How to Put Community at the Heart of Transportation Projects (Text Version)

This is a text version of the podcast episode How to Put Community at the Heart of Transportation Projects from July 21, 2022.

Mollie Putzig: Welcome to On the Go, an on-road transportation podcast with Clean Cities. In this episode we are talking about incorporating community engagement to help ensure transportation projects have equitable outcomes. To kick us off let's introduce our host. I'm Mollie Putzig.

Joanna Allerhand: And I'm Joanna Allerhand. Today we will be joined by two guests with expertise in establishing meaningful community engagement practices. They'll be discussing why community engagement is important, best practices, and tips for starting the conversation with your local community.

Mollie Putzig: Here to tell you more are Paty Romero Lankao and Nicole Rosner from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Paty and Nicole are social scientists who have led community engagement activities within the US, Mexico, and many urban locations internationally.

Joanna Allerhand: All right. Welcome, Nicole and Paty. Thank you so much for joining us here this afternoon. We will go ahead and get started. If you could tell us, what does community engagement mean?

Paty Romero Lankao: Well, I really would like to compare it with community outreach. When you engage in community outreach you reach out to your stakeholders, your community, and tell them what you are doing. For me community engagement is more than that; it's really an effort to make sure that you listen, you understand where the community is, and you go from there to develop the tool set that is needed to address mobility and other sustainability issues. Nicole, what do you think?

Nicole Rosner: Yeah, I totally agree. And I think just expanding on what you're saying, I think engagement in a lot of ways, it's a shared process that you're building with community members. And so unlike outreach, which often is kind of a one-way stream, engagement is a two-way stream, or at least that's how I see it, and you're building it together, collectively. And that goes along with the point that longevity is really important to community engagement in a lot of different projects, depending on the project, but the idea is that you're building this relationship over time, and so engagement isn't just a one-off; it's actually a longer process.

Paty Romero Lankao: I just want to add to that, it's a longer-term process, we mean you don't go to the community at the beginning and at the end of the project; you engage with them throughout the project. And if the conversation, the collaboration goes well, you go beyond the project.

Mollie Putzig: Why is it important to include community engagement and project planning? What are some of the benefits?

Nicole Rosner: Some of the benefits are developing a project that really meets the needs and aspirations of the communities you're trying to implement that project in, and also making sure that whether it's a technology or kind of a larger – for example, a larger energy transition that involves a lot of different technology changes, you need to build the trust with local community members and build the relationship to understand their needs and their capacities to be able to really develop technologies that meet those needs and that are able to be used with local capacities or develop capacities locally so that they can be able to use those technologies.

And trust is important because if you don't build that trust then they won't be used and there's kind of the danger of building something that doesn't really address those local issues because it's not being used, not because the technology itself doesn't work.

Paty Romero Lankao: Exactly. And that means that you need to see communities as your partners in the process. They have a lot of knowledge, they understand the realities, they understand the constraints, and if you work with them based on what they dream of, what their aspirations are, you are better able to address challenges and barriers together with them and to create not only technologies, but also tools and capabilities that really are attuned to the reality of these communities. If you do so then you get their buy-in and they will be more able to deal with the trade-offs that are always involved in any transition, they will be more willing to address those in conversations, in dialogues, and also in the ways that can be not easy, but are needed for everyone to say, "Okay, I'll give up A to get B." By so doing again you get buy-in and you are more effective at solving the problems the technology, the tool is intended to address.

Joanna Allerhand: And thinking specifically about transportation, how can engaging with the community improve a transportation project?

Paty Romero Lankao: Well, there are many ways to do it. For me an important requirement is for us to really start with a good understanding of the mobility needs, which are context-specific and also population-specific, meaning some users will need last-mile options that are affordable. Others won't care about that; they will care more about because they have existing medical conditions they will care more about having mobility options that really respond to those needs. Again, if you start with a good understanding together with these communities you've seen elicitation techniques. If you start from that point you are more able to develop transportation options that can for sure reduce emissions, but also provide options that are attuned to the realities of the communities you are working with.

