I’ve spent the better part of my career deep within communities, finding out what makes them tick, what their needs are, how they see and experience the world, and what they’d like to achieve for themselves and future generations.
Over decades of community experience – growing up in Buffalo to working in cities around the globe to living in Brooklyn, one of the most diverse counties in the U.S. – I’ve discovered a universal truth: people want to be involved in the development of their communities.
When activists are out marching to oppose an initiative, policy or project that’s going to impact their community, they’re depicted as obstructionists. They’re not – they simply want to be part of the process. They want to feel like something’s being done with and for them, not to them. They want to be heard. They want to protect the qualities and character that define their community.
Unfortunately, most companies involved in economic development across the U.S. and around the world don’t fully realize this until their relations with communities have deteriorated and spun out of control.
Consider the challenges facing Uber or Airbnb, which have been battling local governments and the labor community for years, or Amazon, which has experienced community protests in several cities it’s considering for its HQ2.
I have advised dozens of organizations over the years in similar positions – from campaigns and governments to corporations and nonprofits – on how to engage productively with communities. My best advice: listen before you act.
Are you launching a new product or initiative? Moving into or expanding in key markets? Planning a large development or infrastructure project? Then your first step should be engaging the communities you’ll be impacting. And it can’t just be elected officials and national groups like the NAACP. They are critically important, but you need to go much deeper – think churches, first responders, educators, community-focused media, community boards, neighborhood associations, union locals, and other deep-in-the-community organizations.
Community engagement takes time, energy, patience, and careful planning, and you’ll need to make significant investments along the way. However, the invaluable insights you’ll obtain, coupled with the massive goodwill you’ll deposit, will pay dividends for years to come. Done correctly, you’ll eliminate the risk of damaging protests, costly litigation and intense political battles; build a new, passionate cadre of dedicated brand supporters; ensure faster time to market for business initiatives; and invest in a way that makes communities better.