Fresh off the Year of Civic Engagement and with much of the past two years shaped by pandemic restrictions, Penn students looking for ways to connect with the community had an opportunity to both learn and engage this fall.
Participatory Cities, a Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) Paideia Program course offered through the Urban Studies Program, delved into the history, methodology, and impact of activities that encourage community participation and stakeholder involvement. After engaging with readings, hearing from guest speakers, and learning about strategies for effective public engagement, students took what they learned in the classroom to conduct their own outreach activities on campus and develop recommendations for future communitywide projects.
Providing a framework for community engagement
Participatory Cities is taught by Marisa Denker, an alumna of the Urban Studies Program and founder and CEO of the community engagement firm Connect the Dots. Denker worked with Penn’s SNF Paideia Program, Urban Studies, and the Netter Center for Community Partnerships to launch the new course this fall.
Denker’s goal with the course was to help students develop approaches for working in partnership with communities to enable equitable impact. “As a student at Penn, I was always trying to explore and navigate the connection between Penn, West Philadelphia, and the city: what role students can and should play, what role the University should play, and how they all connect. And as a student, I wanted a course like this to help me navigate that role and apply my learnings to help enable more collaborative, bottom-up approaches across cities,” Denker says.
Through readings and discussions, students learned about the history and key principles of engagement, different approaches and models and how they have evolved over time, techniques for designing a participation activity, and how to measure its impact. Then, after reflecting on key takeaways, students had the opportunity to hear from guest speakers whose presentations aligned with that week’s topic. Organizations that presented throughout the semester include Keystone Civic Ventures, Kensington Corridor Trust, Philly Counts, the Knight Foundation, One’s Up, and the Citizens Planning Institute.
From theory to practice
Throughout the semester, students worked in teams on their final projects: developing an engagement strategy for connecting with a specific population at Penn and another for connecting with a group in West Philadelphia; for the Penn-specific population, students were also tasked with testing out their activity in person as a way to learn by doing.
Students gained practical experience as they explored specific recommendations and strategies for the SEPTA Forward Bus Revolution, a multiyear project and massive bus network reimagining, which students then presented to SEPTA representatives at the end of the semester. “My firm Connect the Dots is managing the community engagement for Philadelphia’s bus network redesign, so we saw this as an opportunity to enable students to apply theory to practice and have the chance to make a real impact on a live project that will change the face of transportation in Philly,” says Denker.
The four engagement activities targeted the Penn community that the students prototyped included a focus group for Penn hospitality employees, a tabling event on Locust Walk, a pop-up survey at the Quad, and a targeted SEPTA talk event with food and games. After seeing how their strategies worked on campus, students presented the methods and rationale and what they learned, and provided specific recommendations for SEPTA Bus Revolution outreach directly to the Bus Revolution team, including SEPTA and transportation firm Nelson Nygaard.
Milan Chand, a sophomore majoring in neuroscience from Newtown, Connecticut, says that along with learning more about the theories that underpin a successful engagement project, hosting a focus group for hospitality employees showed their group how important it is to also build trust. After needing to pivot their in-person project, the group recommended that SEPTA use an ambassador program to connect with leaders in the West Philadelphia Muslim population to help establish trust as a first step.
“The whole point of public engagement is to build trust, to start from the bottom up and really create those meaningful connections on a personal level,” says Chand. “The three biggest pillars for us were legitimacy, trust, and transparency, and I think the biggest thing is first you need to build those relationships.”
Mya Gordon, a sophomore urban studies major and Paideia advisory board student member from Lake Oswego, Oregon, was part of the group that organized a freshman-targeted event. During the design of the project, the students incorporated what they learned in class as well as their own perspectives on what college students would respond to.
For Gordon, their in-person event showed the group how important it was to provide a way for those who want to share more details to do so, which inspired their recommendation to engage with the West Philadelphia elderly population through a bingo game at a community center, while also providing space to share thoughts during an on-site peer interview.
“We learned that a lot of community engagement techniques like town halls attract people who are very engaged to come. For us, maybe not all of the freshmen were interested in SEPTA, but their perspectives are still important,” says Gordon. “Because we saw that with the freshman engagement, we wanted something to get the ball rolling, and even though some might not be interested in talking we still give them the option to elaborate.”
Justin Acheampong, a junior majoring in psychology from Spotswood, New Jersey, and their group set up a table near The Arch, with the goal of getting a general sense of the Penn community’s attitudes towards SEPTA as a starting point for more detailed engagement in the future. Incorporating strategies used by other clubs, the group provided QR codes for accessing an online survey alongside a trifold board where people could quickly tally mark their responses to specific questions or provide more detailed answers on Post-it notes.
Acheampong says that one of the big takeaways was the importance of providing a way for people to share their thoughts in a very open format, explaining that several students stopped by to talk with the group about their experiences with SEPTA. The students then used that experience to inform the suggestions for their West Philadelphia outreach, targeted at people who need to use the bus for work, school, or errands, which relies on focus groups that allow people to share their thoughts in an open-end format
“Our tabling event shows that there’s a lot that could come out of these conversations that might not be specific to what SEPTA is looking for,” Acheampong says. “Seeing that so many people had varying opinions and were actively wanting to talk, we recommend to SEPTA to be very open-minded going into these focus groups. You don’t know what people will want to talk about, and there’s so much knowledge and experience that should be tapped into.”
The future of engagement
Denker hopes that the students now have a better understanding of how power is or isn’t shared with different voices and how the skills they gained can be applied in a variety of settings, organization, and communities.
“Even if they are brought into a small committee in a corporate firm, they can see what the committee’s role is, how much are they listened to, where is power shared and where isn’t it, and be cognizant of when and how they can share power,” she says. “And once they recognize it, they can take action, and we’ve gone through some of the ways that they can do that.”
Acheampong is looking forward to incorporating what they learned into their ongoing engagement work and continuing to get others engaged while running projects in equitable ways. “I really liked the class because you learn so many skills that aren’t just specific to engagement. We had one class focused on how to facilitate conversations, for example, and that’s definitely a skill that I plan on using in the future,” they say. “There’s so many lessons, principles, and values that I learned that I’m going to be able to apply to so much in my life.”
Gordon enjoyed the opportunity to learn about engagement techniques more formally and has used what she’s learned to reflect on prior engagement work. “I would definitely suggest anyone to take the class,” she says. “This area isn’t talked about in a lot of other classes, and you can learn something relevant to anything you’ll do in life because community engagement can be used in any career field.”
Chand describes Participatory Cities as “one of the best experiences I’ve had at Penn” and is also looking forward to using these skills in the future. “I also learned what it means to be compassionate within society,” he adds. “It’s important to look at the broader scope and see how decisions will impact the public, and when you keep that mindset, you’re always going to be thinking about how I can engage other people to get the best possible outcome.”