How to Engage
We have discussed in the past the importance of identifying the “who” to include into environmental engagement opportunities as well as the “what” should be discussed at large. The third step in creating proactive and effective environmental engagement includes determining the “how.” This means understanding how to effectively get groups involved as well as how to get people to understand and listen to our messages and understand the issues at hand. How to engage with the public and other people is important because if we identify who to target and what to say, but we communicate it in the wrong way, then all of our engagement efforts will have been for nothing.
Models of Communication
There are three major models of communication when it comes to communication in the environmental world. These include the classical (deficit) model, the framing model, and the contemporary (dialogic) model. These models allow for different tactics to be used to push messages to a variety of different groups who may receive and identify the information differently than others. This is why there are a few different options for the models. The classical (deficit) model is based on the idea that the public lacks the knowledge to understand scientific findings that are proposed to them. Because they are unable to effectively understand what is being reported, they ignore it or don’t agree with it. This model suggests that if we address this issue and make it so the public is able to understand this information more easily, then we will gain their support. This model relies on driving home big, shocking points to get through to the public.
A second model, the framing model, is created on the notion that people receive, process, and understand information in different ways. Individual’s emotional and cognitive abilities may play a role in how they receive this information. This means that information should be presented in different ways to different people. We must target different groups and present them with the same information, but in potentially different ways.
The third model, which is the contemporary (dialogic) model, is one that promotes the strategy of listening as well as speaking. This means that when giving your own perspective on an issue you must not just focus your attention on your own ideas and beliefs, but you must actively listen and incorporate the responses of others as well. This is beneficial because it brings into account all views which allows for a greater variety of solutions. This model appears to be one of the better ones when it comes to engagement strategies because it allows for the inclusion of all parties involved and incorporates all perspectives to find the best strategy for creating a solution. Understanding the different ways that people may respond to things allows for effective action in presenting information to different parties which will lead to more efficient solutions.
How the Portland Harbor Community Coalition Engages
The Portland Harbor Community Coalition (PHCC) is an organization that is advocating for the voices of different communities that are being negatively affected by the Portland Harbor Superfund Site (see our previous post titled ‘A Waterfront Through Different Lenses’ for more information). This organization is made up of a coalition of groups all working with common values and goals. The coalition is advocating for the voices of a diverse group of stakeholders who are the most impacted by the Portland Harbor Superfund Site, this includes people of color, houseless folk, and immigrants. Given the number of organizations and communities with a stake in this issue, there is a lot of room for engagement. The ‘How’ of the PHCC’s engagement seems to include the dialogic model of communication. The PHCC is engaging with communities and having conversations around what would benefit them the most. By not going in and deciding preemptively what different groups need, the PHCC is allowing room for a conversation around past injustices and paths towards righting those wrongs in a way that won’t inadvertently continue to harm vulnerable populations. Additionally, the PHCC is also engaging with their partner organizations, having conversations around what their shared goals are and how they can work together to achieve them (for more information see our post ‘Whose River is it Anyways?’). The PHCC has 8 core partners listed on their website, along with many support and advisory partners. This shows that the PHCC is doing work to engage meaningfully and long term with other organizations in Portland.
Other stakeholders in the Portland Harbor Superfund Site cleanup include the companies responsible for the pollution and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The PHCC does not seem to be engaging with these stakeholders through the dialogic model of communication, and this demonstrates perhaps one of the downfalls of the dialogic approach. The dialogic model is very time consuming, and the burden shouldn’t be on the PHCC to have to commit time and resources too engaging with these corporations, especially since the PHCC exists because of the harm caused by these companies. One possible opportunity for engagement is with the EPA over how the cleanup process is going (an agency that is actively working with stakeholders of all views).
The agency announced Monday that it reached agreements with nearly two dozen companies, including Chevron, Exxon and Shell Oil, between December and last Wednesday to restore eight portions of the Portland Harbor Superfund site.-EPA, 2020
It is not clear how much dialogue between the EPA and the PHCC has occurred, but perhaps going forward there will be engagement between these two organizations. This too may be difficult though because the EPA has so much say over what happens at the Superfund site that it may not be an equal conversation. In that case the PHCC may prefer to continue pushing the EPA to action through methods besides dialogue. Looking at how different groups are engaging with each other around The Portland Harbor Superfund Site shows some of the strengths and weaknesses of the dialogic model of communication. It will be interesting to see going forward how this diverse group of stakeholders continue to engage with each other.