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Engaging the Seldom-Heard

A think-piece about our approach to engaging seldom-heard groups

Our social planning practice (and MODUS overall) emphasizes diversity in engagement efforts so that “seldom-heard” groups and persons with diverse lived experience help shape the future of their communities. This article explores how MODUS thinks about and reaches the “seldom-heard” in our projects and processes, and describes how our clients can benefit from reaching more diverse audiences.


Words have power, and awareness of language is key to good diversity and inclusion work. We believe that no group is actually “hard-to-reach” if you really want to engage them. We use the phrase “seldom-heard” to describe people who often experience barriers to public participation and engagement, and/or whose perspective and ideas are often under-represented in decision-making.

Seldom-heard people are often historically-marginalized groups (e.g. racial and ethnic minorities, Indigenous peoples, the LGBTQ2+ community), people experiencing homelessness, living with a disability, or addiction, or "silent majorities" (women, newcomers, the working poor, or young families), who, depending on the context, who face barriers to meaningful involvement in decision-making by and with government.

These groups are often referred to by planners and policymakers as “hard-to-reach”, which unfairly communicates that there is something about them that makes their engagement difficult. At MODUS, we say “seldom-heard” because we believe that the use of appropriate approaches, techniques and tools can and should ensure full participation for anyone.

“Lack of representation is compounded when we fail to reach beyond the ‘usual suspects’.

Many people from these groups contribute time, care and attention to the life, and soul and daily experience of their communities and public spaces. Sadly, their interests are less likely to be reflected in municipal decision-making, in part due to the typical composition of elected bodies and senior leadership in local government.

Lack of representation is further compounded when local government staff lack diversity and/or fail to use engagement practices that reach beyond the “usual suspects” (those who have the time and resources to fully participate in civic processes, and whose voices and interests are very often over-represented in decision-making).

A common consequence of narrow engagement is that the interests of only some people are protected or addressed in our planning and design processes and in important decisions, while the ideas, local knowledge, and experience of a swath of the community is not accessed or respected. At MODUS we think it is essential that local governments make a conscious choice to include more diverse people and groups to inform municipal decision-making for a more equitable future.

Examples of seldom heard populations include:

  • Families with young children (including lone-parent households)

  • Youth and young adults

  • Persons living in collective dwellings (hospitals, care facilities)

  • Seniors

  • LGBTQ2+

  • Women's groups

  • Low income households/ people living on income assistance

  • People who are homeless or at-risk of homelessness (under housed / residing in shelters / hostels)

  • People receiving mental health services

  • People living with addiction

  • People with disabilities

  • Newcomers to Canada

  • Non-English-speaking persons

  • First Nations, Métis, Inuit, Urban Indigenous

  • Rural residents / geographically remote

  • Faith-based communities

  • Shift workers

  • Small businesses (small / family run/ immigrant-owned)

  • Migrant or seasonal workers

WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS? The benefits of including a broader diversity of voices and perspectives through engaging seldom heard groups reaches far beyond just the moral imperative of doing good. Doing this consciously and effectively yields many real and tangible benefits for individuals and their communities, for community-based organizations and for all levels of government. The benefits of more inclusive engagement include:

  • Improved understanding, communication and interactions - building trust and strengthening relationships - between government and the people.

  • Consideration and integration of the vision and perspectives of diverse people and communities, bringing a broader network of knowledge and support to the table, and mobilizing a more comprehensive roster of community strengths and assets.

  • More informed, data-driven decisions are grounded in community voice and context, informed by lived experience, and more effectively address community needs.

  • A more comprehensive understanding of community priorities and needs, as well as possible unintended consequences of a decision. Inclusive engagement improves access to the wisdom of individuals and groups with lived experience and offers different perspectives, ideas and options.

  • Increased public support for a given project, program or policy mitigates and reduces associated political risk. Greater community-level buy in gives a sense of ownership to the public when they know their voice has been heard which contributes to the overall implementation, sustainability and success of an initiative.

  • Increased knowledge and capacity - for all of us - to participate in civic life - to be a better friend, neighbour, teacher and leader to and for one another. Inclusion strengthens connections and social cohesion in a given place, which in turn contributes to our sense of safety and belonging in the public realm, and ultimately to our overall well-being.

  • Greater equity. Inclusive engagement increases opportunity for everyone, in turn leading to a stronger local economy, safer more resilient neighbourhoods and sustainable equitable growth.

WHY DOES THIS MATTER? From our direct experience, and from the very best practices in sustainability planning and collaborative policymaking, we know that a diverse range of perspectives leads to better solutions, greater support for decisions, and more effective strategies that are rooted in the local context.

Our communities are diverse, the society we are part of is increasingly pluralistic, and the challenges are increasingly complex. In addition, our corporate values stress equity and inclusion as basic principles for having impact, and our communities are strengthened when more voices are heard.

“Cities across the country, large and small, are becoming increasingly diverse."

Cities in British Columbia, and throughout Canada, are becoming increasingly diverse as visible minority groups, immigrants and refugee communities comprise a larger share of the population. Many cities are also experiencing an overall aging of the population as baby boomers enter their retirement years. These demographic shifts, themselves a reflection of the impacts of globalization, conflict, migration, and climate change, are not happening in cities alone. Small and rural communities are also grappling with demographic changes and managing population growth and change.

