Community Participation

Community involvement is essential to the success of Environmental remediation projects. By becoming knowledgeable about environmental projects, residents can become more actively involved in the process and have an effective voice in determining how the community will respond to the problem. As vested participants in the process, rather than bystanders, citizens are more likely to actively support a remediation plan that they understand and have helped to develop.This web page will describe how to organize a community group, provide information about the EPA definitions of public participation, provide basic information on conflict resolution , and provide further internet links. Identifying the community is the first step toward active involvement.

What is Community?

A community can be defined in a number of ways. First, a community can represent a geographic region such as a neighborhood or a village. Another community definition might be a group of citizens that are in an environmentally contaminated area that crosses government boundaries or share a watershed. Finally, a community can simply be a group of citizens that care about a given issue such as a church group, service club, or an environmental group. Organized community groups have the "strength in numbers" that is sometimes needed to make progress in addressing the issues of a contaminated site.

When a community is faced with a contaminated site, there is a unique opportunity to organize people that may have never before worked together. Contamination creates fear and unknowns in the community and by pooling information, resources and energy the community can better address those fears. Some of the resources that should be considered include: university contacts, public agency personnel, media contacts, and neighborhood associations. Organizing a meeting of interested community members can be as informal as a meeting in a neighborhood home to a large public meeting that is widely advertised.

Community Tasks - There are many tasks that an organized community accomplishes to be effective. These tasks can be distributed among the members in a variety of ways. Members need to meet with responsible government organizations, seek and review pertinent documents, communicate within and outside the organization and network with other organizations. Members need to monitor (watchdog) the site closely to watch for changes in operation, and learn to recognize allies and foes. Members can form relationships with technical experts that will offer valuable advice. Members may need to learn when to snarl and when to purr, and to demonstrate unwavering determination and perseverance.

Commitment - The most successful community organizations are driven by a strong commitment from the members. There does not have to be a single leader but it is important to communicate among the members of the group and share progress that is being made and shape the next steps together. Citizen action regarding a contaminated site can often mean many hours over many years of: research, discussion, meetings, phone calls and struggle. Most people who take on this effort are committed to making the environment a safer place to live, work and play.

 

Many people will be involved at different levels of commitment. Finding key citizens that can be the "link" to the community and know the assets of the community's citizens is an important step. Consider including as many people as you can whether their contribution is big or small. In the long run, numbers are important. Some might bake cookies for a meeting while others might testify before congress. Each person will have a unique talent or skill - try to identify it and ask for help from each person in their area of strength. No effort is too small. Building a community using the asset map approach is a way to identify individual strengths. John McKnight is known for his work in the area of asset-based community building. Some of his work can be found at the Civic Practices Network.


Coalitions
- Often several organizations are interested in one contaminated site. These organizations may not normally work together, and may even have very different missions, but because of this common interest they will form a coalition - or an organization of organizations. A good assessment of the strengths and activities of organizations near the affected community can help identify more people with a real or potential interest. Sometimes member organizations of a coalition can tackle the same problem from different perspectives and accomplish more.For example, the League of Women Voters, a traditional community-focused group, might work with an activist environmental organization about an issue.

Stakeholders - When tackling a contaminated site, it is important to think broadly about who might be interested or affected by such a site. Thinking broadly will help you identify a list of stakeholders, or any party with an interest. Environmental groups are often stakeholders, but you may find that other groups have greater interest in participating. In addition, citizens that live near the site without any affiliation may be interested in getting involved. Consider who is affected by the contamination, whose support would help your cause, and whom you should have involved because of other relationships they bring. One place to start is to put names in the blanks of the attached worksheet and begin making phone calls!

There are many tools to solicit citizen involvement in a developing community group organized around a contaminated site. Some ideas include:

  • Distribute flyers and other information
  • Insert a flyer inside the local newspaper
  • Talk with local groups, volunteer organizations, PTA, service clubs, businesses
  • Publicize the meetings of the planning team; hold meetings just for community input
  • Ask for volunteers
  • Invite the public to attend planning meetings
  • Do a survey
  • Organize school activities on local environmental issues
  • Talk with friends and neighbors
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