If in doubt, consult.
If I could point to a single sea change in the way we have approached interpretive planning over the course of my career, it would be in community engagement. Once upon a time, an agency would hire a planner and, with the planner’s guidance, they’d make decisions about what they were building, how they were building it, where it went, how it affected the local economy, what stories they were going to tell, what points of view they were going to represent… everything. Consultation wasn’t really a thing.
Needless to say, this approach, while efficient, wasn’t always effective and it certainly wasn’t always popular. Governments in particular were known for their decide-announce-defend approach to public projects; some nonprofits were even more secretive and autocratic.
And, of course, these approaches still exist. But more and more, we are moving to a community-based, multilateral decision making process, and while it all costs a bit more and takes a bit more time (ok to be honest it costs a lot more and takes a lot more time) it’s worth it.
So if you’re just embarking on some kind of capital project or major program in the heritage tourism sector, how do you know if you need to consult? Well, I can name three guiding principles.
First, know if you have legislated requirements to consult.
If there are laws or internal policies that require you to do public engagement before you commit to a major project, don’t let them surprise you. Your project manager and project sponsor should know about these; certainly your president, executive director, or CEO should know (because they are responsible for them, ultimately.)
Read your legislation or your policy. Know what is required of you. Get started early with your community engagement.
But honestly, I recommend you go beyond basic legislated requirement. I still hear clients refusing to do thorough consultation simply because they don’t legally have to. That’s now how we work anymore, which brings me to the two more important principles.
Secondly: does this project affect their lives? If so, consult.
Anybody whose lives are affected by your project and its outcomes should have a say in what you’re doing. If you’re doing a capital project, will it affect traffic circulation? You’d better consult with local residents and workers if that’s the case. Is it located on Indigenous land? (Answer: probably.) Will it change your community’s brand or reputation? Will it alter the tourism landscape locally? Will it affect the local economy for better or worse? Will it help or hinder the work of local nonprofits who work with a similar subject matter? Will schools want to do programming around it? Are there local businesses who might be affected in some way?
All of these people will be impacted by what you’re doing. You should engage with all of them before you commit to your project’s design and build.
Thirdly, look at content. Does your interpretation or storytelling touch on particular communities? If so, consult.
Community groups for years have been repeating to us, “Nothing about us without us.” That is to say, don’t talk about Indigenous people, disabled people, LGBTQ+ people, Black people and so on in any way without consulting them first on how they wish to be represented. And, when you think about it, you can apply that rule to virtually any communities. Would you do an exhibition on farming without talking to any farmers? I don’t think you would. So extend the same courtesy to all communities, especially marginalized ones.
“Nothing about us without us” should be printed as a banner in every interpretive agency’s office.
OK so how much consultation?
Consultation is time consuming and can be expensive. You probably don’t need to sit down and spend an hour with every single individual. Rather, start by having conversations with individuals who represent your different community groups. Learn what their concerns are. Send them an information package beforehand, then call them up and listen to their concerns. After a few conversations with representative individuals, you’ll have a grasp of what their worries, hopes, and dreams are for your project.
From there, you can craft a greater consultation strategy—surveys, teleconferences, town halls—that proactively address the concerns that you know are out there. If everybody is worried about traffic, address those concerns and communicate them early. Allay their fears before they build out of control in your community.
Start small and personal. Be proactive.
I am learning more and more that a few focussed conversations with a few key community members can save you a ton of time and grief with your planning and consultation processes. Learn their main concerns early, and address them. Show your community you are listening to them. Don’t wait for ten thousand people to tell you they’re worried about traffic; don’t wait for ten thousand people to suggest you incorporate climate change into your plans. Start acting on those concerns when the first few community representatives flag them to you. Yes, you should still do a broader engagement; yes, everyone should have a chance to make their concerns and ideas known to you. But if you’ve done your small-group work properly, you won’t be blindsided by what they tell you.
And no matter what you do, don’t just put your head down and hope those people who are worried about your traffic (or your board diversity, your educational approach, your governance structure, your business plan, your financial statements) go away. They won’t go away. Trust me.
I used to advise my clients to pay less attention to community members who had little influence over the project, and pay more attention to those who have greater influence. I think that was a mistake. I have learned that people who have low influence but high interest will, when treated with indifference or condescension, find ways to make themselves more influential. And those ways can be inconvenient for those who have ignored them.
Engage early. Listen. Get to work on allaying people’s concerns well before you start spending money and putting shovels in the ground.
You won’t regret it.
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