Nicole Rosner: Yeah, and expanding on Paty's point, I think by working with communities you're really able to identify existing inequities that will need to be – you know, we need to target those types of inequities in order to improve the transportation system as a whole, and so identifying them with community members is the best way to do that kind of work. And that of course goes along with it – with these projects being kind of specific to local communities; different communities have different needs.

Joanna Allerhand: You mentioned first and last mile, but what are some other types of transportation projects that can really benefit from community engagement?

Paty Romero Lankao: The one that comes to my mind relates to transportation projects that allow people to walk, allow people to use the street. Many of our infrastructures are car-oriented, and in my research I have found that in some cities a quarter of the users walk, bike to their office, to their school. If they don't have options to use bikes, if they don't have options to walk, they will have their ability to move from one place to the other and to increase their health and wellbeing, they will have those abilities constrained.

Nicole Rosner: Yeah, I agree. And also having multimodal options that are public. So being able to bike to a train or a light rail or a subway and then bring your bike on that train and be able to take that to wherever you're going. So first and last mile, but also that adaptability of the system to different users' needs or peoples' needs.

Paty Romero Lankao: An example that also comes to my mind is related to gender issues. Many women are responsible for their children, for taking them to school and going to the office. If they don't have the option to carry all that you need to carry when you have little children they will have their mobility options constrained, and the ability to earn money, to have a stable job will be also constrained. So again, there are intersecting factors such as gender, pre-existing conditions, race, also where you live, geography plays a role; rural communities come to my mind. All these factors intersect, and so therefore when working with communities you need to understand together with them how these factors intersect in their place in order to develop these multimodal options Nicole was referring to.

Nicole Rosner: Yeah. And also adding onto that, it reminded me of depending on where you live you might have to pay for a new ticket if you're moving onto a different mode of transportation, if it's public transportation. And so providing options for low-income public transportation users, where they only pay for one ticket and they're able to use multiple modes on that ticket is really important, because a lot of those transportation users are, especially if they're low-income, they might be commuting really long distances, have to take multiple modes, and you don't want them to be overburdened given the increased burden of distance that they already have as an everyday challenge.

Mollie Putzig: Thanks. I think that gives us a really good grounding of what community engagement is, why it's important to include it, looking at what sites of projects and how it can make those better. Now I'd love to dive into some of the recommended strategies and best practices for community engagement.

So when in the project development process should you begin community engagement?

Paty Romero Lankao: I would say that before starting the process. Nicole and I, for instance, have been working with the City of Los Angeles, and from the outset what we did was to map key stakeholders with these women community-based organizations, grassroots organizations that are working with communities, because we are aware of the fact that those are the ones that connect their community with their researcher, so you need to map your key stakeholders, key communities. You use mapping tools, I mean a simple Excel is enough, whereby you have key organizations you start with and then you snowball, right, asking members of these organizations to connect you with others.

Another tool I have used before is just really, to review literature, do you define key types of users, and again you start to work with key stakeholders, key grassroots to map those uses you need to work with. Once you have that you can really start working on defining problems, defining needs, defining priorities, defining dreams, because dreaming is a key tool to understanding what barriers prevent you from being there and what strategies can allow you to address those barriers and go where you want to go.

What do you think, Nicole?

Nicole Rosner: Yeah, I totally agree with what you're saying, Paty. And I think both Paty and I have learned a lot from the project we've been engaging in in LA, and I think part of it is how you define the project in the beginning if you're not working with local stakeholders, and particularly if it's an equity project with the disadvantaged communities that need to be centered, but also a part of the process from the beginning, you're going to have to be nimble and adaptable with the project. And if they're there in the beginning, if they help you form what this project is it's going to really shape how you move forward in terms of what the targeted goals are, but also in terms of how you're building a feedback loop process throughout the project, and you can start that from the beginning rather than building it in the first few months, which kind of takes time. And so if it's a project that has both community engagement and kind of technology development and deployment aspects to it, you have to think about how long all of that is going to take and whether or not including community members in the beginning and the formation of the project itself is actually going to maybe save you some time later on.

