Community workshop meetings in Olinda

The Horto d'el Rey
The Horto d’el Rey

Work is proceeding on setting up the first of what will hopefully be a series of community workshop meetings in Olinda that will address what should become of the Horto d’El Rey. I’ve written about this garden previously, as well as what I hope my research will accomplish and how the overall community engagement and meeting facilitation process will work.

For my research, I have recruited a group of motivated architecture students from the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE). These students will be helping me with stakeholder identification, setting up these community workshop meetings, inviting people to the meetings, facilitating the meetings, and finally, with collecting data from the participants and using it to help me write the final report on the project. So far, I’ve been very impressed with the UFPE students as they are taking the initiative on the tasks required to conduct this study and are making important contributions to help increase the effectiveness of our work. All of these students will receive full credit for their contributions in the final report.

Currently, we are working toward scheduling our first community workshop meeting for Thursday, October 8 from 19:00 to 22:00, but still need to decide on a venue.

Stakeholders — civil and conventional experts

For the purposes of the study, stakeholders will be geographically limited to the neighborhoods surrounding the garden: Carmo, Amaro Branco, Bon Sucesso, and Amparo. (Geographically, the garden is most associated with the area called the Alto da Sé in Olinda.) The Carmo neighborhood is immediately to the south of the garden and is associated with the historical center of Olinda, Pernamuco (Brazil), which is a World Heritage site. (The garden is part of the buffer zone required by UNESCO to protect the viewshed of the town.) We had considered expanding beyond this boundary, but it became logistically difficult to do the necessary community outreach to engage the whole of Olinda and especially the whole Recife metropolitan area. The neighborhoods immediately around the garden are the ones that will be impacted the most by changes to the Horto d’El Rey, so this choice can be reasonably defended, given the available resources.

The residents of these neighborhoods will be in the stakeholder category of a “civil expert”, which is defined as local community members who are knowledgeable about their own heritage and its characteristics. Meanings held by civil experts can consist of intangible heritage and folklore and do not have to conform to conventional ideas of scientific truth, facts, or methods or be congruent with the values held by professionals who work in the built environment. The goal is to understand the values of these community members on their own terms without prejudicing them in a Western, positivistic, Cartesian mindset.

We will also invite the participation of “conventional experts” who are defined as people who are professionally trained and educated built heritage practitioners, planners, and environmental conservators. The meanings used by conventional experts are therefore objective and based on scientific facts and methods.

My students are helping to identify community leaders in these neighborhoods as well as conventional experts. These leaders will help us to determine meeting locations and days/times and also to spread the word about the meetings. The private owners of the Horto d’El Rey property, who have given us permission to proceed with this study, will also be invited to participate.

In the community workshops, the student facilitators will emphasize that knowledge from either civic or conventional experts is not necessarily “better” because of its origins; rather, the participants will come to a consensus about whether a civic or conventional meaning if more important, depending on the context under consideration. As part of the workshop rules, no one is allowed to make arguments from authority; each claim/meaning will therefore be assessed on its own merits by the participants.

Meeting process

Horto d'El Rey community workshop meeting process.
Horto d’El Rey community workshop meeting process.

My original thought was to bring all of the civic and conventional experts together in one meeting to start the workshop process. As it turns out, this probably was not the best way to begin the study, but I have been careful to listen to my Brazilian students and the community leaders for recommendations. I am keenly aware that because I am not Brazilian, I will bring my own biases and meanings to this process, which is why trying to understand the local and regional culture is very important. This is an example of where an assumption that I made was not accurate because of a unique Brazilian context.

Brazil has significant social challenges due to income inequality, which leads to stratified socioeconomic classes. While this is evident in many places in the United States, the differences appear to be more salient in Brazil. This division is evident in Olinda where there is a clear socioeconomic divide between the Carmo neighborhood and the neighborhoods to the north of the Horto d’El Rey. In many ways, the gentrification process, which has been happening over the past 30 or so years in the Carmo neighborhood, is the same process that happens in revitalized historic areas across the world. In my work as a Main Street manager in the United States, for instance, gentrification was a significant issue in the community I was working with, and my board of directors and I had to consider the impacts of our efforts on lower socioeconomic classes in the community. One way we addressed the issue was to partner with non-profit organizations that served the needs of these individuals and to focus on economic incentives that paired historic preservation and low income housing tax credits — a kind of “win/win” approach that also included job creation.

