Community Engagement & Social Sustainability: When & How

By Danáe Sakuma, Associate

A variety of engagement methods, from left: Deschutes Public Library bond planning, Barbie's Village transitional housing, and Clackamas Community College Harmony West

Clark College in Southwest Washington plans a new satellite campus at Boschma Farms in Ridgefield, featuring the planned Advanced Manufacturing Center (AMC). Robust community engagement was a priority for the college and the design-build team from the beginning. Project architect Danáe Sakuma talks about the lessons learned from this process and why it is critical for project success.


Why should a project integrate community engagement?

Although the “triple bottom line” speaks to the importance of environmental, financial, and social sustainability, the social aspect is often not prioritized, perhaps because it is difficult to quantify and more challenging to integrate into the design process. To address this, I have been spearheading Hennebery Eddy’s new design framework to guide projects through a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive design process and to evaluate success. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to socially sustainable design, so the workflow emphasizes community engagement in acknowledgement of the value of listening and asking questions to prompt crucial conversations.

We picked the AMC to be one of our first beta projects with the new workflow because Clark College is so passionate about engaging the community and designing for a diverse group of people. They know that inclusivity is especially critical at a community college because most of their students are walking through the front door at a transition point in their lives, which can be overwhelming. It was a design-build team priority to understand what inclusive space looks like, so we used community engagement as a tool to view design through the lens of people with different backgrounds and lived experiences than our own.


When should a project include Tribal engagement?

In recent years, there’s been an industry push to include more land acknowledgements in projects. As a Walla Walla descendant, I am often asked about whether (and how) it would be appropriate to acknowledge the original stewards of the site. In addition to sharing some great resources (see below), I typically ask about motives for doing so. The reason for this is to determine whether or not the desire for a land acknowledgement is to inform or coincide with an actionable influence on the project. Although it might seem counterintuitive, I typically encourage project teams to refrain from a land acknowledgement unless it is accompanied by action.

One of the most practical actions a team can take to complement a land acknowledgement is engaging with the local Tribe(s). For Clark College, this is a State of Washington requirement per the Governor’s Executive Order 21-02, and the college was passionate about ensuring the engagement was genuine and had a meaningful impact on the design. Other projects might choose to include Tribal engagement voluntarily as a means to understand the historical and environmental forces influencing the site. Tribal engagement should not be saved only for situations when cultural resources are discovered on site.

Drummers from the Cowlitz Tribe at the Boschma Farms groundbreaking ceremony.


How is Tribal engagement different than other community engagement?

There are a few key things to understand when planning Tribal engagement. First, it is important to recognize their status as sovereign nations, and that belonging to a federally recognized Tribe is defined by citizenship rather than being an ethnic category. Second, engaging with any Indigenous person is not the same as engaging with an Indigenous person from a specific, local Tribe because traditional knowledge is place based. Some Indigenous experiences are shared, but cultural practices and relationships with their traditional land vary from Tribe to Tribe, so it is important to consider which Tribes are local to the site.

For the AMC, we reached out the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and spoke with an elder, Tanna Engdahl, about three main topics: stewardship of the land, roadblocks to Indigenous students, and storytelling through the project. We received additional input from Lynn Palmanteer-Holder, a member of the Colville Tribe and Tribal Relations Director for the Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges. Palmanteer-Holder spoke broadly to the barriers Indigenous students face in pursuing higher education, such as generational trauma from Indian Boarding Schools and culture shock for students who come from rural reservations with tight-knit communities. She deferred to Engdahl as the local Tribal representative on stewardship, acknowledging that the Cowlitz and their ancestors have been in a relationship with this specific land since time immemorial. In the face of climate change, this deep understanding of the land is critical to how we approach environmental sustainability. Finally, both shared ideas for storytelling through the project to educate all people who visit about the broader site context.


How much time does it take to integrate meaningful engagement into a project?

Engagement does add some time to the project schedule. However, sequence is more important than quantity: It is critical to get the ball rolling early so there is time for meaningful engagement. Ideally, the first round of engagement happens very early in design, or even before design, while the team is establishing project goals. If engagement happens too late in the process, feedback can’t be genuinely integrated to benefit the design. Also, if participants perceive that the design is already fully baked during the engagement session, it can create negative feelings toward the project.

One of the ways we worked in engagement with a tight timeline for Clark AMC was to leverage existing groups and relationships. We engaged with the college’s Social Equity Advisory Committee, which comprises community members who represent a diverse demographic. In doing so, we discovered the additional benefit of comradery within an existing group like this, which meant that participants were much quicker to contribute openly. Another strategy to streamline engagement is to use digital tools, like Mentimeter or Mural, that provide a platform to hear more voices at once and simultaneously create a record for the project team to reference throughout design.

A word cloud shows the AMC project themes important to Clark College’s Social Equity Advisory Committee.