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Talking Headways Podcast: A New Way of Public Engagement in Durham

This week, Aidil Ortiz, principal at Aidilisms, and Mary Kate Morookian, a transit planner at Kimley Horn, speak one-on-one about the Durham Transit Plan and how they approached public engagement.

For those of you who get your news through your eyes and not your ears, there’s an edited transcript below the audio player. If you want a full, unedited transcript (with some typos!), click here. If you want to listen, here you go:

Aidil Ortiz: This time around some things are different in Durham in terms of expectations for engagement. I know that when your original Durham transit plan was passed, much like other large-scale plans, our standards for engagement and what that looked like, it was just a different time. Boy, did we pick a cool time to start re-invisioning engagement — at a time when everyone’s back to "square one," trying to understand how to connect and message appropriately, especially to people who would be most directly impacted by these systems and who most rely on them. ... I, as an engagement strategist, hate the term, “hard to reach populations,” because to me all you’re doing is confessing is you have no investment or actual relationships with the population.

People are relatively easy to find. We make sure that they are corralled in very specific places. And if you’re just uncomfortable going there, say that. ... That’s my personal stump speech on that. But in Durham, there was an equitable community engagement blueprint that was brought about probably a year before the pandemic got started .... And it became this framework of practices that they wanted, things like the transit plan, like our comprehensive plan, etc, to start abiding by. And so we’ve got some new tweaks to the way we do engagement that I think are pretty interesting as we move forward in reaching out to the community about what they want to see in their future transit projects and their transit mix. And that’s been really fun.

Mary Kate Morookian: You said something that I think is really important, and it’s one of the things that I think makes your work specific to you, Aidil’s work, and Aidil’s particular skillset really, really valuable. And that’s how you take the focus of engagement and make it very clear who we are trying to reach with this engagement. You know, it’s something that I’ve learned from this process and working closely with you is, the traditional "post a survey online, hold a public workshop, go set up a table at the transit center" —  you can do that and you’ll get some responses, but you are not necessarily going to hear from the people that you are trying to hear from. You are going to maybe have some missed opportunities to talk with the folks that actually are using these services every day. So we have a program within the transit plan, the "ambassador engagement" program. And I think that has been a game changer for how we have been approaching outreach with this plan. Can you talk a bit about the engagement ambassador program, just what it is and just how incredible its been.

Ortiz: We were lucky because the comp plan had been underway almost like lockstep with the transit plan and they went ahead and made some early investments in the recruitment of an engagement. What we referred to was this cohort of residents that have direct and primary and trusted relationships with local folks who often do not show up in traditional ways inside of these kinds of processes. Right. So we’ve seen the numbers right? Then when we do the stuff traditionally or in transit specifically like white, rich, and wealthy men to talk about cars and buses and trains and planes and all of that, they love it and it’s okay, but they love it.

Morookian: That’s okay to be a white, wealthy man, if you’re listening.

Ortiz: We need room for other people to show up in the data. Durham is still what we refer to ... as a "majority minority" city.... I hate the word minority, it’s weird, we’re a community that has a lot of diversity, a lot of people of color. And we do definitely also have our fair share of people who are living with fewer resources, financial resources. It’s important for us to attend to very mindfully and put a prioritization to communicating with that audience first, because it does take more time. It does take a little more effort to dig into those communities to make sure that they have enough time with all the competing tensions and interests in their life to actually respond to what we need to know.

So, and we also have to offer them the respect of contextualizing, why, them taking their time on this information actually helps anything going on because there’s also a lot of data for the sake of data collection in these communities — a history of research institutions going in and surveying the crap out of local residents. And it’s for nothing except, you know, some graduate students' grade. And that is also really frustrating because we’re competing against all that history. So the engagement ambassadors is a cohort of residents that already have trust and relationships with people that we want to talk to. Low-income people, people who are formerly justice involved, or currently justice involved, people who are immigrants, people who don’t necessarily speak English, young people, the elderly, people with disabilities, people who identify as LGBTQIA — all these different things.

We wanted to make sure we had inroads into those populations. So we made a priority list of people that we wanted to include as engagement ambassadors and engagement ambassadors are people who we spend more time drilling down and training in terms of the context of this plan, why this plan matters, the questions that we’re looking for. They got a chance to give feedback on the questions themselves. So a little bit of the design. Also they helped us get the word out, once the survey was designed. They were compensated with a stipend for participating in this because they have assets and they have skills and may need to be in some way, shape or form, there needs to be a gesture toward supporting the value of that.

So they were not subcontractors, but we stipended them. We offered a gift card for their time with the program. That was roughly about 40 people throughout Durham.

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