Paty Romero Lankao: Exactly. I agree. I agree with Nicole. Yeah, you really need to – like just imagine that you were working on that gender project and you were not including women in the project. The same is with users of transportation. So Nicole really nailed it down to another set of key issues to consider. Which means that you need to work with stakeholders and community organizations and also cultural brokers from the outset and throughout the project.

Mollie Putzig: Great. So definitely including community engagement in initial project planning, you talked about getting started through stakeholder mapping and getting those stakeholders to the table, involving a lot of community engagement experts, like you were saying, cultural brokers, community-based organizations, or CBOs. How do you go about identifying the people and organizations to include in this process and make sure you're being inclusive when you do that?

Paty Romero Lankao: Well, I will include here a jargon word. I will try to be as simple as I can. In my experience I use a snowball strategic approach whereby I really start with either using – browsing the website, contacting key local leaders, people I know, and going from there with my analytical map, where I say "I need to have women, people of color, old and young people. I need to have key sectors represented. I have to have mapping. I also need to have decision-makers, CBOs." And with that analytical map I start contacting people and asking them who else I need to connect with that works with women and with these other sectors, and I snowball. Right? My ball gets bigger and bigger and in that way I increase the pool of representatives of the sectors I map. But I also revise my mapping, so that's what I do. And Nicole, you tell me what you think, but that's what you and I did with this last example that we always bring to bear on this conversation.

Nicole Rosner: Yeah. Yeah. And I think to that, I think it's going to depend a little bit on the project. So in the project Paty and I have been talking about, it's an equity strategies project, and so what was really important to us understanding who historically has had decision-making power in the areas that we're focusing on, in like the energy system in LA and then who historically hasn't had that decision-making power but has been deeply affected and negatively affected by the existing energy system in the past. And so that's going to help you kind of identify who the stakeholders are, but also who needs to have more of a say if this is an equity study, or even if it's not an equity study, I think. I think people have been historically excluded need to have more of a say. And so that's going to help you kind of weight the engagement differently to make sure that certain stakeholders have more of a voice in the work that you're doing.

Paty Romero Lankao: Exactly. Yeah. You are super-right, Nicole. Based on the question or the goal of your project you need to decide who do I need to include, who should I include that has not been included. Particularly in transportation it's experts who decide what is what the user needs, and I think we need to change the conversation. I also know that our group has done that already by asking who is the user of our technology. Who are these multiple users of these tools, this toolset? And based on that we map them and we need to make sure to include those that who historically have been excluded. And in that way we will make the project more meaningful.

Mollie Putzig: Okay, I think I'm getting a good picture of how to figure out who to involve in the process. So how do you work with those individuals in the community and organizations that you've identified to identify what the target issues or priorities are for them?

Nicole Rosner: I think there are lots of different ways of doing that.

Paty Romero Lankao: Yes.

Nicole Rosner: I mean part of it is, for example, in the project we're working on in LA, we worked with local community-based organizations, so these would be experts, and some of them in policy, a lot of them in community energy efforts. And we worked with them to develop focus groups that we've been calling listening sessions to then engage with community members and get a sense of what their needs and priorities and aspirations are related to the energy transition in LA. So part of it is finding your local partners in crime and your local partners that have already a network with the communities that you're trying to work with.

And then through that relationship co-designing engagement efforts – so in this case it was focus groups – that will allow you to have a bit more – build a relationship with local community members and their understandings of their lived experiences related to your kind of targeted issues. So it really kind of branches out in that way, but it's important that you're co-designing those engagement efforts because that builds a relationship both with the local community experts and cultural brokers, as Paty was saying, but also it builds trust with the local community members that are going to engage in those focus groups, because they trust those organizations. And so if they trust those organizations and those organizations invited them to your focus group that's a space that they're going to feel more comfortable engaging in.

