Citizens at the Centre: A journey with my Tamarack Institute colleagues

Last month I joined Tamarack's Liz Weaver and Sylvia Cheuy on a cross-country tour to deliver Citizens at the Centre - a travelling workshop on how to engage ordinary citizens in the community change process. 

It was hectic. Five workshops, in five cities, over eight days - Halifax, Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. A weekend glamping in the Rockies in between, followed by two nights at Tofino before returning to Melbourne Australia.

What was it all about? Along with Sylvia Cheuy and Liz Weaver, we invited participants to consider the emerging role of citizens in tackling our most challenging issues. The minute marathon warmed everyone up, we looked at various frameworks and trends for engaging and then jumped into a citizens’ jury exercise. Some of the performances were memorable.

I shared some anecdotes from down under and passed on some of the things I have learned. The main point was this:  

If we genuinely invite citizens to be part of the design of engagement processes, and ask the right questions, they will rise to the occasion becoming partners, even ambassadors, in tackling ‘wicked problems’.

We also talked about taking on the myth of expert-designed processes offering silver bullet solutions. The art of letting go, and inviting others to lead. Making space for that to happen. Learning as we go. Being ready to step up, step away, and support collaborative efforts.

I learned quite a lot, as per usual, from the workshops. We practiced co-design throughout. Sylvia and Liz were brilliant to work with, and we modified each session based on what we learnt along the way, and the energy and aspirations of each group. The 300+ participants brought questions, their stories, their passion. It was not difficult to tap into the energy, and I never felt I had to push participants, which can be exhausting.

After speaking with participants from across Canada, some of the most critical questions and insights posed by staff and participants throughout were:

  • There is no simple formula for citizen-led approaches, but there are foundational principles worth pursuing
  • Success is found by involving citizens in co-designing the engagement processes, not just in co-designing potential solutions
  • It is more important than you think to frame thoughtful questions to engage citizens
  • Citizens are not a problem to be solved, but they can be assets draw upon to solve complex community problems

All of these thoughts can challenge us to be more open and more intentional in our community engagement work.

I’ve been thrilled to be approached by some organizations about supporting them from a distance, and I am easily to tempted to return to Canada. I love working with Tamarack. Quite the dream team. Thanks for the opportunity to learn this important stuff together! 

** For more interesting articles to read check out Tamarack's Engage e-newsletter

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Comment by Rituu B. Nanda on June 28, 2019 at 1:11pm

Dear Max for sharing! Your points are very critical. In case you have time please share 

  •  foundational principles  for community engagement
  • And example of involving citizens in co-designing the engagement 

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