Art of Public Engagement: The power of story

by Lee Nellis, FAICP, Great Falls, Montana

I was managing the public engagement part of a controversial conservation effort a few years ago. One Saturday morning, we were in an elementary school gym full of people. Some were genuinely curious. Others were skeptical, not because they knew much about the project, but because the federal agency, BLM, was involved. By the end of the morning, I was optimistic that our effort would succeed, even though it was in a very conservative state and required Congressional approval. I honestly can’t say that this happened by design. We had worked hard on the structure of the event and made space for it to happen. But we couldn’t control the questions asked. Fortunately, we didn’t control who answered either.

A suburban homeowner asked why it was so important to address invasive weeds in the desert wetlands we were talking about. And before the staff could respond, one of the ranchers, John, in the room did, telling the story of how weeds affected his operations. That led to a long conversation that even included tips on weed control on people’s lots. It also led to everyone in the room, even some of the skeptics, to understand why it was important to focus management attention on this particular landscape. Congress designated the area we were discussing as a National Conservation Area (NCA) eight months later. I don’t think John’s story made the difference. I know it made a difference. I know that the people who left the meeting had heard – from someone who was not part of the government – why it was important to all of them, as neighbors, to institute better management.

I’m telling you this story this month, because I am watching a planning effort where the leadership (and they’re good people) has an inclination not to stop for a step that opens the space for stories. They want to organize and go down the conventional path, bylaws, a committee, etc. All that will happen, of course. It must. But my little story, and some hopeful things I heard at the always-excellent Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute conference in Denver make me think their path will be smoother if they let people function as neighbors first.

Lee Nellis, FAICP, is a pioneer of planning in the rural West, starting his career in Wyoming in 1974. Today he is the Deputy Director of the Planning & Community Development Department for the City of Great Falls, MT.

Published in the April/May 2015 Issue

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