Paty Romero Lankao: I would like to add to what Nicole said, that you also need to consider a couple of – ask yourself a couple of other questions. One is is this issue a contested issue? Is there some level of polarization around the issue? And I'm saying that because in my work in Latin America there were many issues that were contested. So if you have a situation where authorities or officials are not so interested in addressing the concerns of disadvantaged communities then you need to develop a slightly different strategy, try to map not only who is affected, who is included, who is excluded by the technology, the innovation, the tools you are working with, or the project you want to support, but also what are the framings of the issue. Are they different? Do you need to have different conversations with diverse groups to understand the set of opinions, of perspectives around the issue? And in that case you need to also be able to represent those differences and those disputes.

And in that case, I don't know what your experience is, Nicole, you are really confronted with some more challenging efforts, whereby bringing those different stakeholders to the table will be a harder endeavor and you will need to really either just keep different conversations and just explore whether you better don't bring them to the table, because if you are not careful with bringing them to the table you can get in situations that are difficult and that can create more differences. I don't know your experience, Nicole, but I also think we need to discuss that. Particularly because in the US there is polarization around many sustainability and energy issues.

Nicole Rosner: Yeah, I think in different meetings I've been in with you, Paty, we've experienced some tension related to differences in opinion or ways that different people engage in discussions. Some people engage a bit more aggressively than others, and I think it's really important to obviously respect everyone's opinion and listen, but also for people who are working on community engagement to really structure and scaffold the conversation and make sure that respect and that listening is going on throughout and that no one feels unwelcome or unable to share, but that what they're sharing is inclusive and respectful.

Joanna Allerhand: Sort of following onto that, when you are working with these organizations how do you build those relationships to make sure that you're getting all of that input and working with them the way that you want to and they want to without overburdening them?

Paty Romero Lankao: That's a great question, right, Nicole? [Laughs]

Nicole Rosner: Yeah.

Paty Romero Lankao: In my humble experience you need to be really nimble and realize that these stakeholders, the communities that you are working with are as experienced and as knowledgeable as you are. And just really starting from that perspective, you really engage in two-way road conversations and dialogues that allow people to feel their voices are heard, their perspectives are taken care of. Even if you do not agree with their perspectives you need to, particularly as a social scientist, right, you need to be careful to listen to them. And I think that takes a lot of learning also for researchers, for engineers, for scientists. Would you agree, Nicole, that that also needs to be part of the learning? [Laughs]

Nicole Rosner: Yeah. Yeah, I think in a way we need a bit of paradigm or cultural shift in terms of really valuing different types of stakeholders as experts in their various fields. And some of that is just community knowledge and lived experience. And also compensating those stakeholders for their time and expertise is really important, and along with what Paty was saying, viewing them as really true partners in this endeavor and not just kind of someone to consult with, but someone to build with, and not an extractive process, but a co-creation or co-development or co-design. A partnership, if you will.

Mollie Putzig: That's great, thank you. So shifting gears a little bit, you learn a lot about a project working in a specific area on a specific project. How can you adapt these strategies and lessons learned we've been talking about from a project in a different location to your local context?

Nicole Rosner: Yeah, so I think there's a lot that can be adapted and a lot that's really context-specific. So for example, the types of tools that you're going to use for engagement is something that can definitely be adapted if you're going to use, for example, focus groups or a survey or a community mapping process. Those types of engagement efforts and activities can definitely be adapted to different communities and different projects. But some aspects of the projects are going to be really context-specific, so particular needs and barriers, sometimes they're – you know, you could talk about low-income communities and say paying your electricity bill is across the board very difficult. But there are aspects to that that are going to be really specific to local communities.

And there are other issues, for example, maybe there's a particular environmental pollution that's in a local community that is associated with the water company. Whether or not it actually has an association with the water company, that's what local community members believe. And you need to discover that; you need to understand why they might have mistrust of a local water company and how that affects your project.

So there are kind of aspects to it that are adaptable and other aspects. And then I think what's useful is the research process to engaging with those communities and understanding their concerns and their lived experiences; that process is definitely adaptable. But each local community is different and respecting that difference is really important, and it's going to be what makes or breaks a project, I think.

