As engagement and communications professionals, we use several strategies, techniques, and tools to conduct inclusive engagement. Since COVID-19, we’ve moved to a virtual environment and learned new skills to ensure our engagements are inclusive, respectful, and deliver the desired outcomes for our clients. While not all engagements are created the same, the one constant is fostering virtual dialogue for equity-deserving communities.
When planning a virtual meeting or workshop engagement professionals need to host the event while ensuring that all participants feel welcome, comfortable, and supported, something that requires careful planning to create brave spaces that encourages candid conversations.
So how do we go about that? How do we ensure we are not reinforcing structures that have historically excluded certain communities? What virtual facilitation strategies can we use to foster spaces that are welcoming to all participants?
The Argyle team understands that virtual facilitation requires thoughtful strategy, audience understanding, and the use of various tools and techniques – all while being responsive. To learn more, we asked Sarah Bradley, a Senior Consultant in our Vancouver office, and Rhianne Folka, a Consultant in Calgary, to share their experiences and tips based on our work with Canada’s National AccessAbility Week (NAAW), Calgary Police Service (CPS), and the Vancouver School Board (VSB).
What does equitable engagement mean to you?
Equitable engagement means taking the time to define your audience and the reason you are reaching them, as well as understanding the community dynamics, values, and aspirations. It involves thinking about why individuals have opted not to partake in previous engagement and supporting them to overcome hesitations, as well as offering different ways to participate. As engagement practitioners, it’s up to us to integrate techniques to make people feel invited, welcomed, and safe. This means we must move away from expecting people to adjust their schedules and responsibilities to accommodate our clients’ engagement opportunities – and towards offering convenient, on-demand participation.
Equitable engagement to me means that sometimes we are engaging broadly, but other times we are engaging with a specific demographic with lived experiences that need to be centered. This is because listening to and centering the voices of those most often marginalized uplifts us all. Equitable engagement means that we use equitable tactics and tools, but also challenge ourselves and our clients to consider how the scope of a project may impact the engagement we receive, and how barriers can be created from timelines, modes of communication, and more.
How can we center the voices of equity-deserving community members in a virtual engagement environment?
That was a big question for us when we were designing virtual engagement for the Vancouver School Board (VSB). We heard from School Trustees that it was essential to hear from students – specifically, students who self-identified as being Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC). We worked with the Vancouver District Student Council (VDSC) and secondary school leads (adult representatives from each of the VSB’s secondary schools) to create a plan to reach students through small discussion groups using Microsoft Teams, which the students were already using, digital posters, Instagram stories content, and an online survey.
We also worked with community leaders, including within ethnocultural communities, to offer support such as simultaneous translation and the presence of a trusted adult during the virtual dialogues, recognizing that we were coming into these conversations from the outside. We coordinated with student groups who were already meeting regularly to schedule engagement sessions without asking them to take time out of their busy schedules.
A key part of ensuring you hear from your target population is to be adaptable to that community. While engaging the public on a project with the Calgary Police Service (CPS), we began engagement with a survey which we distributed through the school system in Calgary. While the survey was successful in reaching community members, we needed to hear from more students as their voices were central to engagement. This led us to change our follow-up engagement methods from focus groups to webinars and hear from a larger group of stakeholders. We also offered different options for engagement by adding a user-friendly online portal to engage with more youth, as well as offered the opportunity for people to submit letters through email for us to include in our analysis. To recognize that these conversations can be challenging, we integrated user-friendly tools like Mentimeter to invite participants to share their thoughts, emotions, and feedback.
Another effective tactic to center the voices of equity-deserving communities is to partner with local experts. We worked with Action Dignity to help engage BIPOC youth and their advice helped us ensure participants felt comfortable to engage openly and safely.
Mentimeter allows participants to share sentiments using prompts. In this example, we asked participants to “pin” the emotion that best described how they were feeling coming into the discussion about the School Resource Officer (SRO) program in Calgary.
What are some of the challenges to designing virtual engagement opportunities for equity-deserving communities and how did you address them in these projects?
A key challenge when engaging with equity-deserving communities is mistrust and potential discomfort from past engagement experiences and historically discarded voices, making these communities hesitant to pursue engagement opportunities. There Is also a risk of re-traumatization when the engagement subject matter is sensitive combined with the fact that as engagement professionals, we come from a place of privilege which may create an unequal power dynamic.
Transparent reporting is an essential aspect to help overcome some of these challenges – this could include our engagement strategy, our team’s background, the reach, and how the feedback we received will be used going forward.
We’re still learning, but we have started integrating touchpoints within our engagement strategies to check in with our audiences, asking how to provide support and encourage participation. For example, with the VSB, we designed a general virtual facilitation plan as a starting point but tailored it to each of our six audience groups, adapting as needed based on who was in the virtual room and the topics that were resonating. We used Google Jamboards with discussion prompts to collect “Sticky notes” both during and after the session, helping students build on one another’s ideas.
We designed small virtual discussion groups to hear from Vancouver students about their thoughts and ideas about the SRO program.
As a facilitator, what’s one thing you wish people were aware of when it comes to virtual engagement?
One thing that we have been learning about through the work we conducted with the National AccessAbility Week (NAAW) is accessibility considerations that virtual engagements require. Here is a list of some key accessibility points that are important to consider while engaging virtually.
- It’s not convenient for everyone: many people find virtual engagement more accessible as it can be done from anywhere however, if you are hard of hearing, D/deaf, blind, have low vision, or English is your second or third language, there are still barriers. An important aspect of virtual engagement is language interpreters – real-time spoken translation, real time captioning, ASL, and image and slide descriptions.
- Phones still work: consider offering a call-in option for online meetings and webinars for participants who do not have internet access, or do not want to use the computer for various reasons. Include an accessibility technical document during registration with detailed instructions on how to join the event, as well as a call-in technical support line should people need it.
- Let me know I can participate: when inviting participants, include all accessibility options that will be available during the event so that invitees can determine if the event will be accessible.
- Make registration easy: ensure you have alternative text to images, adequate color contrasting on the page, use plain language and clearly mark mandatory information required for registration, and so on. Strive to be WCAG 2.0 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) compliant.
These are just a few of the tools and strategies we use to advance inclusive engaging in virtual settings. Now that we are looking ahead to a new model of virtual and in-person engagement, stay tuned for Part 2, where we’ll share strategies for engaging with equity-deserving communities in a hybrid environment.