Flipping the Script: We’re Not the Experts, They Are!

Having recently completed EmcArts’ Arts Leaders as Cultural Innovators (ALACI) Fellowship, I jumped at the chance to reflect on my learnings and share my experience on ArtsFwd. I have come to respect EmcArts’ thoughtful, responsive—at times even vulnerable—facilitation approach and the principles of adaptive leadership aimed at building adaptive capacity. This summer, I shared an essay as part of Zocalo Public Square’s inquiry on arts engagement, supported by the James Irvine Foundation. In it, I posit that all arts engagement should be community engagement, because arts organizations should exist to serve their communities. This concept of arts engagement through community engagement dovetails particularly well with one of EmcArts’ adaptive capacities: Bringing multiple network perspectives together and seeking “inexpert” input.

What is “inexpert” input? Presumably, it is input from non-experts or “the public”. Why would input be sought from non-experts? Often, input is sought in specialized fields—often from education professionals, economic development experts, social service workers, among others; however, the public are experts in their own experience: what they have, what they’re seeking, and how they feel. They may or may not be able to articulate what they want and need, and they may not be the ones to tell us what form the solutions should take (sometimes that is best left to planners, designers, architects). Then, again, they might.

If you’re with an arts or cultural organization, you may wonder: Do we have to bring in a community engagement specialist to find out what we need to know? While any of us probably would be delighted to work with you, No—you can become skilled at community engagement, including seeking inexpert input!

As a senior consultant for global cultural planning firm Lord Cultural Resources, I facilitate for a living. I have the privilege to work with arts and cultural organizations of many sizes, ages, types and disciplines in the areas of organizational planning (especially strategic planning) and also with communities, cities, and regions on cultural policy and planning. In this role, I facilitate conversations among stakeholders who are internal to organizations (staff, board, volunteers) and external (constituents, funders, colleagues at other institutions, and people in the broader community). These community engagement processes range in size and scope from small, targeted efforts like one for Boston Jewish Film Festival’s strategic plan, to an 18-month citywide process for a master plan for Houston’s Memorial Park, to a 12-county regional engagement for the Imagine Greater Louisville 2020 regional cultural plan.

As a facilitator, my role is to seek information, listen (really listen) to the answers, keep conversation flowing in a productive direction, and synthesize or translate the results of the discussion into meaningful takeaways that I, my client or other planners and designers can use to develop solutions and services for the public.

So, how can we initiate conversations with the public to understand what they are experts in and elicit meaningful information that we can use to generate solutions?

In my experience, two keys to seeking “inexpert advice” are asking the right questions and listening to the answers. This is easier said than done. Here are a few ways to approach your next public engagement effort:

  1. Be transparent. Start by being forthright about the goals of the project or process, of the meeting, survey, interview or other format for seeking input. Tell participants how their input will be used and when they can expect to hear from you again. Answer their questions, be honest about what you don’t know and get back to them with the answers.
  2. Don’t assume. We don’t know what experiences, biases, or preconceived notions participants might be bringing with them, and we’re not always aware of our own. Strive to keep from assuming anything about those you’re seeking input from and start by asking some basic information at first (“Who here has been to the park before?”) and try to keep ears and eyes—and mind—open to what participants are saying (and not saying) and what they really mean.
  3. Acknowledge experiences. A good place to start, after sharing information about the project or process, is by asking people their experiences. Whether it’s their familiarity with your organization, their favorite memory of your site, or their favorite cultural experience ever, it’s a concrete tidbit that helps them to ground themselves while telling you more about your participant(s). And verbally acknowledging the experiences people share validates those experiences and reinforces that you are listening.
  4. Follow up. If a comment is unclear, or if it could be interpreted in multiple ways, ask the speaker to clarify or expound further. “Can you tell me more about that?” often leads to richer discussion among participants that gets beyond a “popcorn” phenomenon in which people simply chime in with their two cents instead of digging into topics.
  5. Don’t bristle. One of the biggest mistakes I ever made was saying something defensive when someone criticized the result of a planning process in which I had been involved. When I “corrected” them, they only became angry and that negatively affected the tone of the remainder of the conversation. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t correct misinformation. But when an opinion is being shared, the correct answer is, “Ok, understood.” Or “Thank you.”
  6. Say “thank you”. It may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s striking when sometimes we hear that people feel their time and insights are not appreciated or adequately recognized by the organization. The public’s time is just as valuable as any expert’s, and their trust and goodwill are perhaps more important. Participants are, after all, helping us do our jobs and meet our mission.

Hopefully, these suggestions offer useful ideas for seeking “inexpert” input. Of course, they do not delve into other valuable and equally important reasons: building goodwill and seeding the ground for successful participation in the future. But that’s a story for another day.

What suggestions do you have for seeking input from the public? What instructive hiccups or successes can you share?

Priya Sircar is a senior arts management consultant with Lord Cultural Resources and a dancer-choreographer, actor, and former musician. She has worked with organizations and communities of all types and sizes, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Wyoming PBS, Houston’s Memorial Park, The Chinati Foundation, American University of Beirut, the Linda Pace Foundation, the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Norfolk Botanical Garden, The American Kennel Club and The University of Texas, among others. She is an adviser to the Asian American Arts Alliance and an EmcArts Arts Leaders as Cultural Innovators Institute fellow. In a former life, Priya was a grantmaker and fundraiser at the Lance Armstrong Foundation (now LIVESTRONG). She hails from Texas and lives in Brooklyn.