As a Main Street professional, do any of these challenges sound familiar?
If so, you’re not alone.
These are the challenges attendees identified during our recent training, From Problems to Partners: How to Successfully Engage Merchants, Property Owners, and Municipal Departments. Main Street Leaders from all corners of Connecticut convened at CMSC’s Hartford office to learn practical engagement strategies and tactics through interactive case studies and group discussion led by Raquel Vazquez from The Empowered Block.
And those challenges listed above? It turns out the core source is misaligned engagement efforts.
During the training, Raquel led attendees through discussions and exercises focused on how to re-align those engagement efforts. In this post, we’re summarizing some of the key ideas and strategies that you can put into use today.
Understanding Stakeholders’ Roles and Perspectives
The first step to building strong, trusting connections with stakeholders is to understand their role in the downtown ecosystem, and to fully understand their priorities, wants, and needs. Without taking this into consideration, expectations and motivations can be easily misunderstood and communication can break down.
Every stakeholder has unique perspectives. If you are having trouble understanding a stakeholder, some strategies you can employ are: ask for clarification and practice active listening, ask for feedback, keep an open line of communication, and promptly resolve misunderstandings and miscommunications.
Take inventory of your downtown stakeholders and go through an exercise of considering their role and their priorities/needs/wants. For example, small business owners contribute to the sense of a place in the downtown and they are concerned with hiring and maintaining good employees. What else do small business owners contribute and prioritize?
Building relationships with stakeholders happens through engagement. Some communities leverage technology like Bang the Table and CitizenLab, while others use traditional means like newsletters and social media. However, these typical strategies only serve one-way forms of communications and are best for sharing announcements. Depending on your objectives – like developing a plan or solving a complex problem – you need to utilize multiple methods of engagement. For example, you might want to convene focus groups for input on the development of a plan, a steering committee to get different perspectives on a problem, or a formal partnership to tackle a more intricate challenge.
Critical to any successful stakeholder engagement is inclusivity. Ensure that relationships are formed with groups diverse across gender, race, cultural, linguistic, ethnic, disability, LGTBTQIA, different ages, and other identities. Create a welcoming environment and expand accessibility (e.g. language, physical abilities, time of day, method of engagement, etc.), but don’t make assumptions that you know best how to achieve an inclusive environment. Solicit feedback and guidance from community members or hire an appropriate consultant.
It also helps to be aware of your community’s history of exclusion and how it impacts today. Communities that have been historically disenfranchised may not engage because they feel “my voice doesn’t matter.” Resources to consider are the book “Color of the Law” by Richard Rothstein and trauma-informed community engagement.
Building Collaborative Teams
To build high-performing, collaborative teams, first understand some of the challenges in forming such teams: people are stressed, they have biases, some are perceived as being difficult, goals and timelines can be unrealistic, priorities and needs aren’t communicated, body language or tone can be misinterpreted.
How can you overcome these barriers? Invest in developing your active listening skills, improve your ability to navigate difficult conversations, and facilitate effective meetings. Learn about team dynamics and accept different people’s perspectives and preferred forms of communication or working environments.
A huge thank you to Raquel Vazquez for bringing this training to Connecticut’s downtown leaders. To learn more about The Empowered Block and Raquel’s work, please visit empoweredblock.com or reach out to Raquel directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kristen Lopez is Connecticut Main Street Center’s Education & Training Director. With over 12 years of program development and marketing experience in economic development with a specific focus on small business, she is motivated by the mission to see Main Streets across Connecticut thrive. Kristen is an AmeriCorps VISTA Volunteer alum, a StartingBloc Fellow, and Next City Vanguard Fellow. She holds a bachelor’s degree in finance from Messiah University.