What is community engagement, and why is it important to SSLS?


Typically, when most people hear about the Smart Sea Level Sensors (SSLS) project, they are dazzled by the innovative sensor technology and data visualization tools, as well as the incredible educational programs that support sensor implementation. But perhaps less well-known is the hard work that the team has invested in community engagement since the project’s inception. The purpose of this blog post is to clarify the role of the Community Engagement (CE) team in the SSLS project, and to share some of the projects that we have worked on over the past several years.

My name is Meaghan McSorley, and I’m a third year PhD student in the school of city and regional planning. I work with Dr. Nisha Botchwey at the intersection of public health and urban planning. My research focuses on the “people side” of sustainability, and the question of how we can plan for healthy, equitable, and thriving cities for all. I’ve also been a member of the SSLS Community Engagement (CE) team since last summer. I had the opportunity this summer to work with the City of Savannah through the Serve-Learn-Sustain internship program. As a part of this blog post, I’ll share a bit about what I worked on this summer specifically, as well.

What is Community Engagement? 

Before we dive into all of the projects that our team has worked on, it’s important to understand what we mean by ‘community engagement.’ There are many definitions available, and also a fair amount of disagreement among different disciplines. There are also adjacent terms like outreach, inclusion, and participation that are often deployed in these conversations.

To our team, community engagement is primarily about building relationships, and includes any activities designed to engage members of the public around issues of climate change, sustainability, resilience, and environmental justice. Community engagement is important because it not only provides the team with better information as we develop solutions around climate change issues, but also because it provides opportunities for residents and other community members to begin developing their own ideas about how to address these issues. 

Our team also defines ‘community’ quite broadly. Our project team includes members of the Savannah local government, and non-profit leaders, both of whom constitute forms of community. The SSLS project also engages students, teachers, and residents, who also constitute additional communities. Our team hopes to engage broader and broader publics in our work and to create more opportunities for resident engagement and collaborative leadership over time.

It is important to briefly ground those two definitions in some broader theory. There are many different forms, styles, and levels of community engagement. This means a diversity of approaches and activities to choose from. Perhaps the easiest and most important way to understand community engagement is that it is a spectrum, which moves from little public involvement to substantial public involvement. The following graphic comes from the International Association of Public Participation (IAP2), though it has intellectual heritage in the work of Sherry Arnstein (1969) and other scholars. 

Moving towards greater empowerment is nearly always the goal because it grants more power to the public in directing decision-making. However, it takes time to build towards empowerment. Establishing trusting relationships, finding common language, and building the skills and knowledge of community members, as well as of project team member knowledge and skills about working with the community are all important steps towards empowerment that must be in place first. As such, it’s common for engagement activities to take place across the spectrum under a variety of different circumstances.

A diagram from the IAP2 Federation showing a "Spectrum" of public participation. The diagram has five nodes: Inform, Consult, Involve, Collaborate, and Empower. The nodes are listed in the order of increasing decision-making impact. The Inform node, for instance, represents the least impact. The Inform node has the public participation goal to "provide the public with balanced and objective information to assist them in understanding the problem, alternatives and/or solutions." In the Inform node, the "promise to the public" is that "we will keep you informed." The next level is Consult, which has the goal "to obtain public feedback on analysis, alternatives and/or decision." Consult has the promise to the public of "we will keep you informed, listen to and acknowledge concerns and aspirations, and provide feedback on how public input influenced the decision." The next level is Involve, which has the goal "to work directly with the public throughout the process to ensure that public concerns and aspirations are consistently understood and considered." Involve has the promise of "we will work with you to ensure that your concerns and aspirations are directly reflected in the alternatives developed and provide feedback on how public input influenced the decision." The next level is Collaborate, which has the goal "to partner with the public in each aspect of the decision, including the development of alternatives and the identification of the preferred solution." Collaborate has the promise of "we will look to your for advice and innovation in formulating solutions and incorporate your advice & recommendations into the decisions to the maximum extent possible." The final level is Empower, which has the goal "to place final decision-making in the hands of the public" and has the promise of "we will implement what you decide."

