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Fellows in the Field: Boting

Guest post by Boting Zhang, Housing Developer

I entered the world of development through the angle of community participatory design. Public input, at its best, is a positive and engaging process that taps into the community’s knowledge, resulting in a better project that contributes positively to its surrounding community.

In the development community, there is often a feeling that public outreach has lost its raison d’être. A fear of the unpredictability of public input handicaps the process. In many public meetings I’ve attended, I can almost predict the outcome before the meeting has even begun.

Milenko has written that the Pomegranate process for public meetings is like jazz. After having facilitated a few meetings, I can begin to understand what that means. Rather than the rehearsed script of a typical public meeting, I begin a Pomegranate meeting with relatively little idea of what the discussion will bring. On the first few rounds, it is a new feeling—similar to the feeling of walking into a meeting under-prepared. But the meeting itself is actually exhilarating, in a way that a pre-scripted public meeting never is. What comes together when people’s positive nature is brought out certainly feels like jazz. Counterintuitively, the outcome is far more concrete and satisfying than in a typical, pre-scripted public meeting.

Like musical improvisation, a well-facilitated public meeting appears spontaneous, but is grounded in training and skill. The basic principles of the Pomegranate process are simple: give everyone a chance to speak; make the context and boundaries of discussion clear; and frame ideas in a positive manner. Beyond those basic principles, however, the training provides details on facilitation, from how to use the flip chart to drills on handling skeptical audiences and negative comments, as well as several opportunities to practice meeting facilitation. What I walked away with was not only a step-by-step process and facilitation experience, but also an understanding of the underpinnings of the process so that I was able to experiment with it. After some trial-and-error modifications to the process in order to adapt it to my organization’s needs as affordable housing developers, I have an even greater appreciation for the detail and experience that the Pomegranate Center has brought into its trainings.