After careful consideration, we made the decision that the best way to proceed with these meetings was to have two separate community workshop meetings to start the process: one that would be focused on the Carmo neighborhood and another meeting that would be focused on the Amparo, Bon Sucesso, and Amaro Branco neighborhoods. In each of these separate meetings, the facilitators will try and work with the community in achieving a consensus on the problems/issues with the garden and ways in which these issues can be addressed by the community. The participants will then be asked about the possibility of joining with the other neighborhoods, in a single meeting, in which the two different groups of civic experts will try to come to a consensus about the way all the neighborhoods should define problems associated with the garden and ways to address them. The community members are free to decide to not meet with other neighborhoods; in this case, they will continue to meet with their original neighborhood members, unless they decide otherwise. (This method is consistent with community-based participatory research in which the participants have control over the research process.)

In terms of the meetings, I have also made a decision to not involve the conventional experts in the first neighborhood meetings. The reason for this is similar to the choice to divide the neighborhoods into separate meetings: many civic experts associate conventional experts with power and authority; the presence of conventional experts in the first meetings may therefore overly bias the priorities and meanings expressed by the civic experts. Once the meanings/priorities/concerns/potential solutions of the civic expert are fully expressed, we will have the conventional experts join everyone in the third workshop meeting. In this way, I hope to identify power structures and work towards equalizing them.

Soliciting the interest of participants in the workshop meetings

In Brazil (or at least the Recife metropolitan area) one of the most common ways to let people know about a community meeting or to just simply convey an advertising message is via a mobile loudspeaker and a recording. This can take the form of a car, motorcycle, or bicycle with a loudspeaker. I’ve heard about this form of advertising in many other parts of the world, so it’s not surprising to find it in Brazil as well. (In the United States, most of our cities and towns have noise ordinances that would make similar advertising illegal, but I would hazard a guess that many places in the United States wouldn’t actually prohibit this activity, but that it would be perceived as rather unusual.) We will be using this method for soliciting for community participation as well as distributing flyers, door-to-door, in the neighborhoods around the Horto d’El Rey.

My students are also in the process of contacting community leaders and heritage conservation experts to tell them about our work and to personally invite their participation. (Where these leaders and experts have consented, we will also send followup messages by phone and/or email.) Cell phone penetration is very high in Brazil among all socioeconomic classes.

Meeting location

The area around the Horto d’El Rey has many options for a meeting location — perhaps too many, as it’s been difficult to decide which location is best. The criteria are:

  • Easy walking distance from the neighborhoods immediately around the garden.
  • Should be an interior room able to accommodate about 30-40 people. (It can be very difficult to accurately predict how many people will attend, but based on my experience, this is about as much as you can expect for an initial meeting.)
  • Chairs for up to 40 people are available.
  • About 4 to 10 tables that can accommodate between 5 and 10 people each. (Circular tables are ideal to facilitate sharing and story-telling.)
  • Freedom to rearrange the meeting room, as necessary.
  • Clean bathrooms are nearby.
  • There is a space to set up a table for food (drinks and snacks).
  • The meeting room is clean, cool, and comfortable (air conditioning not necessary, but breezes/ventilation is important).
  • Reasonable cost for the use of the space.
  • Location should be neutral: no churches, city hall buildings, or locations associated with organizations that would take a position on what happens to the garden.

The last item — the perceived neutrality of the place — has been one of the largest issues. There are some wonderful church (Catholic) and convent meeting spaces in Olinda, but we are concerned that the religious meanings associated with the location may be uncomfortable for some people. For similar reasons, the City Hall of Olinda also has a great meeting space, but the city is on record with specific opinions for the Horto d’El Rey, which may also be uncomfortable for some people.

We’re still working on the final meeting location — stay tuned!

Time

As with any meeting in which you want to maximize attendance, it’s essential to understand people’s availability. For this reason, we’ve been contacting community leaders in the neighborhoods to get a better understanding of when people may want to meet. In the Carmo neighborhood, for instance, the consensus is for a weekday evening meeting because of the professionals that live in the neighborhood who prefer to have their weekends free for recreation. (This is pretty consistent with my experience in the United States, although I expect that there may be some differences in the neighborhoods to the north of the garden.)

Food!

Lastly, these workshop meetings need to have food and (non-alcoholic) drinks. While food and drink won’t necessarily guarantee community participation, the lack of these items will certainly reduce the number of people who will want to attend. Since we’re considering holding the first community workshop meeting on a weeknight, during people’s normal dinner hour, food should really be considered to be essential. One of my students is working on some recommendations for what kind of food we should consider. I think this last item as rather fun because I’m curious what kind of food pernambucanos think is good to have for a community meeting.

 

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