that have come out of the Detroit Works Project summit meetings—for example, art residences and education zones, ecclesiastical zones, and hubs for youth engagement.

One coalition related to comprehensive land use has also come forth: the People’s Movement Assembly, which is addressing the same types of issues (such as neighborhood stability, environment as a human right, media justice, and food justice) in a more resident-oriented way. But to be most effective, these types of organizations need a citywide infrastructure to allow the remaining 713,000 residents in Detroit to maximize the land use planning information they collect.

The institutional memory of these engagements with residents was lost with the end of the Archer administration. Promises made by executive-level staff were not kept, community development initiatives and organizations were established by philanthropic foundations and by national organizations to attempt yet again pave new ground in Detroit land use planning. These initiatives (which are highlighted on the DWP website) include the Skillman Foundation Good Neighborhoods Initiative, and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) Sustainable Communities program.

The Detroit CRS set a precedent to involve residents directly in the program implementation and engaged them in a dialogue that enabled them to learn from each other. Detroit CRS was not perfect but it was a successful model of resident engagement in land use planning that the city wrongly dumped.

The Detroit Works Project collected community comment cards and video comments from residents during the last six months of meetings. It has not posted summaries as promised. The DWP has not held a Mayor’s Advisory Task Force meeting since December 2010. Only two meetings in Phase 2 had flyers translated for non-English-speaking populations.

How can community outreach be successful if you do not know who you are reaching out to? If you cannot invite residents to participate in ways they are used to? If you do not share information in a timely way that can be understood and used?

Residents who will be most impacted by development need to engage a city administration or any community-serving organization that is committed through actions (not speeches) to involving them in planning—and carrying out those plans. Otherwise, more than just a moment in time will be lost.

5 responses to “What is Community Engagement?

  1. Pingback: What is Community Engagement? « something interesting every day·

  2. Hey Angie – thanks for writing this post. It’s really helpful to see the perspective of someone who has been involved in both processes.

    As someone who was involved in helping organize the environmental summit in a way that tried to expand community outreach (thought we only had 2 months to DAAA’s 6), I think the topic-based meetings could be called necessary but insufficient, and only the starting point if folks have the commitment and support to continue. Yes, I’m still unclear about how the input from those meetings will be incorporated into DWP 2.0 and next steps for those groups are yet to be determined. And I agree that neighborhood level (and regional!) input is absolutely critical. But those summits served as a very important forum for getting artists, seniors, youth, environmental advocates, and entrepreneurs (and immigrants, sort of) to express population-specific needs and explore opportunities together with city officials – has this everv happened in any kind of coordinated, open, documented fashion? Although concrete proposals are a ways off, I see that experience (organizing to plan the summits, meeting new fellow advocates and building relationships – hard as that was at times, learning more about different perspectives on each of the topics and their relationship to land use, learning who and what’s “out there”) as very valuable to moving forward – maybe not quite directly related to DWP’s specific goals around dealing with population loss through land use, but certainly towards advancing our own.

    My point is – while I don’t disagree with some of your overall points about the absolutely critical need for broad, genuine, neighborhood level engagement – it would be unfortunate to miss the very important fact that small coalitions of community residents and local advocates and stakeholders (including members of the Mayor’s Advisory Task Force) were indeed deeply involved in organizing the environmental, entrepreneurial, artists and youth summits as well as the senior summit


    to me, the important lessons are that:

    a. even when the engagement strategy is genuine and in earnest, engagement on a challenging topic in a community with a tough past is HARD and that’s nature of it – dealing with it and making it work is the expertise that we need, not a perfect engagement plan on paper

    b. building skills and experience in LOCAL organizations and people is worth the stumbling and slower pace in the long run because you will have built-in accountability and commitment to implementation, as well as a smarter, stronger local community at the other end

    I don’t think it’s controversial to say that different groups with different philosophies about [justice/development/revitalization/etc.] and different goals [building trust/implementation/quality of life outcomes/etc.] will define “successful/effective community engagement” quite differently.

    What I am most curious about regarding the Community Revitalization Strategy is what the actual outcomes have been. I usually hear “the process was great but overall it failed.” What does that mean? (Most) people involved thought engagement was “good,” but don’t feel that exercise delivered significant tangible changes what neighborhoods look like for whatever reason (Archer didn’t fund implementation, the plans were “pie-in-the-sky,” PDD was isolated, etc.).

