Emotions Count in Community Engagement

Emotions Count 2013












There’s lots of discussion about emotion in community engagement these days.


Maybe that’s because we’ve ignored this important component for decades.


Adelaide’s independent newspaper, InDaily, recommends, following an interview with me last week, that we “consider emotion in community engagement.”


The difficulty is that in many community engagement circles, and especially among those practitioners in the “risk-aversion” category (and their colleagues and clients), emotion is seen as a negative thing, often associated with “outrage” and something to be avoided.


But emotion is not always outrage. Or outrageous. Sometimes it’s soft and sweet. Sometimes it’s passionate and daring. Sometimes it’s hopeful.


And sometimes it’s untrusting.


Emotion is only energy.


It’s natural and instinctive, like the human desire for territorial control. And if you find energy in a community engagement context, you don’t have to drum it up.

You have something — something energetic — to work with!   Emotions count in community engagement


See: https://iaf-oceania.org/emotion-and-outrage-when-facilitating-community-engagement/


The Energy Wheel


In my work, I use a diagnostic tool called the “Energy Wheel” to assess the emotional state of people in a community, a community group or an organisation.   It gives me a way of working out what’s necessary. What might work.   In a “cool negative”   community, for example, you might have literally   to”light a fire” under people to get them going — to get them involved.


Stories in a Park in Eagleby, Queensland


We’ve done that in a now-famous project in Eagleby in southeastern Queensland. And the results were transformational!


Here is a summary of some aspects of that creative approach to community engagement and community development:

Stories in a Park final journal article 2005   Please email me for more details about the Eagleby project.


The Energy Wheel




















You can read more about the Energy Wheel in my book, Kitchen Table Sustainability.


See:  https://www.amazon.com/Kitchen-Table-Sustainability-Practical-Engagement/dp/1844076148

“Realising the Revolution”: Medium-Density Housing in Queensland by Bridget Rogan and Fran Toomey

First posted June 8, 2012 – 3:21 pm


Two Brisbane Planners Call for a “Revolutionary” Approach to Increasing Housing Density:

Realising the Revolution?



In a recent paper to the Planning Institute of Australia (PIA) Queensland conference, Bridget Rogan and Fran Toomey of the Council of Mayors (SEQ) presented the results of work in progress on the strategic importance of medium-density housing in their region.

Their paper, “Liveable Compact Cities: Realisation of the Revolution”, is very helpful in understanding the reasons behind the strong resistance to medium-density housing in Queensland (and elsewhere).




What are they saying?


Deconstructing this paper – and especially its very precise and specific language – can offer guidance for planners and policy makers about how to proceed with density increases.


And how not to proceed.


In their paper, Rogan and Toomey (2011) call for the “realisation of the revolution”.


So what is a `revolution’?


a forcible overthrow or repudiation and the thorough replacement of an established government or political system by the people governed.

Or at the very least “¦ a paradigm shift.



While they are not explicit about what the `revolution’ might be, it is clear that the revolution is a revolution in land-use planning with the battle for medium-density housing at the forefront of the conflict. The project they report on, the Liveable Compact Cities Project, sponsored by the Federal Government, explores policy, practice and the housing market. It aims to increase housing affordability.


But the real revolution that is to be realised is not housing affordability per se. It is a massive project to increase density in housing in Southeast Queensland.


The Nub of the Issue


Here, encoded in what appears to be an innocent conference paper, is the nub of the issue confronting us today as planners and policy makers. While on the one hand, governments tell us that here is nothing `revolutionary’ about higher density housing, on the other hand, their language publicly promotes it to “realise the revolution’.


This is exactly what local people and people in low-density communities are afraid of: “the revolution”.


Do people want the `revolution’?


A wide body of research confirms that local people, when they consider their housing and public spaces do not want “the revolution”. They want homes in suburbs like everyone else.


The Hall of Shame


They do not want avant-garde or `revolutionary’ architecture or parks and open spaces like the shockingly `revolutionary’ Parc de la Villette in Paris, with sculptures, structures, places and “community art” they cannot relate to.


