Peng Her, associate director, Center for Resilient Cities, at Badger Rock in Madison. Her facilitated one of the Imagine Madison resident panels. 

Every 10 years, the city of Madison updates its comprehensive plan, asking residents to help shape the future of their neighborhoods and the city at large. When the plan was updated in 2006, the Ho-Chunk Nation wasn’t a part of that conversation.

The city is again updating its plan, and things are different this time, said Missy Tracy, municipal relations coordinator at Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison.

“The relationship has definitely done a 180,” she said. “I can’t say enough about how happy we are with the strides that the city is making to the Ho-Chunk people and wanting to hear from us.”

The city launched the Imagine Madison public listening campaign to gather public input, and that campaign includes an effort to reach out to Madison’s underrepresented communities. It funded 12 resident panels of the city’s African-American, Hmong, Ho-Chunk Nation, transgender, Latinx, elderly, youth, homeless and formerly incarcerated populations.

The panels were city-funded but organized and facilitated by community organizations. The facilitators, who include nonprofit and community leaders, appreciated the intent and were generally impressed with the city’s attitude and responsiveness.

“I give a lot of credit to the city for thinking outside the box on this,” said Linda Ketcham, executive director of Madison-area Urban Ministry. MUM helped organize one panel for the homeless and one for the formerly incarcerated.

Imagine Madison hosted three phases of public feedback, and garnered over 14,400 responses. That included 371 open house participants, 10,247 unique website participants, 1,624 interactions at planning pop-ins, and 803 social media followers.

The variety of input methods was borne out of the realization that only a “certain part of the population will attend a committee meeting,” said Brian Grady, a principal planner for the city of Madison.

Rather than hoping that diverse demographics would show up at city meetings, Grady said, they decided to proactively create panels.

The city created a Request For Proposal process asking community organizations to apply for funding to host resident panels of a target population. The process was “somewhat of an experiment,” Grady said.

“We know we really need to improve in this realm,” Grady said. “We had to do something different than we had in the past.”

There are many reasons that Madison's underrepresented populations can’t or don’t show up at committee meetings, facilitators said.

Commonly listed barriers include lack of transportation, an inability to attend evening meetings because of work schedules and a need for child care. Funding allowed the panel facilitators to provide child care, bus tickets or travel stipends.

“If there’s anything that makes it a bit challenging for your participant, then chances are they won’t participate,” Tracy said. “It becomes more of a hassle than a privilege.”

It’s often impossible for the homeless to attend a night meeting, Ketcham said, because if they want a chance of staying in a shelter that night, they have to be in line by 5 p.m. It may be difficult for formerly incarcerated individuals to attend public meetings because of parole or supervision restrictions.

The panels solved many of these logistical challenges. MUM held a panel for the homeless at First United Methodist Church downtown at 1 p.m. The Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness held meetings on the south side at the Urban League of Greater Madison, right off of the bus line and in a familiar community space, said Lisa Peyton-Caire, founder and president of the Foundation for Black Women’s Wellness.

Carla Garces, co-director of the Latino Academy of Workforce Development, helped facilitate a Spanish-language panel, and Peng Her, assistant director at the Center for Resilient Cities, facilitated a panel for residents who speak Hmong.

But more than logistical challenges, the most significant barrier is lack of trust, Her said. Hmong community members may be more likely to share in an open, small group setting, with a culturally competent facilitator speaking in their native language, he said. That’s especially true if they’re discussing the challenges of accessing city services.

“If I don’t know you, why would I come and share my experience that I was discriminated against?” Her said.

On the resident panels, the community usually knew the facilitators and had a relationship with them.

“Just being able to sit down with people who look like you and feel like you, you know that they’re willing to listen to you,” said Kyla Beard, a cage manager at Ho-Chunk Gaming who helped with the Ho-Chunk resident panel.

The comprehensive plan covers a diverse range of topics, including land use, transportation, neighborhoods, housing and the local economy, and the participants were eager to weigh in on all fronts, Peyton-Caire said.

Ketcham was struck with the realization that the men and women there “probably know this city better than most of us because they see it at its best and see it at its worst,” she said. They’ve experienced community activities and events alongside its poverty and racism.

“They really had a sense of who we are as a city and were willing to articulate ‘Madison does this really well’ or ‘We are really bad at this,’” she said.

Some groups brought a historical perspective to the panels. The Madison area is the Ho-Chunk Nation's ancestral home, a history not often included in Madison, which usually prioritizes references to people like John Nolen and Frank Lloyd Wright, Tracy said.

Sometimes, the panels suggested “simple little changes” that could improve life for their communities, Her said. When members of Madison’s Hmong community go to the park, they may host a gathering of 30 or 40 people, he said, which is complicated by the fact that many parks have isolated picnic tables or grills.

Something as simple as putting grills or tables closer together would make the community more willing to use Madison parks, he said.

One measure of the city’s success is the demographics of the Imagine Madison respondents. The city’s data shows that the race of participants lines up with the overall demographics of Madison.

While some pointed to small opportunities to improve, the facilitators interviewed for this story were pleased overall.

“It was a great process and I think it should be the model for so many more processes that require public input and engagement,” Peyton-Caire said.

The opportunity for feedback doesn’t end here, Grady said. The city will provide copies of the comprehensive plan draft, slated to be finished in April, to the resident panels for feedback. As the draft plan goes through the city approval process, the community is encouraged to attend public meetings and offer comments, he said.