Paty Romero Lankao: Building on what Nicole said, I always use the expression "there is no one-size-fits-all, but there is a one-size-fits-some." I mean we know besides knowing that there are methods, techniques that you can use in different context if and only if you understand how to adapt them to that context. There are so many processes that you could say play out in different context; for instance, differences in class, race, which for instance in the US it plays out in a way that is different from what I saw in India. Right? Where tasks are a key construct that defines who is untouchable, meaning who is excluded and criminalized and who is not. And in the US race and ethnicity define who is discriminated against, who is included.

So again, you have these ingredients so to speak, but you need to understand how they play out differently in diverse contexts and what is the specificity of each. Because if we just think that having an indicator of race we understand how it plays to define inequity, if you do the latter you will make mistakes. So you therefore need to tailor your techniques in ways that are culturally sensitive to the practices and expectations of the groups you are working with in order to understand how processes that play out in different places manifest specifically in each city or in each community you are working with.

Mollie Putzig: Great. So we've talked about a lot of really useful considerations, I think giving people a lot of context for what community engagement means and how to think about the community engagement in terms of the projects that they might be considering. For people who are trying to start this work how can you get the conversation started?

Paty Romero Lankao: It's really a very important point. I don't know how you feel, Nicole. In my case I feel that every time I engage in starting a conversation I need to be aware of my position in that conversation. And this means that for many communities people like Nicole, like you girls, and like I are seen as superior. So you need to be careful with that and really make sure that people see that you are not superior, you are just different, and that they also have a lot to say, that they are also expressed that they are your equals. So that really is important.

I have a beautiful example from Santiago, Chile, where I worked with communities, then with city officials, and then I wanted to bring them together in a workshop. And I remembered that a local leader who was so good at explaining to me why his community was at higher risk from landslides that came from the Andes, from the mountains. That person was really good at explaining that to me in his community. When I brought him to a meeting with decision-makers he didn't speak, even though I tried to make him speak. And then when I brought him back home I asked him why, and he told me, "Well, Paty, it was a bunch of technical experts. I cannot speak in front of them."

So we need to understand that our position defines already some power dynamics that can constrain a community's ability to express their voice and their needs.

Nicole Rosner: Yeah, I think I want to expand a little on Paty's point about positionality and think about, you know, sometimes you're also seen as kind of an element of mistrust and there's a lot of skepticism, and I think of course also discomfort and you have to kind of consider first of all the way that you're beginning the conversation with these communities and the way that you're beginning kind of a language between you needs to be mutually intelligible and it needs to recognize the position that you're in, recognize the power dynamics, and listen to if there's skepticism, what is it and how can we talk through that. And if there is mistrust what is it and how can we talk through that in a transparent way and in a way that builds real trust and not just kind of partial or kind of a relationship that's very short-term and only project-oriented, but one that is oriented towards the needs of these communities, not just completing a project. And I think that's part of how you build – building the conversation is also building the values of the project.

And then another aspect of that is so what language are we going to use, and I think that depends on what the communication strategies are going to be or what kind of the communication norm for these communities are. Maybe it's e-mail, maybe it's social media, maybe it's in person, maybe it's a lot of different aspects of communication methods, maybe it's all three, maybe there are different times of day that you want to be engaging with community members. You know, you might have to go to particular locations to talk to them; maybe you have to go to the supermarket and stand outside and have a conversation with someone. There are different ways that you build that initial communication method, but also the long-term strategies. And so it really depends on the communities and the context, I think.

Paty Romero Lankao: Yeah, I just want to build on what you said, Nicole, and say that you need to meet the communities and your stakeholders where they are. You are not supposed to expect them to go and take a look at your website and read your beautiful papers, because that won't happen. You need to get out of your way to be in their space. And in my experience, particularly governmental decision-makers tend to forget that. And whenever I ask them, "Hey, how did you convey this project? How did you disseminate what you want to do?" and they keep telling me, "Well, it's on my website. We have some documents in there" – before the websites, right – in the library. No, that doesn't work, because whenever I ask communities, "How do you learn from this project?" and they always tell me, "I had no clue that this project existed." And this is because there is this gap, meaning some powerful people who said what communities need to be educated and to get out of the way to learn from this project.