The American Project for Public Spaces has inducted that `revolutionary’ park into their “Hall of Shame” for Public Spaces and its list of “the worst parks in the world”.

(See https://www.pps.org/great_public_spaces/one?public_place_id=369)


Parc de la Villette: Realising the Revolution?


Rather than “realising the revolution”, planners and policy makers would be wise to consider what is not revolutionary about good medium-density housing.


How we can re-interpret the tried-and-true, successful even archetypal elements of housing design and the design of the spaces between buildings to achieve a high level of `congruence’ or `fit’ between the residents and their housing environments.


This need not be a battle or a conflict.


Definitely not a `revolution’.


What works and what doesn’t work are well known. Less well known are the complex dynamics of humans’ relationships with their domestic environments.


A very positive response to my paper on 22 February 2013 to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University indicates that rather than a   harsh,   top-down, “imposing” and perhaps “revolutionary” approach advocated by activists and others in positions of planning authority, such as Bridget Rogan and Fran Toomey, a much gentler and more sensitive “psychological” approach could yield better results.


A ‘revolutionary’ approach will only inflame NIMBY-ite responses and is completely counter-productive.


See:   Joint Center for Housing Studies





The Fifth Estate: Our Planet, Our Real Estate




To contact these authors and hear more about the revolution they propose:


Council of Mayors (SEQ)

Level 6, Hitachi Building,
239 George Street, BRISBANE QLD 4001
PO Box 12995, GEORGE STREET QLD 4003
Tel 07 3040 3460
Fax 07 3211 5889


Better Together? Let’s Get Practical!


Better together senior mgmt







Better Together


Last week, an Adelaide-based colleague gave me a copy of Better Together: Principles of Engagement, just published by the South Australian Government.



You can read about it at:


https://saplan.org.au/yoursay and



You can also comment. I tried to do that but could not understand how to do it.


A good idea

Still, a good idea and a tick for trying.


As I was  preparing a public lecture on community engagement in South Australia, I opened it with great enthusiasm and read it with care. In it, the Premier spoke about breaking down barriers to genuine engagement and that public servants feel that they don’t have permission to engage. They need to try new ways. My shoulders relaxed: a very promising start.


I needed to remind myself, as a person who hasn’t lived in Adelaide for many years, that this is an initiative of a state government eager to remedy many of the community engagement weaknesses of the previous state government. And yes, there is a lot of catching up to do. All my South Australian planning and engagement colleagues admit that. And there’s considerable embarrassment − verging on shame −in the planning profession and in government circles about some of the high-profile debacles of recent years.


It’s like a Leviathan

Gustav Dore, 1865

Gustav Dore, 1865

It’s also easy to attack a large target. Bringing the Leviathan of state government in line with leading practice of community engagement is a formidable talk.


But it’s not rocket science, either.


We must remember that it’s 2013 now and community engagement is a well-established field internationally, with its leading practice, methods, principles, discourses, territories, philosophies and gurus. Australia leads the way in much of this professional work. There is also a lot of expert help around, especially in South Australia. In my view, most of our best engagement practitioners are in South Australia.


It’s important to be up-to-date with community engagement. Policies and approaches no longer need to be brainstormed or invented from first principles. That’s sort of a waste of time and suggests that there may be nothing local or relevant to build on…


There is a frontier. We know where it is.



It’s long and many of us — and many excellent people in South Australia — are working at the growing edge.


Back to Better Together


I read with satisfaction that lots of people have been involved in the workshopping and design of this publication. Big tick.


However, as I read on, I wondered where the engagement specialists in South Australia were when this work was being undertaken”¦ Were they consulted? I doubt it, from the somewhat simplistic approaches in the document, contrasting markedly with the sophistication of much of the on-the-ground work being undertaken in South Australia.


