Why do only the White Folks show up? Diversity and Inclusion in Community Engagement.

Diverse and inclusive community engagement can be challenging, but this one approach can go a long-way to help

“It was one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the City. The Steering Committee was four older white women…”

“It was one of the most diverse elementary schools in the state. The people who showed up for the first community meeting were almost entirely white…”

Sound familiar?

With conversations about racism and diversity rising to the forefront of America’s consciousness this past year, I would like to address one common way that I have experienced race intersecting with the work of community engagement in design and planning. And I would like to talk about a solution that has a track record of success.

Before I begin: What is really and most urgently needed is widespread support and funding for grassroots placemaking and community building projects led by and serving people of color. This is the “Equity” component that needs to be paired with Diversity and Inclusion efforts.  While there have been some modest improvements and awareness of this issue, for example Seattle’s  Equitable Development Initiative, there is an overall paucity of funding and support for community-driven design and planning efforts. And this lack of funding adversely impacts communities of color. 

There is an overall paucity of funding and support for community-driven design and planning efforts. And this lack of funding adversely impacts communities of color.  


In the absence of this support, in diverse mixed-race communities it is not uncommon to have those who initiate and/or participate in a public community process to be overwhelmingly white. I have seen it again and again. The examples at the start of this post piece are from my own consultation work as a landscape architect. Why does this happen? A few contributing factors:

  • The Privilege of Free Time : Typically those who have the ability to volunteer for a project or show up for a two hour community meeting are those who have the luxury of free time. Having disposable time is generally associated with those of higher income, which in the United States (thanks to a legacy of systemic  and institutional racism) is typically associated with white folks.
  • What is at Stake? Interest and Messaging : In order to get people to turn out and participate in a project or process, what is at stake needs be sufficiently motivating. Often the potential value of public planning and design projects might not appear significant enough to motivate non-white communities to participate. 
  • Invitation and Outreach : What we typically refer to as “community” is usually composed of a diverse mix of smaller communities. Outreach efforts often do not identify the proper communication channels or personal relationships that motivate non-white people to participate. Personal invitations are key – studies have shown that they are the most effective tool for getting people to attend community events.
  • Logistics and Planning: The time, date, location and structure of meetings can have a big impact. A particular date might coincide with a religious or community event, or a space may not be familiar or feel safe to certain communities. 


The solution is to form a Convening Group (a.k.a. Steering Group), that reflects that diversity of the communities you wish to involve. What is a Convening Group?

The role of a Convening Group is to steward the engagement process by providing guidance on the best ways to engage the community (when, where, how).  They serve as ambassadors, personally inviting people into the process, and help the consultants understand the community dynamics (and potential pitfalls) associated with the project during preparation for public events.

Here is the critical step: The make-up of the Convening Group should be representative of the diverse communities you wish to include in the engagement process. If the Convening Group does not have representatives of the communities you wish to reach, your outreach efforts will be swimming upstream for the entire project. You will not have the insight or relationships to be able navigate the challenges listed above, and only white folks will show up.

This may seem obvious or simple, but it is amazing how often this is overlooked during community engagement efforts.

For the white-folks leading a bottom-up community process, forming the Convening Group is the time for courageous work. Make cold calls to local BIPOC organizations or talk to black or brown people you know to find people who could get involved.  And then listen – really listen – to them about their priorities and concerns. The investment you make at this point in the process will pay off in future spades, not only for your project, but for your community.

The investment you make at this point in the process will pay off in future spades, not only for your project, but for your community.

For those leading top-down agency projects, it’s time to rethink your process. Forming an empowered Convening Group is a critical piece of bridging the gap between consultants and the communities they are serving. I rarely see agencies motivated to take this step, and the result is usually a yawning agency/community gap and limited and poor participation in design and planning processes.

In my experience, I have seen the Convening Group work to great success. For example, in an Eastern Washington project Convening Group members helped us engage migrant agricultural workers by selecting meeting meeting times amenable to the harvest schedule. In a South Everett neighborhood, it helped us pick a venue that was considered “safe” during a time when the  Latinx community was feeling fragile and threatened by the actions of ICE and the Trump administration’s immigration policies. And many more.

There’s a lot more to unpack with how race intersects with community engagement in design and planning, but the Convening Group is a great starting point for creating diverse and inclusive public processes. There are some tricks and techniques for effective Convening Group recruitment – drop me a note if you want to know more.

In your practice, where do you see the critical acupuncture points for ensuring diversity and inclusivity? What has worked or not worked for you?