I think that that doesn't work well. In my experience the best projects, the most successful are those where the promoter of the project got out of his head or their way to meet the target of their project. And that's also a key lesson for us at NREL, we need to get out of our way – drag away our bubble and go to the bubble of those communities where they will benefit from our toolsets, from our technologies, from our innovations.

Nicole Rosner: I 100-percent agree with you, Paty.

Paty Romero Lankao: [Laughs] Yeah, Nicole, I just love –

Mollie Putzig: A really great example.

Paty Romero Lankao: Yeah. We just love whenever an official says that, when they go, "Oh, well, it's on our website." Okay, good news. I have two bad news for you; first is not even I have read your website. I need to read it because I'm doing this project. Second bad news is people don't know about your website, so please forget about that as a dissemination tool.

Nicole Rosner: But I think it's important to actually think about different types of dissemination tools, right? So someone's going to the website and it's good to have it on the website, but it doesn't mean people are going to go to the website to find that information writ large. So you have to think about the 85-year-old grandma that never really goes online, how is she going to get that information? Is she going to get it from a flyer that's put under her door? Maybe.

So I think there are different – you have to really adapt your strategies to the various different people that are involved in these projects and that are stakeholders in these projects, and really be open to adapting those strategies and not taking one path, but taking multiple paths.

Paty Romero Lankao: Exactly. And also with this idea of being nimble and flexible is getting a lot of traction. And I tell you it's liberating. When you learn that you are not the super-expert in the conversation, that you are just part of a bigger whole you also feel liberated, because you know that there are many ways of doing things and you just need to engage with all these different ways and make sure you are nimble, right? And flexible and adaptable. And I think that those are ideas that our organizations will benefit from, including making them part of the way they go about doing business.

Mollie Putzig: I think that's some really great examples of why it's so important to truly understand the communities that you're working in.

Paty, Nicole, I wanted to thank you for joining us today, and just ask if there are any final tips or thoughts you want to share with people thinking about getting community engagement involved in their projects?

Paty Romero Lankao: I just want to close with one thing, and I'm certain Nicole will close with another.

In my four years at NREL I have learned to respect all the knowledge, the capabilities, and the potential that this lab brings to bear on how to address our challenges. That said, I think that we will realize this potential if we are able to collaborate. Social scientists such as Nicole and me and such as you guys, who are really good at engaging with stakeholders, and with the stakeholders, if we are able to understand that different ways of knowing and of doing are equally important if we really want to be successful and effective in our efforts to transition our energy systems away from where they are and towards where we all need to decide we want to me. I mean nobody has the truth on what is needed and how to address it. We all need to build that truth and that dream together.

Nicole Rosner: That's a wonderful close, Paty. I was just going to put in a plug for us and say that we're here. We social scientists would love to be a part of your projects, a part of thinking about how we can structure these projects in ways that really address the local needs of different communities. And I think they can become more effective projects and technologies and have much larger impacts if they do that. So yeah, we would love to be involved in more projects here at the lab.

Mollie Putzig: Thanks, Paty and Nicole, for joining us and sharing the importance of community engagement to ensure projects provide solutions that meet the real needs of people in your community. Stay tuned for future episodes on ethanol and electric school bus resources.

Joanna Allerhand: That's it for this episode of On the Go. As we wrap up I want to thank the US Department of Energy's Vehicle Technologies Office and our team here at the National Renewable Energy Lab for their support. Also a big thanks to Brittany Conrad and Vern Slocum, our podcast editors; we couldn't do it without you.

Mollie Putzig: If you want to learn more about Clean Cities and its partnerships to develop affordable, efficient, and clean transportation options to accelerate the development and widespread use of a variety of innovative transportation technologies visit us at