Members of the Senior Management Council (pictured: one lone woman) spoke of their desire to foster a debate-and-decide approach, which, I guess, is a step up from the ever present “DAD” (“Decide-Announce-Defend”) approach that characterised much of previous state government engagement. They want to ensure that the public service has the skills to undertake high-quality engagement processes. Tick.


It was encouraging to see a distinction between communities and stakeholders, as many people confuse the two terms.


IAP2 Spectrum


This document aims to assist in engagement with those who are directly affected and who have personal and professional interests in an issue. The model uses is the IAP2 Spectrum. Again, a tick for a respectable, respected and commonly used model.


The aim is continuous improvement. Unfortunately, some old-fashioned words (such as “audience” and “expectation management”) slipped though the editing net. Perhaps, in the next version, “audience” will become “partners”?


I heard a hopeful tone to the emphasis on reaching community leaders and influencers. And a plea not to “forget local government”. (As if we’d dare!)


Importantly, one should know the history and backgrounds of any engagement situation before starting out. Be wary of over engagement and engagement fatigue. Another big tick, even if it’s somewhat stating the obvious.


Being genuine


Being genuine is one of the guiding principles. Personally, I think it’s safer to specify behaviour than character traits. As an ethicist, I find that virtue ethics is hard to evaluate. And being genuine is very hard to do in some situations. But it’s an admirable aspiration nonetheless. Another tick.


Being creative also gained a guernsey although it was hard to say how that might occur. The literature on creativity in community engagement is clearly yet to be mined by the authors. Next step, I guess.


But a tick for effort. I am looking forward to examples of creativity in the next edition.


For some guidance on what to read, see: https://sarkissian.com.au/publications/community-engagement-books-by-wendy-sarkissian/creative-community-planning/


Social media gained a look-in as it should, as did evaluation, but with little mention of the complex and ongoing discourses regarding evaluation in community engagement. Still, it’s good advice to get in touch with people and be part of a regular mailing list. Medium-sized tick.


Even Better”¦


I was hungry for more when I came to the last page, relishing the stylish graphics and lots of white space.


Maybe in the next version of this promising publication, we could hear something about what’s missing.


Children and young people


pk camera darlene 2

I could find not a single word about engagement with children and/or young people.


Cultural diversity did not get a look-in.







Matters high on the agendas of communities and practitioners (and dominating professional journals and conversations of practitioners like me, as well as in local government), such as inclusion, influence and representativeness, were missing entirely.


The path-breaking, evidence-based work by Roz Lasker and John Guidry on influence by marginalised groups in community engagement (Engaging the Community in Decision Making, 2010) deserves a mention.

See: https://www.amazon.com/Engaging-Community-Decision-Making-Participation/dp/078644312X


There was no consideration of governance issues, including accountability and the structures needed to incorporate communities and their precious local information and local knowledges into decision making. People want more than having their “input” taken “on board”.


National and international polices with which the contents of this publication might align are yet to be identified. Sophisticated approaches to evaluation are yet to come, including the simple (but powerful) notion of using formative as well as summative evaluation.




Community planning.net

It’d be good in the next edition to have links to some leading-practice websites, such as Nick Wates’s generous community planning handbook and website, community planning net:



Another great source is People and Participation.net:

See: https://www.involve.org.uk/people-and-participation-5-years-on/

It’s changed after five years and is now www.participationcompass.org






And where to go for help?


That’s yet to come.









As is advice about tying this approach to local government plans and polices.


So, from a practitioner looking for guidance: some middle-sized ticks for beautiful graphics, a smashing video and clear, plain language.


And a deep sigh of disappointment that in this day and age − with such urgent planning problems facing us − the wisdom of practice appears to be ignored. Not consulted.


The community of practice


If you’d like to join the community of practice, you can email David Speirs: [email protected]


I’ve done that already.


A modest proposal


In the next edition, I’d like to see more respect paid to the existing community of community engagement practice in Australia and especially in South Australia. I’d like to see the next edition acknowledge the wide community engagement literature from practice and theory and the range of professional discourses. A wise approach would be to embed this work in leading practice and align it with the work of community engagement professionals. And it’d be helpful to offer more practical advice. A bit less spin and a bit more substance could work well.


