Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to design and manage a community engagement project for the Alameda Unified School District. The objective of the project was to gather the views of residents and local organizations on the future uses of Historic Alameda High School (HAHS) and perhaps come up with some principles to guide the AUSD board in deciding the future of the HAHS. As I thought about how to organize the process, it became clear that the subject matter would pose a number of challenges making a standard community engagement process ineffective in trying to arrive at a consensus on any particular outcome. This post identifies the challenges, provides a behind the scenes look at how they were overcome, and the results of the project.
LARGE NUMBER OF STAKEHOLDERS
For the purpose of this project, a stakeholder was defined as any person or group that had an interest in the HAHS. As the project developed, over 35 stakeholder organizations were identified and invited to participate. While it may seem counter-intuitive to want many participants voicing diverse and sometimes incompatible views when a group is trying to reach a consensus, the real goal of broad participation is to solicit as many views as possible so that it is clear how participants will be impacted by various decisions coming from the project.
HAHS was an emotionally charged subject with residents expressing strong feelings and opinions on what should be done with the buildings. I have found that when people are invited to participate, allowed to speak, and their view acknowledged, the emotion associated with their position is significantly reduced.
INACCURATE INFORMATION & ASSUMPTIONS
In order to have a meaningful discussion, all stakeholders must have accurate factual information. It is imperative that all stakeholders agree on the relevant facts so that erroneous information, unsubstantiated opinions, and inaccurate assumptions can be corrected. When the project started, there was almost a $50M difference between two proposed uses for the building. Through the five public meetings, the stakeholders brought information to the group and asked questions in order to develop a pool of agreed upon facts.
TECHNICALLY AND FACTUALLY COMPLEX
The possible uses for the HAHS required evaluating different rehabilitation options that were technically and factually complicated. The condition of the buildings, the various levels of rehabilitation, and the uses permitted required both architectural and structural engineering knowledge. Through presentations by professional architects and structural engineers, the stakeholders were able to understand and evaluate the various options for the buildings. One interesting fact that was provided to the group was that new construction would cost more than renovating the existing HAHS. All technical information was reviewed for accuracy by a peer review team made up of local architects.
Perhaps the greatest challenge was how to keep the stakeholders and the public focused on the objectives of the project. The community was also concerned about other important issues including why the District office moved out of the building, why there was an industrial fence around the building, whether AUSD would purchase another building for the District office, would the buildings be demolished, and how would the District pay for renovating the buildings.
Many of the questions regarding why the District moved out of the building were answered during the professional team presentations to the stakeholders at the public meetings. There was also a presentation by a representative from the California Division of the State Architect explaining the state law that applied to the buildings and supporting the requirement of a debris containment barrier around the buildings. The remainder of the issues were acknowledged and listed in the draft final report to AUSD for later discussion.
As a professional facilitator, the success of a meaningful engagement is getting stakeholders to hear, acknowledge, and understand the other interests that exist in the community. In some cases, one stakeholder’s interests can be at odds with other stakeholder interests. The goal of engagement should be to attempt to resolve seemingly conflicting positions by identifying solutions that satisfy all stakeholder interests.
The stakeholders unanimously recommended that the AUSD staff determine the overall space needs of the District to determine how much of the HAHS could be used for school needs, that the historic buildings should be included in the total cost to repair all 17 of the active school facilities, and that all facilities repairs be prioritized using a number of factors including safety at existing active school sites and the necessity of the repair.
This community engagement project demonstrated that when residents are encouraged to participate, become informed on the facts, and listen to other views on the subject, the decisions that come out of the discussions have broad based acceptance and are more likely to be implemented.
Jeff Cambra (Facilitator/Mediator/Attorney) is, possibly, the busiest person in Alameda. A Board Member at the Alameda Chamber of Commerce, Director-At-Large at the League of Women Voters (but formerly one of its co-presidents), a small business owner organizing festivals and concerts, and probably lots of other things that I am failing to mention. Oh, and in his spare time he also helps facilitate discussions for huge issues of community concern.