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Environmental Justice Primer for Ports: Effective Community Engagement Methods

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Meaningful community engagement is essential to environmental justice and relies on communicating directly with the impacted communities and providing a means for their input to inform decision outcomes. Creating a permanent Community Advisory Committee is an effective method for keeping a community well informed and gathering input. Ports may also designate a community liaison to ensure information flows between community leaders and port decision-makers.

On this page:

Defining community stakeholder groups

Productive Engagement Tips

  1. Honor the wisdom, voice and experience of residents.
  2. Treat participants with integrity and respect.
  3. Be transparent about motives and power dynamics.
  4. Share decision-making and initiative leadership.
  5. Engage in continuous reflection and willingness to change course.
  6. Be aware of tribal rights and issues.

Source: The Community Engagement Guide for Sustainable Communities, Policy Link

Community stakeholder groups can be divided into the following categories by their role in the process.

Community Resident Groups: community residents and resident organizations from near-port communities

Community-Based Partners: organizations working with near-port communities to support local goals

Local Unions: organizations representing workers at the port, goods movement industries and other groups.

Tribes: tribes have unique rights as sovereign nations.

Government Stakeholders: local, regional and federal government entities with port and community responsibilities

Local Educational Institutions: local universities, colleges, schools and minority serving institutions (historically black colleges and universities, tribal universities and Hispanic serving institutions)

Local Environmental Groups: environmental and/or environmental justice advocacy groups

Internal Port Stakeholders: port authority or agency departments

Port-Sector Stakeholders: port tenants, nearby industrial facilities and the goods-movement sector

Relations between the port and each of these groups can vary widely based on the degree of shared interests, trust level and past conflicts. Engagement efforts can tend to focus on those stakeholder groups with shared interests and low conflict. However, reaching out directly to impacted communities despite past communication challenges is essential to begin to understand community concerns and explore feasible ways to address concerns in planning and decision-making. The Resources section in the Appendix includes more information on the benefits of effective community engagement and approaches to collaborative problem-solving.

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Building relationships with near-port communities

Ports agencies may be more likely to reach impacted communities by placing public notices in media outlets frequently accessed by area residents such as local newspapers, radio stations and public access channels on cable television. Ports can collaborate with community leaders to distribute flyers, postcards and other materials to local churches, civic groups and community-based organizations. In communities with limited English proficiency, port agencies should translate public notices and information on public comment periods and provide interpreters at public meetings as necessary to ensure meaningful access. Port agencies should also provide information in accessible formats to ensure effective communication for persons with disabilities. Providing enhanced opportunities for community involvement in permitting decisions has been an effective way for industry sources to build positive relationships with neighboring environmental justice communities. Actions that can be incorporated into permit conditions include modifying truck traffic and rail freight routes to avoid movement through residential areas, reducing emission levels, monitoring fence-line air quality, and creating public access to waterfront parks.

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Determining the level of community engagement

The International Association for Public Participation’s (IAP2’s) Spectrum of Public Participation discusses public participation levels in increasing order of the potential impact of public involvement on decision-making (see Table 2).20  Increased levels of engagement can lead to decisions with more public support, increased trust between stakeholders and more sustainable outcomes.

The appropriate level of community engagement can vary depending on specific outreach goals, timing, location, community culture and access to technology. It is important for decision-makers and institutions to be transparent with community members about the level of influence their feedback will have on a decision. In instances where the level of engagement is lower than the community would prefer, it is critical to be fully transparent about what is possible and why. Ideally, decision-makers and institutions should aim for the highest level of engagement possible – in some instances, this may mean forging new decision-making processes and structures to support higher levels of engagement than have been attempted in the past. Table 2 outlines IAP2 levels of engagement illustrated with example actions and considerations for selection.

Table 2: Considerations for Selecting the Appropriate Level of Community Engagements
Level of Engagement Example Actions Considerations
Build community support.
Conduct community outreach and education programs to share information early and often.

Welcome opportunities to meet with the nearby community and host community events.

Invite advisory groups and community organizations to engage with port decision-makers and other oversight bodies.
Builds broad-based local support.

Ensures engagement that reflects issues and concerns identified by the broader community.

Builds capacities for outreach, problem-solving and action.
Invite feedback on  proposed port projects and policies.
Invite feedback via public comment periods during formal decision-making processes.

Invite public comments earlier in the process to provide time to respond to community needs.
Documents goals and concerns in the public record.

Works well for a significant document or project proposal under public review.

May inform further evaluation of alternative approaches.
Develop port-community collaborations.
Invite community members to serve on a Port Authority Board.

Develop a collaborative venture between the port and community, such as piloting a new program.

Provide job training and employment opportunities to individuals from the community.

Provide internships and cooperative learning opportunities for local college students from the university community to build the partnership.
Empowers the community to provide direct feedback on specific decisions.

Puts ports staff in a more proactive, problem-solving role.

Increases the likelihood of exploring and achieving win-win solutions while minimizing conflict.

Builds productive relationships to tackle bigger issues in the future.
Build partnerships to  mitigate port impacts.
Pilot a new program through a partnership with a local government or organization.

Seek opportunities to partner with state or local agencies to mitigate an impact.
Builds community trust.

Builds productive partnerships with local and regional governments and organizations.

May mitigate only a portion of the full issue or concern.
Designate citizen representatives.
Create positions for community residents on the port’s governing board.

Form a Community Advisory Group to advise the port on strategies for addressing community goals and concerns.
Helps community representatives become better informed about port constraints and requirements.

Creates community ownership and buy-in for decisions.

Builds a consistent and reliable process for addressing community concerns.

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