I can think of dozens of people who’d be willing to help get it right, me included.

Postscript: a bouquet

After an excellent discussion with the Deputy Premier, Minister for Planning, John Rau, about this matter in late May and a meeting with Department staff, I am encouraged. I feel as though the Government is now listening — and especially listening to the voices of engagement specialists in South Australia.

I promised no more brickbats.

Oil Painting tulips

Consider this a bouquet!

Wendy Sarkissian on Nimby Psychology at The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre, Adelaide, 29 May 2013











NIMBY psychology is coming to Adelaide!


On 29th May at 6 pm, I will be presenting on NIMBY psychology at a free public lecture at the Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre at the University of South Australia.

The lecture is free but seating is lmited so you must register to attend.




Please click here for details:



Allan Scott Auditorium,  UniSA City West campus, Hawke Building level 3, 55 North Terrace, Adelaide

5.30pm for a 6pm start


To register

To register for this free lecture, please follow the links above.


Here is the abstract of the presentation:


NIMBY responses to higher density housing: It’s all in your mind

Why is there such strong community resistance to proposals for higher density housing in Adelaide’s neighbourhoods?

Aren’t people just being unreasonable and ignoring the need to make our cities more sustainable?  

Isn’t Adelaide’s 30-Year Plan what we must have to be sustainable – despite community resistance?


Australian social planner and ethicist Dr Wendy Sarkissian, who has lived and worked in Adelaide for many years, believes that so-called NIMBY responses to housing density increases are both reasonable and helpful. And she’s been testing her theories in workshops in Canada, the USA and Australia. Recently, she spoke about this topic to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University.


Dr Sarkissian argues that neighbours are resisting proposed higher density housing because humans, like all animals, are hard-wired to protect our territories. Further, the `core territory’ of home is one to which we have the strongest place attachment. It has strong symbolic as well as psychological importance.


Naturally, instinctively, we will defend our homes and neighbourhoods at all cost.


That means that unless planners, designers, governments and developers understand and respect this `instinctive’ response, the battles will continue. And unless community engagement approaches are sensitive to the deeply emotional nature of these responses, those processes will fail to support sustainability initiatives.


Proposing her “Homing Instinct” approach to housing design and community engagement, Wendy argues that two things need to change. We need housing that is more `home-like’.   And we need community engagement processes that reflect greater emotional intelligence than the processes we currently employ.




For further details, please contact me at 0402 966 284 or at [email protected]


Media coverage:



NIMBY psychology image

Criticisms of community engagement

Ach, du Schreck!


It’s a worry!


I’ve explained before that community engagement – especially with sustainability – is not an easy task.


Many people argue that it is problematic and can actually hurt those it most intends to benefit.


So let’s just have a quick look at some of the major criticisms. I’d love to hear comments back and maybe we can prepare a good list of responses.


And then figure out how to make better processes happen in our communities.


Please make a comment in the box below or contact me at [email protected]



Valid criticisms of community engagement include:

  • Lack of political and technical prowess among community groups makes them easy prey for co-optation by politicians or bureaucrats;
  • In engagement situations, a non-representative interest group may be able to manipulate the decision-making process towards its own ends;
  • Lack of expertise, inertia and fear of the results of new or novel ideas may induce opposition to whatever is proposed and only preserve the status quo;
  • Interest groups may veto each other’s proposals because it is always easier to organise resistance than to reach agreement;
  • The short-sightedness of local groups may prevent or delay formulation or implementation of broader plans; and
  • Non-participants will always form the bulk of the population. On these grounds, radical planners suggest that engagement is a diversion from the primary goal, that of changing society’s institutions.


What do YOU think of this list?

Helping Sally at dinner: what to do at the dinner table when sustainability comes up?

Hispanic family eating at the dinner table

Old friends having dinner and reminiscing in the comfort of Sally’s spacious home.

