Community Engagement During a Pandemic
Making informed decisions is essential to creating and implementing projects that have the support and buy in of the communities they are meant to benefit. No matter what outside forces are happening in the world this can be challenging. As planners we have all held public meetings and events and had the same handful of eager citizens show up but have struggled to reach beyond these few. As a nation we now are deep in the COVID-19 pandemic. Across state lines the recommendations for gathering and holding in-person conversations are diverse. People are rightfully concerned about many things and attending conventional forums are not high on the to-do list of many Americans. So, what can we do to help sustain and strengthen our ties to our communities and continue to listen authentically to the needs and concerns of the population during a pandemic?
In Maine, we have seen a myriad of innovations that has resulted from creative use of new technology with a mix of old-school tactics to keep people informed and engaged in their communities. We have numerous communities in Maine that have adopted Community Heart & Soul, as a planning tool to involve everyone in the process of updating comprehensive plans and helping elected and appointed officials make decisions that are in line with what matters most to the residents of the community. Here are six ways some of these communities have used to gather input from citizens that allow for dialogue without the same old meeting place and time.
Move public meetings onto digital platforms. Select board meetings and town council meetings have typically been held on a preselected date and time, such as the third Tuesday of every month at 6 pm. These times are not always convenient for working people, or parents to attend in person. Bethel, Maine has conducted their selectboard and school board meetings via ZOOM since May. Anyone can click the link from the comfort of home and listen in. No need to worry about dinner time interruptions or having to find a sitter for the kids. These meetings are recorded and shared on social media so if people are unable to tune in live, they can watch and comment after the fact. Perhaps this opportunity should be continued even after the pandemic is over.
Collect public comments online with a survey. The Maine Department of Transportation is responding to community needs and gathering information from the public by distributing online surveys and hosting live meetings on their website. These meetings are open for a set period of time and allow anyone to watch a video about the project before weighing in with their thoughts.
Hold outdoor meetings where people can stay 6 feet apart, wear masks and follow CDC recommended safety guidelines. The city of Hallowell, Maine is working on updating the comprehensive plan and using Community Heart & Soul to help them listen to stories from all parts of their community. The team of volunteers has been holding in person meetings, outside with chairs set 6 feet apart.
Take advantage of public gathering spaces that remain open during the pandemic. In Bucksport, Maine a resident has been frequenting public spaces and walking neighborhood streets to check in on neighbors and use video to document what matters most to them now, during the pandemic. She uploads these to Facebook so others can watch. This is a great way to remind people that we are all in this together and helps to spread the news about how things are going in the town to people who are homebound.
Partner with organizations that are helping to distribute food to spread the word of ways to stay involved in planning activities. Local churches, food pantries, schools, and small businesses are delivering meals or hosting drive up food pantries. In these boxes there are often informative packets where numbers are listed for people to reach out to in need of specific assistance. This is a place where you can reach folks that are homebound with paper surveys or comment cards. In Hallowell, Maine, community input was gathered at the local farmer's market.
Create a toll free or local number for people to call and leave messages about specific projects or plans. Rural access to broadband and basic internet is still a major challenge in the state of Maine. Allowing public access in multiple ways will ensure that even people without home internet access have an opportunity to connect and weigh in on a project.
Planning for the needs of your community are essential to growing in a managed way that takes into consideration the hopes, dreams, concerns, and aspirations of the people that call it home. No matter where you live there will always be challenges that are unique to that area. Community Heart & Soul is a proven and trusted method for digging deep into your town or city, listening authentically to all the voices, and involving everyone in creating or maintaining the things that set each place apart from one another and matter most to the people who live there.
Join in a free webinar series about Getting Started with Community Heart & Soul to learn more about this program and how to bring it to your hometown.
Catherine is proud to be a multi-generational Mainer who has worked hard to remain in the state that she loves. She serves Maine cities and towns as a Heart & Soul Coach. Cat is also a consultant with CORE, a Bethel-based nonprofit that unites member organizations and local citizens to cultivate an engaged and thriving community.