For almost half a century now, citizen engagement has been acknowledged as an important component in decision-making, at least in theory. Sherry Arnstein, who wrote the seminal paper entitled A Ladder of Citizen Participation said: “The idea of citizen participation is a little like eating spinach: no one is against it in principle because it is good for you”.
Like eating spinach, no one is also against the importance of having different voices in any public engagement activities. In my discipline, urban planning, however, usually these activities are not attended by the various publics that makeup a community. These missing publics include racial minorities, persons with disabilities, new immigrants, and individuals who speak English as a second language. This is hardly a surprise. Those who lead citizen engagement activities (urban planners) do not have much in common with these publics. They may not know how to do outreach to encourage their participation. They also may not consider these communities for citizen engagement activities since they are not in their immediate experience. But these publics have the right of attending such programs and their needs heard, and play a part decision making processes.
In a class discussion the day before yesterday, one of my classmates made a great point. There is lack of diversity in the profession itself and the success of encouraging diverse publics to participate in policy-making is only as successful as the diversity of the profession itself. He gave an example where he, a black man, went to a predominantly black church to inform the congregants about the public engagement event he was a part of as a transportation planner. He shared that a lot of people attended as a result of that church outreach. He knew how to do the right outreach with the black community because he understood the community. It makes one wonder, how many communities are left out because no one understood the community and knew how to do the right outreach?
The root of the problem is lack of diversity in the profession. Urban planning is predominantly white and male. For urban planning as a discipline to address the needs of minorities and historically disadvantaged communities, it will need to diversify its workforce by having representation from these communities. This trickles down to higher ed. How can urban planning programs recruit high school students from these communities to apply to urban planning programs? I thought the presentation we heard in class yesterday, even though it was for a different discipline, was great as an initiative to diversify higher ed. It was about exposing students from these communities to information and processes they may not have had access to otherwise. It was also about understanding these communities.
The presentation inspired me to consider a similar initiative to diversify the urban planning field by diversifying the student-body in Virginia Tech’s urban affairs and planning program. Remember, diverse student-body leads to diverse practice that addresses the needs of all communities.
The importance of diversity in higher ed and in practice is like eating spinach; everybody knows it is good for health. What is stopping everybody from eating the spinach, though?