We’re talking about the environmental crisis facing the Earth, and my concerns about flying across the Pacific Ocean from Australia for my teaching job in Vancouver.

I’m certainly worried about the environmental impacts of all that travel and yet I really want to make a difference. Teaching in Vancouver and lecturing in North America, Hawaii and Europe are all ways I feel I can make a difference to the way we build sustainable communities.

Sally, our hostess, comes to the table with a tray of steaming vegetables.

She puts down her tray and addresses the whole of the dinner party in a high-pitched tone that indicates she’s agitated.

“I can’t understand what all this is about. How do they even know that planting all those trees is going to make a difference? How can we trust that the tree planting services that you’re talking about where you put your carbon or whatever you call it – really do plant trees anyway? Maybe they just take the money and run away!”


After she returns to the kitchen and then she comes back with the lamb, I say, “I’ve found somebody I trust and my carbon offsets are going to the organisation in Brisbane that trains environmental activists.


The woman who co-runs the organisation, Samantha LaRocca, worked in my office, lives on the smell of an oily rag, and would never do anything unethical. I am positive of that. So, Sally, if you want to do something about all that traveling back and forth to Europe with your grandchildren, why don’t you investigate and try to find an organisation that you trust that you can make your contributions to?”


“I just don’t trust anybody,” Sally calls back from the kitchen where she’s tackling the gravy. “It’s all too hard and anyway, I’m not really convinced about any of this global climate change stuff.


Is the mint sauce on the table?”


I’d be interested to hear if others of you have experiences like this when “sustainability” comes up at the dinner table.


What to say?


What to do?


How not to be rude and keep true to your values”¦?


When I discussed this with Steph Vajda, my co-author of “Kitchen Table Sustainability”, he reminded me that sustainability’s complexity and scope pose an unprecedented challenge and it touches all aspects of our lives.


What to do at the dinner table when sustainability comes up?

Officeworks and Reflex Paper: “I have to pay my mortgage and feed my dogs”

September 12, 2011 – 5:34 pm


Officeworks Lismore: a Bulletin



On Saturday I drove 72 kms. round-trip to my local Officeworks store in Lismore, NSW in the vain hope that they might have stopped stocking Reflex paper. I signed the pledge and the petition (with 11,000 others!) months ago and so far my boycott has meant that I have taken my business to others.


But operating a small business in a tiny village means I am reliant on some companies. And Officeworks until recently has been one of them.


Why is this boycott important?


Officeworks buys paper that is made from native forest timber. Simple as that! is well aware of the environmental costs of native forest logging – and that ready alternatives exist – but they continue to support this by stocking the Reflex range. They do this despite their own Corporate Social Responsibility policy, which states that Our goal is to fully integrate environmental responsibility into every facet of our operations by select[ing] better products for the environment.




Greenwash? I wonder?


With the Wilderness Society, I believe that it is well past time for Officeworks to start taking their own policies seriously and to refuse to stock Reflex Paper until its producer, Australian Paper, no longer sources wood fibre from the logging of native forests.


So this matter was in my mind when I went into the store.


I was told by an embarrassed young man (who told me that he had to pay his mortgage and feed his dogs and therefore could not speak out against a policy he clearly did not agree with) that the stock of Reflex paper was new and that they were still stocking it.


So I asked to speak to the Duty Manager.


I think that Richard, who arrived after some time, had probably had enough of North Coast activists by the time I arrived.


But if he traced my stationery purchases over the past ten years, he’d see that not listening is not going to be good for business.


“Officeworks: Clean up your act” National Day of Action, 13 September 2011


Hopefully the day of action tomorrow (www.ethicalpaper.com.au) will help him see the error of his ways. Richard has no point of view. native forests from becoming copy paper.


To give Officeworks the extra motivation it needs to continue its role as a leader in paper retailing, the Wilderness Society, in partnership with environment groups across the country, are holding a National Day of Action to name and shame Reflex and Officeworks for their hand in forest destruction in Australia.


