Inclusive Community Engagement with Shalini Abeyaratne, Masha Konopleva, and Jarrett Pelletier

2022 05 12 Inclusive Comm Engmt Web Img RS

Three Enneadeans on what it means, why it matters, and how it shows up in our work.

Each of you has studied how to build a more inclusive and equitable community engagement process. What motivated you to dig deeper into this topic?

Shalini Abeyaratne: I've been working on various public projects for over 10 years and community-focused design is my passion. I began my studies with Pathways to Equity, which teaches best practices for equitable design, and am now completing the University of Pennsylvania's Executive Program for Social Innovation Design (XSD), which focuses on human-centered design, community needs assessment, and mobilization strategies.

Jarrett Pelletier: The impetus for me was our work on Alta Community Center, which was an Ennead Lab project done for a remote mountain community in Utah, where our engagement involved the entire small town. It was exciting to see how once you open up a process and start getting everyone involved, it builds so much positivity. I wanted to explore that further, which resulted in the Pathways to Equity course, and then the Concordia Roundtable certification program in Resident-Centered Community Engagement, which Masha and I are taking together.

For context, how are we defining inclusive and equitable design?

Masha Konopleva: An inclusive design process allows anyone who is impacted by the project to have their voice heard. For the design team, it involves acting with a lot of intention to support the community in the ways that they need support.

Shalini Abeyaratne: Every project has a community. Equitable design is designing to the specific needs and circumstances of different people within that community. Inclusivity is about reaching the full breadth and diversity of people who are affected by these spaces. Both involve bringing an awareness, compassion, and empathy to the entire process of design – and I would also say, humility.

Jarrett Pelletier: It’s about opening up the dialogue to make sure that the built environment we are creating is something that is wanted, welcoming, and hopefully joyful, for all. Whether it is through the lens of gender, race, sexuality, ability, or age, it is important to ensure that within Ennead buildings, everyone can enjoy an equivalent experience, and that it is positive one.

In the life of a building project, when does this engagement process start?

Masha Konopleva: It begins before a job ever starts, when a team is being planned, and it is a part of every phase of the project. In many ways, much of this is already baked into how we practice. We have an iterative process and are always returning to the table with options for input. We study each project site, its context and social history, and the different communities involved. An inclusive engagement process is about expanding all of this to include more voices. In the end, the result is a stronger, more impactful project with happier users. And the client gets a better building.

Jarrett Pelletier: As architects we are often entering into a community as outsiders, so we want to start from a place that is respectful, open, and curious. If, at the beginning of a project, we can create space to dig deeper into the needs of diverse constituents where we are building and listen to their lived experiences, it gives us more information to make better choices along the way, which yields a more responsive and inclusive design. To get there, we must meet people where they are and create conditions that allow everyone to bring their best selves – that means doing the research ahead of time to figure out where that right place is.

What are some tools we use to support this process?

Masha Konopleva: The tools we use should be tailored to each project. For example, for our work with Alta, we learned that the community was spread out geographically and relied a lot on internet access, so we created multiple digital mechanisms that allowed people to follow along and participate. We created a website that was a portal for information and interaction, engaged people on social media, surveyed them, conducted town hall meetings on Zoom and made the recordings easily available – a plethora of ways to share the process openly and hear as many voices as possible, even during the height of the pandemic. We worked with external advisors and community partners and created a diverse advisory board that was well-embedded and could help us reach townspeople we had not yet heard from.

Shalini Abeyaratne: Data collection tools matter here, whether it is stakeholder mapping, power-mapping, benchmarking community participation in equivalent projects, or post-occupancy studies – all of these pieces of information allow us to understand how our buildings respond, question any implicit assumptions, and rethink our systems.

How does this kind of work align with how Ennead practices architecture?

Jarrett Pelletier: We often talk about our work in terms of building performance, which is something we do well at Ennead. Whether in healthcare or culture or research or education, our buildings perform spectacularly. It is something that really energizes us, and we want to get it right every time. We put people first in our work and are always aiming for architecture that improves human experience in whatever the space type. What we are talking about here is yet another measure of performance – addressing the social needs in the neighborhoods and spaces in which our buildings are being designed. That responsiveness to a diversity of voices, what you might call “community performance,” is inherent to how we think about inclusive buildings, civic space, and the responsibility of architecture.