SSLS Community Engagement Team

There are many forms of community engagement present within the SSLS project. The project grew out of conversations between members of local government and Georgia Tech faculty, which itself shows how the very roots of this project grow out of collaboration with one form of community. The educational programming is another example of how the project has a sustained commitment to involving the broader public in the project. 

The Community Engagement (CE) team includes students and faculty from Georgia Tech, staff from City of Savannah, and representatives of the Harambee House Citizens for Environmental Justice, a Savannah-based non-profit organization dedicated to activism and advocacy around issues of environmental justice. 

Much of what our team has been doing so far has been about building relationships. The way that we do this is by listening deeply to learn about the various communities in Savannah and their needs and desires and developing research products that support both local government in engagement, which supports residents in community advocacy. This has included engaging with residents, non-profit organizations, as well as coordinating with other departments at the city.

Specifically, the CE team has conducted an in-person collaborative map-making workshop as a part of the Map Room; archival research; as well as quantitative social scientific investigation of publicly available data. We have developed surveys and other tools to support the City in engaging the public – for example, around a neighborhood emergency preparedness plan, which was also developed by this team. The team has also produced a community profile; the promise inventory; a brief air quality health assessment on two neighborhoods; and an engagement brief to support the City’s 100% Clean Energy plan development process. We have created opportunities for master’s, undergraduate and high school students. Members of the team have also participated in the installation of a gateway and temperature/humidity sensors, as well as assisted the Harambee House in deploying and calibrating PurpleAir sensors that provide a topic to encourage community science. The team has also developed several project proposals and participated in grant-writing efforts.

My work this summer has focused on the health assessments and the Clean Energy engagement brief. Last summer, the Harambee House had requested that some general information about the connections between various health conditions and pollutants be summarized, and that locally available data around these pollutants and health be aggregated into a report. My role was to turn their ask into a specific set of tasks that could be carried out by the undergraduate interns, to provide resources and feedback, to write a cover page which summarized the work and included additional health-related information to contextualize the report. I also edited the final versions of the reports, which pulled together the information from each of the undergraduate interns, as well as my cover page.

I also conducted a literature review to develop a brief engagement plan for Nick Deffley, for the City’s 100% Clean Energy planning process, occurring later this year. The engagement plan included a list of resources to enhance engagement broadly, but also with a specific focus on the populations of interest for this plan; as well as resources that were specific to engagement around clean energy and other sustainability initiatives. In addition, the engagement plan included a list of suggested activities and methods for engaging the focus group populations, which included small to medium size businesses, large firms, industry, frontline or vulnerable communities, and youth. I also reviewed the public-facing survey and developed some additional and alternative questions for Nick to choose from in the next phases of engagement. 

Next Steps

Much of the team’s work so far has been focused on Hudson Hill, a low-income, historically Black community on Savannah’s west side that is surrounded by heavy industry. Hudson Hill residents do not typically struggle with flooding, which has sometimes made the CE team’s involvement with this neighborhood confusing. However, the reason that the CE team has done so much work with this community is that the Harambee House has a close relationship Hudson Hill residents and neighborhood leadership. Additionally, Hudson Hill has very active residents who have been advocating for environmental justice in their community since at least 2002, which means that they have been quick to engage on a variety of projects. 

As the team began to look towards the future of the SSLS project and our engagement work, it became clear that identifying an additional community to work with was an important next step. We wanted to bring our work into closer alignment with the broader SSLS project by choosing a community that struggled with flooding. The Harambee House requested that we put together a health assessment for Ogeecheeton, and through collaboration with SSLS team members working on sensor placement optimization, we were able to identify a group of neighborhoods that included Ogeecheeton as our next focus area. This group of neighborhoods appeared as a great ‘next best’ location to place a sensor, and so it is our team’s hope that we can support having a sensor placed there. We would love to turn the sensor placement into an engagement and educational opportunity for the community and look forward to collaborating with the sensor team on this.

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