On the morning of 13 September, stores across the nation will be visited by troops of “janitors” telling Officeworks to clean up its act! Armed with vacuums, dustpans, sponges, and rubber gloves, volunteers will descend on Officeworks, scrubbing Reflex from their shelves. On the day, the TWS aim is to show Australian Paper and Officeworks that Australians will not stand for our precious forests being turned into office paper.


The “Company Man”


As I looked into Richard’s face, his cold eyes and unsmiling, trembling lips and listened to his hard `company’ line, I was reminded of a comic character, Twimble, “The Company Man” in a movie of my young adulthood: How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying (1961):


Twimble: I play it the company way;
Wherever the company puts me
There I stay.

Finch: But what is your point of view?

Twimble: I have no point of view.

Finch: Supposing the company thinks . . .

Twimble: I think so too.

Finch: Now, what would you say . . .?

Twimble: I wouldn’t say.

Finch: Your face is a company face.

Twimble: It smiles at executives
Then goes back in place. “¦

Finch: So you play it the company way?

Twimble: All company policy is by me OK.

Whoever the company fires,

I will still be here.

Finch: You will still be here.

Both: Year after year after fiscal,

Never take a risk-al year!


Shame, Richard. You can do better than that: But what is your point of view? I have no point of view.


Officeworks has already shown us they are willing to take action in this important issue when it comes to paper from overseas. Now is the time for Officeworks to keep this high standard they have set for themselves and suspend the sale of Reflex paper while it is made from the critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possum Habitat.


Day of Action!


If you believe that in this International Year of the Forests that it is simply unacceptable to woodchip and sell our native forests as Reflex paper, please join us.


To RSVP and for more action details please contact TWS Community Campaigner, Tri�r Murphy, on 0433010390 or by email [email protected]


For more information




Do you need to buy office copy paper and do you also care about Australia’s forests?


Don’t buy any Reflex copy paper and don’t buy any copy paper from Officeworks.


Buy these copy paper brands (recommended by the Wilderness Society):

  • Evolve
  • Vision
  • Fuji Xerox Recycled


And try, as a supplier, EcoOffice (great Australian-owned company who does care about Australia’s native forests)


Local Wisdom about Apartment Storage

transport cardboard boxes, relocation concept


When I lived in Vancouver in 2007, teaching and managing a housing research project at the University of British Columbia, I had several interesting accommodation experiences.


The first one was terrible: a chronically ill middle-aged couple with a dog who was dying of cancer. They slept with the dog and spent all day in their pyjamas with the curtains drawn. In Vancouver’s dark winter, that was too depressing. I had to escape.


Living with Tessie

Then I had a couple of months living with Tessie. What a change that was! A brilliant and bubbly Phillipina women who worked in the insurance industry as a senior manager. She was searching for an apartment and had a gaggle of female friends who worked in the real estate industry. Tessie was, herself, a qualified realtor.


So our conversations over dinner and glasses of wine always turned to the design of apartments. She and her friends knew everything about what was on offer in Vancouver and the weaknesses of different developers’ designs. Tessie said that lack of interior storage was a widespread problem. Especially in some of the housing we were about to study.


It might seem like a small thing..

How right she was! It might seem like a small thing but people moving to inner city apartments from houses in the suburbs always have problems with storage! Seasonal items (like fans and blankets, space heaters, blankets and quilts) take up a lot of space. (I know because I’ve spent the day sorting just those items in our new storage room as winter tightens its grip on our mountain locale.)


Bulky items

Residents also need places to store bicycles, exercise equipment, toys, ski equipment, golf clubs and all the paraphernalia that goes with a home office. That new printer may be compact but it still needs somewhere to sit. And that paper needs to be stored somewhere. Those tax files you need to keep for at least five years… I could go on.


And the modern Vancouver kitchen has lots of gadgets that need to be packed away: bread makers, blenders, grills, toaster ovens. Not all of them can stay on the counter top.



So the humble storage question was asked in our POE study and responded to with strong comments by apartment residents. Tessie was right. Her friends knew what they were talking about. In-suite storage certainly WAS a problem.