    But there are lots of different kinds of possible outcomes beyond physical condition of neighborhoods (which is just one indicator of success) – local organizing capacity, populace that’s savvier about land use and community development, relationships built between advocates, residents, city officials, local consultants, foundations… that can all help lead to better tangible quality of life outcomes.

    Did it result in a stronger, savvier community development community that has an idea of the type of engagement they’d like to see? Did it result in better understanding about how the City, foundations, private consultants, community development practitioners and local stakeholders and residents can work together? Did it result in some physical changes in some neighborhoods? What kind? Where? Did it result in reducing poverty? How much? Where?

    You noted that CRS was a 20-year vision, and it’s now been almost 15 years. Is there a thorough progress report somewhere out there on the outcomes and lessons of CRS? What a shame if not, and if there is, why is it secret? $1.5 million was spent on that project – what are the lessons?? If it was so great, why does Detroit look the way it does now, and are there more important outcomes?

    And most interesting to me is – since so many of the same players were around for both CRS and DWP – Kresge as the major funder, community development practitioners as cluster chairs and committee members… what are their assessments of each?

    Does it matter that a process that people were satisfied with (I’ve heard yourself, Shea Howell of Boggs Center, Donele Wilkins (cluster 3 co-chair) say that it was a good process) didn’t result in implementation? What does lack of implementation (for whatever reason) say about the process?

    I ask, genuinely wanting to know the answers to these questions.

    My last question – what are the right roles of philanthropy, technical professional, City, community development industry, business, and community? What would be the ideal configuration that allows each to do what it does best, and leave lasting capacity and empowerment in the collective community in a way that reduces inequity?

    Sorry for the manifesto!

    • Sandra,

      Thanks for the thoughtful response! I have told people who have spoken with me since writing this piece the following three things since, and share them here:
      1. The best way to get an answer to the implementation questions about CRS and why Archer did not implement them are to ask Archer himself. No one was told why CRS was not implemented that worked on staff as far as I was aware. When you review the publicly accessible data for CRS online at PDD per cluster report and compare them to the publicly accessible data for Detroit Works, the comparative analysis is about the same level of impact information – in fact, the HUD Neighborhood Stabilization Plan publicly accessible data goes a little further but not much. And related to your point on the role of land use strategic plans and the reduction of poverty/social & structural inequality & community organizational and network capacity building: land use planning processes inherent to the their emphases do not aim usually to expand into the human and community service areas. CRS attempted to do both through a 20 year community visioning process – and was 99% effective for the time in history it was done. The 1% ineffectiveness: the Archer administration chose not to implement the plan. You might also want to ask Kresge and Skillman why they chose their most recent strategies for their current community engagement processes as compared to what they did at the time in history they funded CRS.
      2. Specific to the entirety of the Detroit Works Project summit process, readers should ask the Detroit Works Project leadership about the how the summits were designed and engaged. I am reporting my perspective as someone who worked across all seven summits as a part of the leadership team, not as someone in the community who engaged only one or two of the summits. I hope more people share their experiences to flesh out the full narrative of what happened in the former Detroit Works Project civic engagement strategy.
      3. Most people take for granted the reality that each political administration has the tendency to completely ignore or denigrate work of previous administrations. I readily admitted CRS was not perfect. But the point of the whole article was this: I am someone who worked with 20 community leaders for six months to design that process, and worked on the staff that implemented that process to full completion, which many in the community agree was a community engagement success. Having chosen to return to the city to work in the Detroit Works Project process, I was very impacted by the very questions you raise, Sandra, and wrote this piece to encourage answers to the very same questions. I hope that others in the Detroit community ask those questions and demand answers and accountability from each other and their colleagues in leadership.

      Looking forward to talking and working with you in the struggle for social and economic justice, Angie Allen

  3. Very Good article and very informative.

    Thank You for taking the time to write this.
    Many people just leave a job and never speak about the problems or issues that can be corrected.

    Thanks Again

  4. Pingback: What is Community Engagement? | The Thinkers Report·

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