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Does anyone on your planning staff or board speak or understand Spanish? Russian? Laotian? How well do you communicate with the non-English speaking members of your community? How good is your pipeline to their concerns and viewpoints?
If you are not already doing so, it is time to extend your reach to the citizens of your community for whom English is not the first language. Especially in the case of non-English speaking minorities, this may require special effort. There are many reasons they may not be involved in planning matters, but it is folly to believe they do not care, especially if they live in areas affected by decisions such as rezoning. Let’s examine the reasons they may not be involved and what the board and staff can do to improve the situation.
Meeting schedules and formats. Do not expect people in minority communities to be comfortable at typical planning board hearings or meetings. If English is not their first language, they may not understand what is happening. Moreover, they probably cannot afford child care and do not have a habit of going “downtown” for government affairs. Hold planning board meetings out in their communities … in schools, libraries, churches, or community meeting rooms. Provide free child care. Choose the time most convenient to your potential audience; this may include times not as convenient to you, such as weekends. Have translators available. In other words, look at the world through their eyes and make it as easy as possible for them to participate.
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Elaine Cogan, founding principal of the Portland, Oregon planning and communications firm of Cogan Owens Cogan, has consulted for more than 36 years with communities undertaking strategic planning and visioning processes. Cogan has been honored for her work on a variety of citizen involvement projects.