Aug 16, 2011
Let’s do the numbers: One Tribal Nation. Two active, engaged communities of workers, artists and activists. Three major manufacturers and countless smaller businesses. Five languages. Six government agencies. Seven miles of contaminated river bed. And eleven options for cleanup of Seattle’s Lower Duwamish waterway.
In this complicated situation with a multitude of languages, perspectives, technical challenges and cultures, how can all be engaged in decision making?
Those affected by the contamination – and by the cleanup – have the right to offer their thoughts, insights and ideas to those who will ultimately decide what will happen. But to be forceful and effective in providing input, people need information. Much of the information about the Lower Duwamish waterway is extraordinarily complex. The models are opaque; the clear answers few.
The scientists and engineers working on the Lower Duwamish cleanup want to be effective, thorough and gracious in their explanations of their work. They want to communicate in a way that allows real exchange and full discussion. All of us know this is very hard to do, despite the best of intentions.
Now throw language into the mix. The scientists and engineers working on solutions are, in many cases, already a decade into their work on the project. They speak their own particular technical dialect with ease. A broad range of languages are spoken in the communities affected by the contamination and the cleanup. And, like most of us, the community members largely don’t speak technical jargon at all.
Here at RESOLVE, we’ve come up with the notion of Serious Play. Pint-size building materials (think Legos®, Tinker-toys®, K’nex® and PlayDough®) are often the most beloved toys from the childhood days of technical professionals. With the advice and encouragement of local residents, we asked our dedicated scientists and engineers to use ‘play things’ to go about the serious business of describing clean up options. The technical professionals were immediately enthusiastic and ready to go with this new approach. Through Serious Play, our engineers and scientists simply, elegantly and accurately explained their thinking and perspectives. With toys as the intermediary, there was a familiarity – and even a bit of whimsy – that emboldened community members. Residents asked questions, probed, challenged and taught their scientist colleagues things they, as locals, knew about the beautiful Duwamish River, its legacy and its future.
Click here to see more pictures of Serious Play from the 2011 EPA Community Involvement Training Conference on RESOLVE’s Flickr account. A video of the demonstration itself will be available shortly.
Let’s do the numbers again: One small – but significant – step toward respect, engagement and understanding among people of different languages, occupations, perspectives and cultures.
- Martha Bean with Maya Breitburg-Smith and Eric Roberts.