This week, we wanted to introduce you to Kristen Veit, our director of community engagement strategy. She joined coUrbanize in March 2020 – just a few days before the world shut down – and recently moved into a role focused on helping our customers improve how they’re engaging with the community.

What made you want to work at coUrbanize?

Although the tech sector is exciting and oriented around solving big problems, much of that work is not concerned with making the world a better place — even when tech has the potential to improve so many aspects of our lives and respond to so many problems facing our communities.

I was excited to join a startup with a social mission, but I needed to believe that the work would genuinely make a positive impact. The mission at coUrbanize really resonated with me, because as a regular attendee of community meetings in my East Boston neighborhood, I understood the problem coUrbanize is trying to solve. When it comes to the big decisions that affect communities, community voices are rarely or selectively heard. The community engagement process often screens out those who would be most affected, those who have been cut out of the process in the past, those who are trickiest to reach, and those who put their neighbors and community first.

I was excited to find a mission-driven company that aligned with something I cared about deeply. The fact that it’s female-founded and women-led was the icing on the cake!

Tell us a little bit about what you were doing before coUrbanize.

Before coUrbanize, I spent several years in Latin America as a Peace Corps volunteer and later working for an NGO. In the Peace Corps, I served as a Community Economic Development volunteer in the Dominican Republic, supporting various community enterprises, including a women-run chocolate factory.

I gained experience in fieldwork by conducting a thorough community and organizational diagnostic and developing a strategic work plan that considered the needs and resources of the community where I lived. As part of this work plan, I designed, taught, and evaluated two financial literacy programs. The first, developed for Dominican youth, taught participants how to create a business plan and invited them to compete in a national entrepreneurship competition to finance that plan. The second, developed for amas de casa, or Dominican women heads of household, taught personal and household financial literacy.

Peace Corps was a transformative time for me, and I’m grateful for the close friends I made and for being welcomed into the community where I lived. Along the way, I helped the women-run chocolate factory manage a large government loan, coached a high schooler to the final round of that national entrepreneurship competition (twice!), and guided cooperatives to reach their savings goals. The Peace Corps gave me invaluable experience working with diverse populations and communicating with people from different cultures and all walks of life.

How did your time in the Peace Corps shape your career path?

My experiences in the Peace Corps inspired my passion for community-driven work.

At the same time, through the Peace Corps, I learned how challenging it is to really understand and engage with a community, and how disrespectful it is when that engagement is hollow. I think every Peace Corps volunteer struggles with this at some point: How do I assimilate into this community? What is my role and purpose? Was I naive for trying this in the first place? Every community is made up of individual people with their own wants, needs, beliefs, and perspectives. They’re passionate, often polarized, and all valid. In order to do our work effectively as community volunteers, we strive to engage and sympathize with as many people as we can. No community has a single voice, but the more voices we listen to, the better we hear the harmonies, and the greater our own contribution will be.

I lived in the Dominican Republic for nearly three years, and I’m no expert. I’ve lived in East Boston for another three, and I’m still getting to know the rhythm of this place. It is hard to understand a community. People working with communities — from planners to developers to consultants need to know and appreciate that. Most of what I do at coUrbanize is embedding respect and humility into our operations.

What excites you most about your new role?

A major part of this role is helping to organize individuals for collective action and making sure that all voices in each community are heard and included in decision-making. I’m excited to work with our team to improve our practices for consistent and responsible community engagement. It will be an ongoing effort to ensure that community engagement efforts through coUrbanize meet the highest standards for both language access, cultural relevance, and accessibility. Connecting with communities is the bread and butter of what we do — I’m excited to help coUrbanize set a new standard for community engagement.

What do you wish development and planning teams would do differently in terms of community outreach?

It can often feel like development and planning teams would rather skip or rush through the community engagement process out of fear of what they might have to confront. But with robust community engagement efforts, teams see better outcomes.

For example, ARX Urban used coUrbanize to engage residents of a Boston neighborhood in plans to convert a single-story retail building into a multi-story, mixed-use development with affordable housing. Local residents expressed concerns about density and parking. In response to this feedback, the project team reduced the height of the proposed building and set it farther back from a nearby school, provided off-site parking and a monthly stipend to existing retail tenants for use on public transportation, bike-share, or car-share programs, and then added parking space for electric car-share and green space.

We always tell teams that they’ll get better results if they engage with the community at the earliest stages of a project. There are things the community members know that project teams can’t — and a robust community engagement undertaking can help bridge that gap and inform project decisions.

What are some of your top tips for making community engagement more inclusive and ultimately more successful?

Start early. Communicating with community stakeholders early (and often) will ensure the project’s vision is understood and that the project team has time to incorporate the community’s perspective.

Be transparent. Even if community members don’t ultimately agree with the final decision, they’ll have the benefit of understanding the process, the history of the decision-making process, and why certain trade-offs were made.

Make it more accessible! This process works best when all are able to engage, so meet community members where they’re at. Make sure they can participate in their native language, in the ways that are most comfortable to them, at convenient times and places, and by removing barriers to participation such as childcare and transportation.

Use as many formats as you need to hear from everyone. Providing community members with the option to engage remotely makes it more accessible for people with disabilities, those without reliable access to transportation, those with caretaking responsibilities, and those with work or education-related responsibilities during traditional meeting times. However, online engagement can’t fully substitute for other forms, since access to the internet remains inconsistent and inequitable.

Leverage Whatsapp, text messages, phone calls, voicemails, or suggestion boxes as alternative means for submitting comments and ideas. Create on-the-ground community relationships by visiting community centers, houses of worship, social centers, and nonprofit organizations. Visit parks or attend other community events like farmer’s markets.

Incorporate feedback into your projects. Listening to community members and incorporating their feedback is a win-win: you’ll build a better project and enjoy community support.

What are some of the new projects that you’re looking forward to doing in your new role?

We recently rolled out our Language Equity Plan which sets standards for translation for all projects coUrbanize. If at least 5% of residents in a project area speak the same non-English language at home, the platform and all project-related printed materials will be translated into that language. We use Census data to determine these thresholds for projects based in the U.S. and are currently working on the methodology for a comparable program for our projects based in Canada. I hope these types of initiatives will encourage others involved in community engagement to improve language accessibility.

More broadly, I’m excited to work with our team and our customers to roll out community-specific engagement strategies at the individual project level. I hope this will help developers and planners see the benefits of thoughtful community engagement and give people a louder voice in what’s happening in their community.