This article was written by Rachael Kuroiwa, City of Arvada, Manager of Communication – Infrastructure. Rachael wrote this article as part of the Community Engagement Cohort. Read all the articles from the cohort. Connect with Rachael on LinkedIn or email.
Anger during a public meeting. It’s so common an experience in local government that everyone reading this probably has their own favorite story of that one time they got yelled at. I am the infrastructure communication manager for a growing city in Colorado’s Front Range and it often feels like the only feedback my team receives is a steady stream of anger. I get it – road construction is at best an annoyance, there are never enough funds to fix every problem, and the web of utilities and agencies that control different aspects of our environment can make your head spin! But, when the City team proposes an improvement that responds to resident concerns, why are we so often met with anger?
Responding to anger was a topic for one session of the 2020 Community Engagement Cohort. The discussion we had illuminated reasons for community anger and ways we can improve our engagement practices to account for intense feelings.
Residents get angry for a number of reasons. In my community, there is a strong sentiment from some long-time residents against the continued changes brought about by growth in our City and the region. They may feel unheard, unappreciated, and scared of what the future may bring. They love our community and have strong ties. As Leslie Knope famously said, “I hear people caring loudly.” Our long time residents care deeply about the City so they have strong opinions. Oftentimes, it is easy to dismiss these concerns as “anti-growth.” Dismissing strong feelings will continue to erode trust and miss opportunities to engage residents who could be partners.
When my team proposes pedestrian improvements for a neighborhood, for example, we often simply ask, “Do you want A or B.” Or we ask “What is wrong with your neighborhood?” These may be the wrong questions to start a productive and positive conversation. We seldom ask residents to identify what they love about their neighborhood. If we asked different questions, the team would have an opportunity to build on positives as well as understand where there are opportunities to improve.
Another area where anger can build is when residents feel that the City swoops in with a decision and imposes it on the neighborhood. With many projects, there have been conversations and engagement opportunities over a number of years but that doesn’t mean each resident was paying attention. City team members are oftentimes so involved in our work that we forget our residents have other things to worry about. For multi-year projects, we need to embrace the idea of bringing residents along by reminding them of where we have been and what we are doing. Transparent accounting of the engagement process, outcomes, and decisions for residents at different phases of engagement will help people feel included and informed.
While tweaking our community engagement process to eliminate unproductive interactions is important, anger isn’t going to disappear. City team members can strive for sensitive, timely and appropriate engagement but we can’t engage away emotions. In my city, we have projects some residents view as threats. As a communicator, I work to acknowledge resident feelings and to help my team respond with empathy. But, we also try to bring residents along with us by reminding them of our decision-making process and how their feedback continues to be addressed. For example, a large road widening project through a residential neighborhood was met with resistance from some residents. The project team listened and was able to incorporate a specific concern into the project design. We shared the outcome with the community and thanked them for their assistance in improving the design. Residents are still angry but we listened through the anger and appreciated the residents’ experience.
Community engagement isn’t a magic process that ensures peace and harmony. However, when engagement opportunities are thoughtfully conducted, it can improve trust, bolster communication, and allow residents to feel heard and respected. Acknowledging and accepting the range of emotions residents experience can build a community’s collective narrative, deepening ties, and creating more engaged residents.