DESPITE DEMOGRAPHIC CHANGE, SOCIO-ECONOMIC DISPARITIES PERSIST. Canada is a land of opportunity for many, and we are a nation internationally recognized for our multiculturalism and for welcoming diversity. Yet, inequality and socioeconomic disparities persist, including impacts from a legacy of colonialism, oppression, segregation and disenfranchisement experienced by many. In the face of change and social progress, real social, cultural and economic divides remain - and lie just beneath the surface.

“The equity movement has grown as historically marginalized groups and allies claim their “right to the city”.

These demographic shifts are paired with societal change, with historically marginalized groups rightly making claims for recognition, respect and representation in the democratic process. This shift has formed the basis for the emergence of an “equity movement”, characterized by greater attention, advocacy and effort to advance social justice, economic opportunity and reconciliation in Canada and abroad. As these historically marginalized groups form an ever-larger proportion of the population, they are increasingly recognized in North America as a grassroots base with growing political clout and contributions to make. Despite these changes, many such groups and people continue to face barriers to meaningful civic engagement and influence. Planners, engagement practitioners, activists and others must advocate for inclusion of more diverse voices in planning processes so they can contribute to building more equitable and inclusive communities.

OTHER WAYS OF KNOWING MAKE VALUABLE CONTRIBUTIONS TO PROBLEM SOLVING AND INNOVATION. In community development and city planning practices, many community members and civic leaders now stress the importance of recognizing, cultivating and integrating other ways of knowing (those that fall outside the traditional norms of institutional learning and technical professions). This is often times referred to as “indigenous” knowledge, meaning to identify the knowledge and expertise that comes from knowing the history and culture of a place.

This field also recognizes that individuals and groups contribute from their lived experience pertaining to a particular issue or place. Indigenous knowledge is often positioned as opposite “expert” knowledge, regardless of first-hand knowledge of a particular context. Yet this dichotomy assumes “indigenous” knowledge cannot hold expertise and perpetuates an insider / outsider divide. Integrating “other” ways of knowing means marrying both “content” and “context” expertise, regardless of who holds it, to form a more comprehensive understanding of and approach to an issue at hand.

“Inclusion-based dialogue is key to addressing complex issues."

Never before has it been so easy to champion inclusion. The world is more connected today than ever - innovations in technology have made it easier to connect with and learn from one another, sharing thoughts and ideas. Social norms are also changing and societies around the world are embracing greater freedom of expression. Demographic change, political and economic fluctuations and climate change present rapidly changing contexts and needs, particularly for urban populations. These complex and “wicked problems” require inclusion-based dialogue to address them, because dialogue requires and builds our ability to understand someone else’s experience and perspective. More and more, we are also recognizing and valuing the power of storytelling to facilitate transformative change.

WHAT WE’RE LEARNING Lowering barriers to full and meaningful participation for vulnerable and seldom-heard people improves decision making and yields more sustainable outcomes for communities. So, where to begin? An essential first step is the acknowledgement that this work won’t happen overnight:

“Creating meaningful impact and relationship building with historically marginalized communities requires the prioritization of agency over urgency."

It is also important to acknowledge that these processes won't necessarily be easy. Planning for robust and inclusive engagement will likely require more time and resources up front, as part of an investment in decision-making that yields better, more sustainable outcomes. This can be made easier by hiring those with both the experience and the tools to do this type of engagement and help your organization build capacity.

MODUS has created a detailed guide for this important work, including tactics to help our clients in reaching seldom-heard populations effectively and for mutual benefit.

  • Objectives: Be clear about what are you trying to achieve and why? What change are seeking?

  • Understanding: It’s important to understand both contemporary and historical contexts of a community and/or place. Ask what assumptions might have been made in the past? How has that impacted decision making in the past? What assumptions might you and your colleagues be making now?

  • Analysis: Build on demographic analysis to understand recent changes and trends in communities, understand past unintended or disparate impacts, and to identify seldom heard groups. Assess who should be in the room and at the table; who’s been missing from decision making in the past?

  • Planning: Build on existing relationships (leadership, alliances & advice) to expand your network and outreach; Design meaningful, inclusive engagement (with people with lived experience and/or who will be affected by a decision or policy); and develop an equitable approach (or set of options) to address the issue at hand (again, with those impacted or affected by the approach). Harness the power of diverse perspectives to inform more robust and comprehensive recommendations.

  • Implementation: Collaborate, Communicate & Roll out: Work with, rather than for, communities; in addition to existing networks, explore new or non-traditional community partnerships and collaborations that may more effectively deliver on your desired outcomes. Be transparent in decision making and communicate those decisions clearly and in a timely manner to stakeholders and community members.

  • Evaluate: Monitor & Report Back: Monitoring and evaluation is important for understanding what works. Evaluate your consultation and engagement process as well as progress of your projects, programs and initiatives toward desired outcomes. Set clear, measurable targets, where feasible, and identify data and indicators that are proven, relevant, and reliable to inform what you want to know.

  • Report back to those you engaged and communicate how their input informed decision making; check back with them to understand their perspectives on progress towards outcomes and what is and isn’t working as well as it could.

  • Integrate what you’re learning to better define the issue and refine intended outcomes over time. Follow the same set of steps to help you course correct as needed.


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