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Navigating Community Engagement: Lessons from a Development Project in Post-Katrina New Orleans

Navigating Community Engagement with Bobbie Hill

Meet Bobbie Hill, Partner at Concordia and leader on community planning and engagement work since 1995. With a wealth of experience under her belt, she reflects on a pivotal community development project in post-Katrina New Orleans and offers insights into effective community engagement strategies as demonstrated in the Unified New Orleans Plan of 2005.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans faced the daunting task of rebuilding. Among the challenges was crafting a recovery plan that could secure federal funds, a task that had previously eluded both mayoral and city council efforts. Philanthropic intervention became crucial, marking a departure from conventional disaster response approaches. Concordia stepped into an essential role, ensuring the representation of New Orleans' diverse demographics in the design and management of the recovery process.

The project unfolded on multiple scales, balancing neighborhood-level needs with citywide infrastructure requirements. Transparency and participation were non-negotiables, with every aspect of the process publicly vetted. Bobbie recalls the intensity of engaging the community through public forum meetings and ensuring broad representation in decision-making processes. In fact, the mayor requested that the community members polled reflected the corresponding demographics of the city pre-Katrina, specifically that 65% of participants were black.

Communication posed a significant challenge in the pre-social media era. Leveraging innovative approaches, including live broadcasts and interactive polling, Concordia managed to reach a wide audience. With community members spread throughout the country, an essential solution was employing the services of America Speaks, a nationally-recognized communications firm that stepped in to support Concordia with AV equipment, screens, microphones, and polling clickers. The entire production was well-orchestrated and was an integral part of the project’s success, allowing New Orleanians residing in Dallas, Baton Rouge, Atlanta, Houston, and Jackson to participate in live broadcasts from the New Orleans Convention Center. Bobbie shared, “People will get really engaged if it’s something they can see and touch. You have to reach people at their heart and soul.” The validation of 65% black participation underscored the commitment to inclusivity, authentic communication, and community empowerment.

Reflecting on the experience, Bobbie emphasizes the importance of inviting all stakeholders to the table and maintaining transparency throughout the project lifecycle. She underscores the value of diverse perspectives in problem-solving, highlighting the longstanding research that demonstrates the efficacy of inclusive design processes. “When you’re designing to solve a problem, the more people you have at the table, the more you have solutions. It will always be a better outcome than the smartest person in the room,” added Bobbie.

For those embarking on community-facing projects, Bobbie offers sage advice: prioritize inclusivity and meaningful engagement. Encourage active participation and ensure that every voice is heard and valued. Beyond achieving project goals, community engagement fosters a sense of belonging and collective ownership, enriching both the process and its outcomes. “What you’re doing has to be interactive and meaningful so that people believe they’re making a contribution to the work.”

In essence, the success of community development projects lies in their ability to harness the collective wisdom and creativity of the communities they serve. As Bobbie's experience demonstrates, inclusive engagement isn't just a means to an end—it's a transformative force that builds stronger, more resilient communities with real solutions led by the people most affected.

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