I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with a wonderful community engagement practitioner, Ben Neil. He has so many stories from his wealth of experience. Here is some of what we spoke about.
Max: Ben, give us a really brief description of your role at Capire and professional background?
Ben: I have been at Capire for almost four years and am an Associate and Sector Lead for Social Inclusion and Housing. The role allows me to work on projects that I find really rewarding and that are a perfect compliment to my skills and experience.
My professional background is very varied. I’ve held senior roles in Government, the not-for-profit and charity sectors and now the for-profit sector. I was previously CEO of Cultivating Community who are a not-for-profit specialising in urban agriculture services through supporting community gardens and food security projects. This gave me a deep insight into the everyday lives of people who live on the public housing estates of Melbourne.
While at Mission Australia I was Social Enterprise Manager for Victoria. This was a really rewarding role as I looked after Charcoal Lane, a restaurant specialising in using native ingredients whilst providing training and employment opportunities to young Aboriginal men and women. I also ran a smash repair shop that aimed to reduce recidivism by working with young people involved in vehicle related crime, then supporting them to obtain apprenticeships in the industry. Both projects provided high levels of wrap around support to maximise the chances of success for the participants.
In Government I managed a large housing office on an estate that was going through a renewal process. Managing a site with large scale construction and 1,650 tenancies certainly honed my skills at dealing with complex conflict situations and outrage.
Max: As a consultant at Capire, what kind of work gives you the most
Ben: There are many elements of my role at Capire that give me a very deep sense of personal and professional satisfaction.
From the perspective of working with clients I really enjoy advising and supporting in a collaborative manner. Working closely to solve complex and challenging issues really excites me, especially when the outcomes have a positive impact on the community. It is especially rewarding when our engagement has a positive impact on the participants. Whether that’s increasing their capacity to engage in the process, gaining knowledge on a particular topic or growing their confidence levels and willingness to participate in democratic decision making in the future.
Max: Do you have a story, or example, you can tell us about, that illustrates this?
Ben: One of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had at Capire was a project in a large inner-city estate in Melbourne. It was a significant project which included six weeks of engagement that gave us multiple opportunities to work with the community. We worked closely with the local community centre who were running a course for people to become interpreters. A couple of the students were tenants and keen for some work experience prior to completing the course and becoming NAATI accredited. We invited them to help out at a few pop-ups and an informal community meeting. One in particular was incredibly impressive managing to hold a conversation in three different languages at the same time! She was genuinely interested in what we were doing and actively reached out to members of her community to encourage them to participate. It was amazing to see her confidence grow and I was touched to receive a letter of thanks a few months later. This person now works as a professional interpreter and was incredibly thankful for the opportunity that we had given her as it helped grow her confidence in pursuing her career.
We stayed in touch and a few months later I was running one of our Learning Labs on the benefits of taking a social inclusion approach to engagement. I asked her to come along and share her experience. It was very inspiring to have been part of her journey from student to effectively teaching 25 engagement professionals about how best to work with interpreters.
In many ways our involvement was small but I love it when we can think outside of the square with our approaches and passionately believe this benefits the engagement process, the individuals involved and leads to better outcomes.
Max: Wow. What a great story. So, tell me, what do you believe you bring to the engagement profession or practice?
Ben: I’d like to think there are many things I bring to the engagement profession but the key one is to try and embed social inclusion into all my projects no matter how big or small. I feel very privileged to have had many roles in my career that have let me elevate the voices and opinions of our most disadvantaged. We need to make sure engagement is accessible and all people are genuinely supported to participate.
Max: I know you pay lots of attention to the experience of people in being engaged. How do you believe this attention can transform the outcomes of engagement processes?
Ben: I honestly believe, as an engagement practitioner, we really need to think about the impact of our work both relating to the project and the legacy that it leaves. I think a key deliverable for all engagement practitioners is to make sure we build people’s capacity through positive participation so it encourages them to participate in the future.
Having a community wanting to participate in civic decision-making leads to better outcomes for all of us. It is easy to underestimate how positive engagement experiences can impact other aspects of people’s lives.
Max: What advice would you give to organisations that want to take their engagement to the next level?
Ben: This is a tricky question as it depends very much on where the organisation is in its engagement journey. Things like core principles about how they or their consultants develop and deliver engagement strategies are incredibly valuable. This can really help communities who are asked to participate regularly and prevent the same mistakes being made over and over again.
I guess my two most practical pieces of advice are be open to opportunities to build the capacity of participants and to draw on their strengths, and most importantly, if you’re not going to take notice of what people say, then don’t bother asking them the question!
Max: Well, there it is. Engagement that makes a difference – and not just by improving decisions. Thanks Ben!