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Following the Energy

I am delighted to join the NCDD’s team of bloggers and look forward to sharing my experience and learning from yours. At least at the beginning, this blog will be based on a column I write for The Western Planner, a publication that serves as the newsletter for the associations of professional planners in 14 western states. If you are a planner, or interested in land use and planning issues, you might want to subscribe. You can find out how at http://westernplanner.org/.

I hope also to respond to thoughts and comments on what you read here. And finally, I may sometimes venture into current events. We are all aware just now of where an aggressively partisan approach to public decision-making has taken the United States. I may occasionally find it necessary (and, I admit, therapeutic) to share some thoughts on how the public’s business is and should be done.

That’s enough of an introduction. Here, for your enjoyment, is the first installment of Following the Energy! It was written in cold weather and begins with a haiku that may you may find refreshing in the August heat.

Following the Energy

A Column on the Art of the Public Engagement by Lee Nellis, FAICP

Breezy pine, icy glare,
Snow shrinks, chickadees buzz!
Begin something new.

This column shares stories about how to artfully engage people in the planning process and other community affairs. My goal is to educate in the old way: by telling stories. I will ask the reader to listen to a few words about a particular “turn” in a community’s conversation about itself, then take away whatever of value he or she finds in that story.

There will be no multiple regression analysis here nor anything technical. There won’t even be morals to most of the stories told, though I will often pose questions. I will suggest something to read in most of these columns, or, perhaps, a website to visit. I call the first story I’d like to tell ‘Tapping His Watch.”

Tapping His Watch
I once conducted a training in a small town in a scenic (no, this is not an error) part of the Upper Midwest. The session, which filled a basement meeting hall with 60-70 people, was arranged by a nonprofit preservation group that worked with a facilitator whom I shall call Claus. Claus prided himself on orderly meetings that began and ended on the stroke of the clock.

One of my roles was to help this group learn how to engage more people, more effectively, and thus influence land-use decisions in its region. I built the training around the fundamental principle for which this column is named: Follow the Energy! We talked about how to get people in the room and what to do once they were there.

People were enthusiastically discussing what they could accomplish as 9:00 PM approached. I saw Claus tapping his watch at the young farmer who was chairing the meeting. By and by Claus cleared his throat while tapping his watch. Finally, he asked the chairman if he knew what time it was. The conversation paused and eddied around this interruption. The young farmer smiled and said, “Claus, I’m following the energy.” We continued until 10:00. No one left.

Who to Read? Our professional worlds are often narrower than we imagine. I had practiced the art of public engagement for 35 years before I heard of Barnett Pearce. Then I had the pleasure of meeting him, learning from his theory of the “coordinated management of meaning,” and being inspired by his personal commitment to “making better social worlds.” Readers don’t have to wait that long. Just find your way to www.pearceassociates.com for an introduction to the CMM and a treasure trove of readings under “Essays and Articles.”

What’s Next? The Event at the Red Church.

Lee Nellis on Linkedin
Lee Nellis
Lee Nellis, FAICP, of Round River Planning has been helping citizens have a say in conservation, land use, and water quality issues since 1974. His articles here on the NCDD blog are part of Following the Energy, a column on the art of the public engagement.  He hopes his tales on the public process are instructive for NCDDers, and asks that you add your comments and let him know what you think!

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