Do you remember the last time you received a gift you did not need — maybe a copy of a book you already had or a toy for your kids they already had? For a while in Fort Wayne there was a clear distinction between an inside group of community development “shakers” (administrators, influencers, and decision makers) and the “outside” — loosely referred to as the public. Irene Paxia

The public was seldom involved in shaping community projects other than, perhaps, complaining about shortcomings of our community (“there is nobody downtown in the weekends”) or expressing not-in-my-backyard ideas (“our neighborhood does not want public housing”). The public could not (and would not) penetrate the glass wall of citizens square.[1]

Community development at times can be like a gift you did not ask for. There is a chance that programs or projects may simply not be what residents need. In order to improve the potential misalignment, residents need to participate in the planning process. Here below I will list some ways in which participation has already (and can be) improved in the Fort Wayne of tomorrow based on my interaction with immigrants and refugees in Allen County:
  1. Be an inclusive leader[2] — make inclusivity a strategy during all phases from project ideation to implementation and do it genuinely. The model used in the past of public meetings scheduled in a government-building basement on a day and time only known to those who happened to browse an internet page is not sufficient to check off the public participation box. This new model requires:
    • using inclusive messaging both externally and internally
    • asking the team to check for inclusivity when approving steps
    • leading by example, by engaging a variety of interest and special needs groups
  2. Improve the format, frequency, and type of interaction with public. This requires:
    • thinking outside of the box and adjusting language from high context to low context, depending on the audience
    • having a language access plan
    • inviting, hosting, and offering conversations
    • using professional language interpreters
    • identifying ‘anchors’ in the community, individuals who have a reach in special groups, such as refugees and immigrants
    • leaving the office
    • listening well
  3. Seek to represent the diversity of residents — having diversity within community development professional teams has several benefits I have been able to observe:
    • strengthens trust between developers and residents and helps immigrants and refugees feel connected to their communities
    • informs and diversifies community development from within
    • creates natural anchors and helps professionals find connections to groups such as Latinex, and others
  4. Participation is year-round. It is much harder to develop relations under a specific deadline. This reason is why community developers should create mechanisms for feedback and participation throughout the year. For example:
    • create community advisory boards around specific issues and groups (immigrants and refugees are often eager to come together)
    • make your team presence known in special events
    • value relation and seek it genuinely
By writing this, I am expressing my hope that community development be not only the result of following the loudest voice, but also the result of the implementation of inclusive informed ideas.

This essay is part of a citizen-led book project in Fort Wayne called FORTHCOMING: Considering the Future State of Our City. To learn more and read additional essays, visit the Foreword and Preface.

Irene Paxia is the founder and principal of Petra Solutions, a consulting firm that helps companies improve their cross-cultural, fundraising, and business strategies. Irene launched Petra Solutions in 2020, leveraging 15 years of experience in the areas of immigration, fundraising, and government planning. Irene sees a need for companies to know how to engage multicultural audiences. Her studies include an MBA at Indiana University, and a Laurea Quadriennale in International Diplomatic Relations at Universita' di Bologna (Italy), besides certifications in Fund Raising Management (CFRM) and Project Management. Depicted recently in a Faces-of-the-Fort mural on Anthony Blvd. (Fort Wayne) in recognition of her work with refugees, Irene has dedicated herself to positive change in all her past positions as CEO at Amani Family Services, Community Development Specialist at City of Fort Wayne, Lecturer at Purdue Fort Wayne, and Program Director at American Red Cross. She speaks several languages, and having been raised in Italy, she knows firsthand the experience of immigration.

[1] This is a generalization on my part, based on my observations during my work as Community Development Specialist.
[2] Edwin P. Hollander defines inclusive leadership this way: “Inclusive Leadership is about relationships that can accomplish things for mutual benefits. Reaching leadership at this next level means ‘doing things with people, rather than to people’, which is the essence of inclusion.”
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