[TIPS] How to Engage the Environmental Justice Community

happy peaceful woman with laptop and ready to engage the Environmental Justic groups in her public involvement

8 Tips to Help You Reach Targeted Populations

It’s no secret – the best public involvement is inclusive and increasingly it is being enforced as a requirement of planning efforts. Agencies around the world each have their own way of describing inclusiveness. In the US the EPA’s term is Environmental Justice (EJ) or Title VI. This requires the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” Because EPA regulations impact transportation and virtually all other public infrastructure planning, these requirements apply to many projects.

Regardless of what jurisdiction you are in, the calls for broader and more inclusive public engagement are likely mounting. At the same time, technology is changing the way we communicate. In response, the use of online public engagement is rapidly expanding, whether it’s on your laptop at home, kiosks in the community center or the smartphone in your pocket. However, when it comes to engaging the EJ community the question is – does technology help or hinder?

Based on case studies we’ve evaluated, it can go either way. If implemented well, technology can close the gap and provide much greater access to the EJ community. If handled poorly, public engagement technology will only widen the divide. The most sensitive groups tend to be low income and minority groups for various reasons including access to technology, language barriers and cultural differences.

The reality is that the EJ community is also often excluded from traditional methods of outreach as well. Many don’t have the time or freedom to attend public workshops or don’t feel comfortable with that form of participation due to language, educational or cultural barriers.

How can we leverage technology to improve engagement and reach the EJ community? Below are 8 strategies that will help you in your outreach efforts to the EJ community.

1. Do your research

When designing your public involvement program, first seek to understand what issues are most important to each of your demographic segments. What are their top priorities? What language do they use to express them?

Sit down and talk with people face-to-face as early as possible. Go to community centers and try to understand what issues they have concerning your project. This will give you the ability to build the content of your engagement program using the metrics and terminology that will resonate with them the most.

2. Communicate what’s at stake and how their input will be used

There will be three questions on people’s minds when they are asked for input:

  • What’s at stake?
  • Why should I contribute ideas?
  • Is there anybody listening?

Most importantly you’ll need a powerful call-to-action (CTA) that convinces them it’s worth the time and effort to participate. These messages will be used in the collateral and communications to encourage the EJ community to get engaged.

How do you write a well-crafted CTA? Use the knowledge you’ve gained from doing your research on community priorities. Once you understand which issues are truly important, it will be easy to create a message that resonates.

If your community is working on a new transportation plan and your research tells you that affordability is a key issue, an effective CTA might be, “Want affordable transportation options? Your input will be used to guide our new city-wide plan.”

Let them know what’s on the table and craft you communications based around their priorities. Make a promise to them about how their input will be used.

3. Go to them

If you’re using a technology solution, make sure it doesn’t entirely depend on your participants coming to your website on their own devices. Be opportunistic – latch on to community events that other groups are planning. Bring kiosks and tablets to community centres, local events and other places where the EJ community members routinely visit. That way even those without access to their own devices can participate.

For many people who don’t have computers, smartphones are often the only online connection that they have. To include these people, make sure that your digital engagement technology is well-optimized for smartphones.

4. Support multiple languages

Naturally if people can’t read your site, it’s a show-stopper. Rather than relying on auto-translation which tends to mangle the meaning of planning concepts, take the time to translate your tool professionally and offer a choice for people on the front page.

If you’re interested in engaging the Vietnamese community, if your site is available in Vietnamese it will be welcoming to them, even if they also speak English. It sets an inviting and inclusive tone.

5. Wherever possible, use visuals

Keep things simple and use images to convey the message. This allows for people with poorer language skills to still get involved and have their voice heard. Visuals also stir emotions very effectively, leading to a more memorable and engaging process.

6. Integrate educational content

Provide education and context for questions that are being asked. Many people don’t feel qualified to have an opinion on complex issues like land use or transportation planning. Educating people about the pros and cons of choices helps empower them to weigh in on these issues and contribute meaningfully.

Be realistic about the questions that you ask. Not everyone knows how to solve planning problems or create solutions.

“What are your priorities?” We love starting with this question. Everybody knows what’s important to them. It also sets a tone that lets people know that you care about their needs. The added benefit of starting with this question is that you can use their answers to shape what they see next according to their top priorities. This is a great way to keep them engaged.

7. Leverage community leaders in promotional activities

When trying to solicit participation, who the message comes from is very important. Keep in mind that the EJ community often feels disenfranchised. In many cases, the Mayor or other city officials may not be the best people to invite the EJ community to participate.

Instead, it may be useful to ask locally trusted leaders of community groups and political representatives that the EJ community trusts to solicit participation. These can include leaders of local religious, community and non-profit organizations that have earned their trust and are aligned with their values and priorities.

8. Collect and monitor demographic information in real-time

Be prepared to adjust your engagement process mid-stream. Don’t plan all events and activities and commit all of your budget in advance. Review your results early on, find out who is missing and fill in the gaps with new strategies and “boots on the ground” efforts.

While online engagement is increasingly effective, there will always be a role for face to face methods. Go to targeted community events where your missing EJ community members will be. Bring paper-based surveys and iPads and engage away.

Sometimes creative strategies are needed. For example in one small community, the project team was struggling to get low income and minority families to participate. A unique strategy was hatched. “At Home Engagement Kits” were distributed. The Town offered to reimburse any pizza receipts for groups of 6 participants or more.

The result? The project engaged over 60% of the population with active participation from the EJ communities that were traditionally missing. What was even more interesting was that the municipality did not have to pay for a single pizza receipt. It seems that the offer was enough to get people started and participating proved to be satisfying enough.


If implemented well, online public engagement has a strong role to play in bridging the gap and allowing the EJ community to have their voice heard. By doing so you can reach a demographic that is more representative of your overall community, and have a powerful source of input to support your plans going forward.

For more information and examples, watch the video below which recaps our recent webinar on best practices for engaging targeted populations.

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1 Comment

  1. Maria Concepcion Garcia on October 8, 2015 at 2:30 pm

    Would I be able to get a copy of your PowerPoint? this is directly related to my work.

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