Neighborhood Engagement through Health Impact Assessments

City PlanningNancy and I were given the opportunity to approach our final pilot project a bit differently. During our project process, we developed our own vision for the possible future of OPL (Omaha Public Library) facilitation. We were aware that the Douglas County Health Department (DCHD) was about to embark upon a community engagement initiative of their own because of previous FIT (Facilitator-in-Training) Team developments. Various FIT Team members sensed that facilitation could really help the health department overcome some of their challenges. Happily, our DCHD contact welcomed our unsolicited offer and was grateful for the assistance. We worked closely with Andy Wessel, DCHD’s Community Health Planner, throughout this process. The DCHD received a two-year grant to examine and experiment with their current public input processes. Since the workshop we participated in was the first step, its goal was to define desired outcomes for successful neighborhood engagement. This success definition was a collaborative effort with the meeting’s stakeholders including city planners, community leaders, developers, neighborhood alliance leaders, and architects.

Nancy and I functioned as table facilitators during the actual workshop. The thirty five attendees were divided into seven tables of five. We facilitated two discussion questions at our tables. Before the workshop we participated in a planning committee which met monthly. We gave feedback on the meeting design and invitees. Nancy and I also provided easels, noisemakers, and scented markers for the workshop. Although supplying materials seems minor, having good, reliable equipment really does make things go more smoothly. I recently read an article that claimed a common trait of successful people is the adoption of a uniform. Think Steve Jobs’ turtleneck. It’s one less decision that frees up your mental energies for bigger and better things. One less thing to worry about! Nancy and I also provided the workshop’s evaluation piece. We slightly adapted the pilot projects’ standard evaluation form hoping to get useful feedback for Andy.

Since we didn’t initiate this project, Nancy and I had no previous in-depth knowledge of the City of Omaha’s planning process. We definitely left the workshop knowing more about Omaha. We learned a lot about the city’s general planning processes. It was also enlightening to see so many organizations that really care about making Omaha a better place.

Because our experiences with the first two pilot projects were so different, this project was challenging in unexpected ways. Letting go of so much control was hard. Communication between all the folks involved was more time-consuming. We spent time questioning whether or not we were handling everything within the parameters of the IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Services) grant. Things that we agonized over in the first two pilot projects were simply tasks we didn’t have to do this time around (the pressure of inviting the right people, fine-tuning the invitation language, making all the logistical arrangements, etc.). We felt like we were cheating (or at least enjoying a mixture of relief and guilt) at times because the responsibilities were different and the workshop went so well. It seemed too easy!

This meeting was productive because of a few key factors –Douglas County Health Department

  • The right people were in the room. It was an excellent mix of stakeholders and perspectives. Despite differing viewpoints, everyone seemed committed to moving forward.
  • The grant awarded to the Douglas County Health Department meant that real resources (manpower and money) were dedicated to making things happen. What was started in the meeting will continue for a full two years!
  • The workshop’s topic was not something that Nancy or I assumed to be an issue or personally interested in. It’s a real life, actionable issue that needs tackling. It was exciting to see how facilitation could add value to problem solving discussions.

It was rewarding to help these groups work together towards a shared goal. It was powerful to see how a facilitated workshop can make that happen. If this type of experience is indicative of the FIT Team’s future at OPL, I’m confident that we’re headed in the right direction. Adding facilitation to Omaha Public Library resources will be welcomed by our communities with appreciation and excitement.

Posted by Nancy Chmiel and Anna Wilcoxon, Facilitators-in-Training

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