What you learn from a first grader about public engagement

This is a selection from the book, Crowdsourcing Wisdom: A Guide to Doing Public Engagement that Actually Makes Your Community Better (and won’t make people wish they hadn’t come.  Last week I posted a selection from the first chapter, which highlighted all the ways that our conventional public engagement methods often intimidate, frighten and basically push most people away from participating.  

This section comes from Chapter 3, and it follows a description of a first grade classroom that drove home to me how important structure, predictability and being set up to succeed are for people large and small.  This section outlines some of what we can learn about how people want to participate.

You can read more selections and get the book for print, Kindle, Ebook or PDF at   Please note that the PDF link isn’t set up to work outside of the US yet – I discovered that recently and am working on fixing it.  In the meantime, if you want a PDF copy and you’re someplace other than the US, please send me a note at  


We’re going to unpack what we might learn about how to do effective public engagement from how good teachers work in future chapters, but for a moment, think about what the first graders learned from this classroom, beyond the reading and writing and math and all:

  • I know what I need to do to be successful.
  • I know what’s going to happen next.
  • I know how to do the work that’s in front of me
  • I know that this activity (which I might or might not like) isn’t going to last forever
  • I know that I’ll get to do something different soon
  • I know that I can do it right.

First graders have a whole lot more faith in their teachers than most adults have in their local government.  And what we ask of adults can (and should) be a whole lot more challenging than what we ask of first graders.

But that first grade classroom shows us a few fundamental things about what people, big or small, want out of group experiences – especially when they take the time to participate in a group activity that is supposed to result in something beneficial:

  • Ground rules and fairness
  • A predictable pattern of events
  • The ability to put their skills and their brains to good use,
  • A situation that is set up to enable them to succeed.

In my talks, I have sometimes referred to what Mrs. Brenner did as channeling  — guiding a powerful force so that it flows in the direction where it can make the most positive impact.  Think about a river: if it bursts its banks, the river water flow uncontrolled into places where it wasn’t supposed to be – fields, cities, houses.  The flowing water has power, but that power is wasted, in a sense.  If the river flows within its channel, it can drive a water wheel or a turbine, grind grain, make clean power.

My premise to you: if we want to meaningfully engage the power and potential of our people, we need to give them a channel.  We need to enable, empower them to do much more than spout ill-informed NIMBYisms or buy into knee-jerk cause-effect assumptions.  We need to

  • Draw on the unique knowledge, perspective and expertise of everyone we can get,
  • Get them reasonably up-to-speed on the issues, and
  • Engage them – get their hands deeply into – the search for solutions… solutions that are realistic and address the complexities and ambiguities of real community life.

Large companies put massive amounts of e


Kids participating in a focus group as part of a plan for their neighborhood in Huntsville, Alabama in the early 2000s. Yes, they’re not first graders.

ffort into broadening their employee base to include the widest range of people possible and then creating team environments to work on solving complex challenges.  They have learned that working groups of people who come from different backgrounds, different perspectives, can find more original solutions to complex problems through the interplay of their perspectives, provided that they are doing so within a structure that gives them that power.

If they’re finding it necessary to use diverse team problem-solving to deal with issues like getting shampoo into a bottle, how much more do we desperately need real, deep, broad participation to deal with the massive complexities that make up a community?

We often shy away from that, because we don’t trust the public.  We’re afraid they’ll say something crazy, they’ll have different ideas, that they won’t Get It.  But chances are, there’s something we’re not Getting, either.  The crucial, and too often missing piece, is that we have to create a structure in which constructive collaboration between us and them can happen.

But if first graders can do that, chances are the adults in your community can do it as well.  We just need to channel them into success.


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