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Insights: how to handle public perception

August 27, 2014
Stephanie Harrington
Michael Young

Not in my backyard. That’s a familiar headline in the media when a new development is perceived to impinge on the lives of its neighbours. Michael Young, co-head of the Bachelor of Arts in Justice Studies at Royal Roads, is familiar with the NIMBY sentiment. He published a paper in Local Environment: The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability on community opposition to the development of Woodwynn Farms Therapeutic Community, a therapeutic community for homeless people with addictions in Greater Victoria.

And as a young researcher, he studied the impact of correctional centres on nearby communities. What he found: increased traffic was minimal, crime rates remain unchanged and house prices were unaffected. For those considering starting their own social justice venture, Young offers advice and insight from lessons learned about NIMBY opposition.

Expect a backlash

The backlash will happen as soon as you announce your project. The first thing you need to be very clear of is who your clientele is going to be. You need to be bluntly honest in the community about what you intend to do and you need to be very aware of what the possible negative consequences are and be able to speak to them.

Be prepared

In the case of Woodwynn Farms, the stereotypes of what the typical homeless person is like are negative and skewed. But the average homeless person or someone living with mental health issues could be your brother or sister or neighbour. Having your facts straight is important: who you’re going to be serving, what their needs are, what the potential risks are, how to mitigate those risks, and what kind of relationship you intend to have with other organizations in the community. Part of that fact-finding mission at the beginning is being able to forecast economic impact and costs. The big thing is to have other agencies on board, whether it’s a hospital or police or fire department. You really have to do the legwork beforehand.

Get support

If possible, have the political strength behind you. You definitely need allies, networks and connections. It’s a larger piece of legwork at the beginning. You would be naïve to think, “we’re doing a good thing here and people will get on board.” There are certain times where NIMBY attitudes are justified, but in other cases it is, as the definition goes, a selfish disregard for others. Have a community forum, for example, but be aware there is probably a silent group in the background and they may not be in favour of what you’re doing. Public relations is an ongoing exercise. It can be dealt with by having a community advisory board or council involved, or having people from the community involved in decision-making or at least as observers so they know what’s happening and why. It also helps to have a public relations person who can handle questions and respond to concerns with evidence in support of your project.

Be persistent

If you face opposition, don’t give up. Tenacity is the order of the day. That’s about having your facts straight. It’s easier to have thicker skin when you know what you’re doing and you’re not just perceived as a naïve bleeding heart liberal. Part of tenacity is being able to showcase the positive, tangible benefits, such as community growth, community stability and possible positive economic impact. It’s all about being able to showcase what the immediate and long-term benefits are. But in the end, you need to be realistic about what struggles there might be.