The Community Whisperers

The Community

Maria-Mercedes Jaramillo Garcés and Kannan Thiruvengadam
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When we were reviewers for student projects during the fall semester, students who knew they would be interacting with communities in the spring expressed interest in coaching sessions on community engagement.

That got us thinking about how we, as practitioners, could support them, and the J-term opportunity seemed ideal. Thus the course was born: Enabling Community Leadership in Urban Planning.

We are both strong believers in participatory planning, and we bring two distinct perspectives: that of the community seeking to be heard and taken into account in decision making—that’s Kannan—and the government’s perspective seeking public good and building community trust—Maria. We had students from various disciplines and schools: architecture, public health, urban design, urban planning, and design engineering.

Carina Arvuzu Machado, a SPURS-MIT Fellow related her experiences in Mexico.Our presentations were based on our own experience and on concrete scenarios that illustrated the most salient lessons. Carina Arvizu Machado, a SPURS-MIT Fellow, joined us to share her experience in Mexico, and the discussion with the students was dynamic.

After we laid out the framework, we divided the students into two groups. Each group did a mock community presentation, to which we introduced conflicts, unexpected responses, and other events that could unfold during community engagement. We then could critique the groups’ handling of such scenarios.

Each session was very interactive, and it was especially fun when we demonstrated likely community friction. The students were creative in putting together their presentations and addressing community concerns. They even brought imaginary snacks and beverages for their audiences.

They raised a myriad of thoughtful questions, and our disparate experiences brought great value to the conversations. We emphasized that, while consensus may be rare, facing conflicts with respect can and often does lead to more collaboration and better overall outcomes. As designers and planners, we aim to solve problems, and we’re more likely to achieve that if our solutions match the needs and aspirations of the people whom the products are meant to serve. Community empowerment is necessary for co-creation, and co-creation results in more effective projects, contributes to a sense of belonging, and builds trust in government, which ultimately strengthens our democracy. Students increased their understanding of how to prepare for community meetings and their ability to judge when to engage and how. With greater awareness of possible points of resistance, they gained courage and could anticipate the joy in such engagement.

Of course there is no way to do justice to such a large topic in a week, but students were positive about the experience and were left wanting more.

“I really appreciate your authentic leadership—it’s one of my greatest goals for my career. You two are really inspiring!”

Our takeaways

  • Community engagement is of growing interest, as the awareness of the need to center equity and the effectiveness of participatory processes are both increasing.
  • Students have a lot of positive energy to bring to community engagement. They have their own wonderfully unique ideas and perspectives, which they should be encouraged to nurture.
  • There is widespread interest in learning from practitioners. Most of the student questions were about our personal experiences. They asked for anecdotes and sought to learn how we tackled clashes.
  • Community engagement should be taught as a semester-long course at the GSD, either in fall as a preparatory course or in spring as a practicum to support the current curriculum.
  • If taught again as a J-term course, field trips would be a great enhancement. During the class, students wanted to step into the real world.


Students and class leaders posing for a group photo