What’s the ticket to a successful community meeting? Make it personal.

Virginia Beach partnership engages residents and community leaders in discussion of flood risk

Most community science projects are driven and sustained by a handful of dedicated individuals. But to make a real and lasting impact, the engagement can’t end there. In most cases, the small group at the heart of a project must find a way to engage a broader group of stakeholders—area residents, local officials or businesses, for example.

Building a productive partnership with one or two other people takes one set of skills and structures, while effectively engaging broader groups requires another. What’s the magic sauce that helps groups of people with different backgrounds and motivations connect meaningfully around a shared issue?

To find out, we deconstructed a remarkable community meeting held this spring as part of a TEX project focused on preventing and mitigating flooding in Virginia Beach, Va.

The project, designed in partnership with Virginia Beach community leaders and Flood Forum, USA, aims to connect local grassroots organizations with hydrology expertise to better understand flood risk around the Thalia Creek watershed and inform productive interaction with local decision makers.

The project’s community lead is Virginia Wasserberg, leader of Stop the Flooding NOW, a local organization focused on flooding prevention and mitigation. Bob Jennings, a retired City of Virginia Beach employee who chairs the Princess Anne Plaza Civic League Flooding Committee (of which Wasserberg is a member), is also an active community participant. The scientific lead is Michelle Covi, Assistant Professor of Practice in Ocean Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Old Dominion University.

On 8 April, project partners held a community meeting that attracted local residents—from children to retirees—totaling about 75 people. Attendees came to vent their frustrations, to get information, to hear and be heard. In short, they came to engage.

“Bob and myself have lived the nightmare of a flooded life,” said Wasserberg. “We have first-hand experience of what someone goes through when water enters their home and then the restoration process that follows. We know, all too well, the knot that forms in the pit of your stomach when it rains.

“It is this kind of personal experience that drives our passion and keeps us relatable to the public,” Wasserberg added. “This was our first community meeting, and it helped create an atmosphere for local residents and leadership to see us there in person and hear what we are doing.”

 

How did they get so many people to come to the meeting?

Wasserberg advertised through several locally-targeted online channels, such as online communities associated with local TV news and newspapers. She also held Facebook Live events daily leading up to the event, boosting the posts with paid ads. A volunteer with Stop the Flooding NOW created fliers and distributed them at local recreation centers, grocery stores, businesses and homes to further spread the word.

These outreach methods not only helped make sure a diverse array of people were aware that the meeting was happening but also gave prospective attendees a taste of what would be discussed.

 

What happened at the meeting?

Wasserberg and Covi worked together to craft the agenda and message. Wasserberg started the meeting by sharing her personal experience with flooding: In 2016, Hurricane Matthew and two tropical storms flooded her entire neighborhood, displacing her family for three months. She reflected on how that experience changed her, driving her to get involved in improving funding and education around flood risk.

Wasserberg, Covi and other locals then gave a series of informational talks that interspersed personal and relatable stories with scientific information and details about what cities can do to prevent floods from becoming disasters. They shared photos of flooded neighborhoods, used a cubic meter box to help attendees visualized water volume, presented information about sea level rise, described city solutions to curb or contain floods, and noted things residents can do, such as installing rain gardens and rain barrels, to help their own property absorb rather than deflect rain. They also presented analyses of flood risk under different development scenarios to illustrate how land use decisions impact risk.

Finally, they presented ways attendees could get involved to prepare for—and potentially help prevent—future disasters.

 

By what measure was it successful?

  • Community stakeholders actively engaged in the discussion. Although not everyone agreed with all of the information and opinions shared, attendees had a chance to better understand the issues and each others’ perspectives.
  • Decision makers attended, including elected officials at the city and state level and several candidates running for city council. Some followed up with the team afterward to express interest in continuing the conversation.
  • The following week, the Virginia Beach city council unanimously denied a proposal that would have involved turning flood prone agricultural land into a residential complex. The team believes their efforts helped lead to this decision.
  • Attendees expressed interest in touring rain gardens on the Old Dominion University campus. The team is now arranging these tours as part of their ongoing community engagement.

 

What were the keys to success?

  • Good event planning and a strong, multifaceted effort to recruit attendees.
  • Using Wasserberg and Jennings’ personal experiences with flooding as a starting place for the discussion. This approach helped to build trust with attendees because they were able to identify with the stories.
  • Having Wasserberg (a community member) rather than Covi (an academic) lead the meeting and present much of the information. Covi helped shape the presentations and worked closely with Wasserberg to zero in on the best language to use to accurately convey the issues, but having Wasserberg actually deliver the information was likely more powerful, the team believes, because Wasserberg could speak from her own experience and speak more freely than academics or agency officials might.
  • Displaying a collection of photographs and videos Jennings had gathered added visual impact and helped attendees visualize what different water levels look like on the ground.

Have you had a successful meeting? Or one that was not as you’d hoped? Perhaps others could learn from your experience. Drop us a line at tex@agu.org if you’d like to share your story.

Sarah Wilkins editor