Foreword to the SpeakOut book by Professor Karen Umemoto

“In a Most Hopeful Light”

By Karen Umemoto PhD
Professor, Department of Urban and Regional Planning, University of Hawai`i at Manoa

Karen Umemoto

In the most hopeful light
, planning greases the wheels of participatory democracy. It can engage the disenfranchised, inspire the disenchanted and encourage the public to participate in future-building. Planners can create safe spaces for the quiet thinkers as well as for the boisterous crowds to share their opinions, formulate workable solutions and dream a dream together. Planners can facilitate the rich dialogue that pulls ideas from deep in the gut and arrange ideas on the table for everyone to piece together, much like weaving a basket or stitching a quilt. When everyone can make their contribution known, when everyone can consider others’ opinions and when collaborative solutions are discovered through mutual exchange, beautiful things can come about. And this is the hope behind this book and the motivation of the authors who wrote it.

First meeting

I met Wendy Sarkissian on a visit she made to the University of Hawai’i nearly a decade ago. She made a presentation to our Department of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Hawai`i on the SpeakOut. None of us knew what a SpeakOut was then. But the presentation made a lot of sense. Instead of the town hall spectacle or stuffy public hearing, here was a participatory format primed to engage regular folk in planning their futures. Rather than asking people to line up in front of a microphone and speak for a given number of minutes, you had multiple booths that highlighted different topics with listeners and writers making note of your every idea, pulling out the insights from the storage of wisdom within. Those notes were then hung alongside others’ notes for all to read and react to. And then you would go to the next booth. And so on. So that whether the planner was seeking ideas for the preservation of open space, for the development of affordable housing, for the location of the transit line, everyday people could chime in to have a say on a range of complex issues surrounding a particular planning project. Thoughtful planners would facilitate the weaving by helping to construct viable alternatives based on everyone’s considerations.

Not the squeaky wheel

It is not the squeaky wheel that gets the oil in a SpeakOut, but just the opposite. The SpeakOut de facto discourages any one individual from hogging the spotlight and encourages everyone who has the time to speak their mind.

Trying out the model

Soon after her presentation, I tried the SpeakOut with a group of talented youths who wanted to improve the conditions in their public housing neighbourhood in urban Honolulu. The youths created eight different booths, four for the younger kids and four for older kids and adults. Each had interactive planning activities. The `mapping change’ booth consisted of an aerial photograph of the neighbourhood. The youths drew the changes they wanted to see on the laminated map, explaining the desired change and why it was important to them. In another booth, we had interviewers to solicit ideas for identifying and addressing the neighbourhood issues such as crime, bus services and pest control problems. Note-takers carefully recorded their ideas. In another, kids wrote down the gifts they bring to the community on paper stars that were strung like Christmas lights criss-crossing the booth, a version of a human assets inventory.

You get the idea.
You create inspiring spaces in the form of workstations or booths organized by a topic or set of questions. It’s facilitated so that people can express themselves and interact with the ideas of others who may have stopped at the booth earlier. Booths can also have educational displays that provide background information on the topic of choice. People can hang around the booth and chat with others while thinking about what they want to say. You can go to as many booths as you like. You can stay for as long as you can. And you can say whatever you want (within norms of etiquette, of course). It worked wonders. We had about 300 youths leisurely share their ideas in a six-hour event, while having fun doing it.

How did the facilitators pull it off?

Sometimes you attend successful planning events and wonder how the facilitators pulled it off (in this case, it was the youths themselves along with our planning students). How did they make the event feel so welcoming? How did they attract such a large crowd? How did they solicit so many ideas? How did they make people feel good about contributing? How did they synthesize the information into a succinct plan? How did they encourage ordinary people to come up with extraordinary ideas? How did they generate creative synergy? How is it that they engaged people in planning and made it educational, interactive and fun?

The SpeakOut isn’t for everyone or for all occasions
, but it is one of the most conducive formats I have seen to solicit broad citizen input, especially from those whose opinions are often overlooked. What I appreciate about this manual is that it includes every subtle detail one could ever think of. It’s based on years of experience on the part of Wendy Sarkissian along with Wiwik Bunjamin-Mau, Andrea Cook and Kelvin Walsh. In addition to the SpeakOut, the manual also covers one of the most widely used planning tools, which is workshop facilitation.

Social psychology and the SpeakOut

In reading the SpeakOut and workshop facilitation how-to’s, I was happy to find that it was written with the forethought of a social psychologist. The authors anticipate the problems and questions that would cross a facilitator’s mind in the midst of the event or meeting and they provide advice as to how one may deal with common social dynamics. The instructions include such pointers as observing body language, gauging eye contact, checking the subtleties of language usage and other cues that are important to catch if one is to be a successful facilitator. These pointers are collected through years of experience. Rarely do we get this with easy-to-use, step-by-step how-to manuals.

Local successes in Hawai’i

We’ve seen the SpeakOut format take root locally, as planners are adapting it to different places, populations and circumstances. One group used the SpeakOut to solicit ideas for addressing the issue of rural homelessness. Author Wiwik Bunjamin-Mau took the lead in organizing a SpeakOut in Chinatown to address issues of urban revitalization and the arts. Another solicited input on rural town planning. There is something about the SpeakOut and workshop formats as described that easily accommodates the rhythm and diversity of a community. Perhaps it is the ease and intimacy of interaction that they encourage. Or perhaps it is the philosophical foundation upon which they are based.


Regardless, this manual offers useful tools that planners can use to grease the wheels of participatory planning and, ultimately, to work towards a more inclusive and deliberative democracy.