Window privacy


Floor-to-ceiling windows are all the rage in Vancouver apartments. But what about the things that have to be stored under the BED? Ikea makes those nifty boxes for just that purpose. But do we want the whole neighbourhood to see what’s stored there?


Bedroom Privacy?


After a long search, Tessie found a new apartment with adequate storage and the other amenities she sought. And I had to move again. And this time it was to the location of my dreams: Southwest False Creek. But that’s another story.


For more information


For detailed information about the False Creek North post-occupancy study, please go to another part of this website:



Silencing Dissent: charity begins at home

April 29, 2011 – 4:07 pm

In an eco-village, there is more to life than managing weeds and water quality in the dams.


What we have learned about social reform and social change in Western countries over many decades is that burning books and silencing dissent are very dangerous practices.

What is my dissenting voice really saying?

I am saying that exclusionary practices in the Jarlanbah Permaculture Hamlet make me and many of my neighbours feel excluded and unhappy.


At a higher level, they are inequitable, unfair and destabilising of community strength, solidarity and, ultimately, sustainability.


It’s not fun being the focus of sustained attacks.


But I am willing to wear that discomfort to have my voice – my small single voice – heard.


I come from a long line of people who spoke out against injustice. As a Canadian-Armenian, I know what happened to my father’s family and his father’s family. The blood of the martyrs runs in my veins.


Social exclusion and bullying in Jarlanbah are hardly genocide. But they are definitely ways of killing community.


I guess I just have to be unpopular. Tearing off the gag.

Speaking the unspeakable.


And I am going to fight for the rights of the disenfranchised and silenced members of communities with my dying breath.


So when I think of silencing dissent charity begins at home!



Why bother with community engagement, anyway?

April 11, 2010 – 9:43 pm


In the past couple of weeks I have been confronted by many aspects of the community engagement debate. Angry residents questioning my integrity as I try to help them with a local environmental problem I’d say qualifies as a “wicked problem” in their neighbourhood.


Then I experience my own neighbours resisting the changes that dual occupancy (or accessory units) might bring to their subdivision of half-acre lots.


And then, finally, a wealthy developer with a large site asking why we needed to bother with community engagement at all – when there are (apparently) no activists or “greenies” in this (a large country town) community and there are no frogs or anything that could be considered endangered.


Or that anyone would get in a lather about or go to the press about”¦


In a (somewhat) small voice I was muttering to myself about an “engaged citizenry” being a value in its own right.


Who would do community engagement for a living?


I would.


I keep at it, trying to help where I can, accepting that to some I am a “mercenary”, or the hired gun of the developers who are paving over paradise.


And to others, I am a hopeless, naive optimist who does not understand the “bottom line”.


All these personae.


The same me.


The best part of this very challenging period was an unexpected phone call last night from an old friend – a prominent developer – encouraging me and bolstering my spirits. We’ve been friends for nearly thirty years. He had the same thing to say about his profession, recounting a conversation over lunch last week with a fellow developer: who could be a developer?


Vale Arne Naess



Last year we mourned the death of the great Norwegian environmental philosopher, Arne Naess, father of Deep Ecology and the first Chairman of Greenpeace Norway when it was founded in 1988.


See: https://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/jan/15/obituary-arne-naess


I was blessed to have heard him speak on two occasions: once in Melbourne and once in Killarney, Ireland.


The frontier is long


Naess, who was 96 when he died in January, 2009, reminded us that “the frontier is long”.


The community engagement frontier is long, too. There’s a place for all of us working for reform and seeking to empower communities.


Naess’s birthday was the day before mine. He was my hero.


I want to be working for reform when I am 96, too.


I may not have the wealth of the greedy developer with his cynical and opportunistic views of community engagement.


Hopefully, my ethical self will be alive.


And hopefully, I will still be having provocative weeks like the last few – to remind me what my life is for.


And why, like Arne, I am here on Earth!


Why bother with community engagement, anyway? Because it’s important!