Saturday, July 23, 2011

Listening to the residents of North Williams Avenue

Yesterday I posted about cycle chic, and I said I would post a response to Elly Blue's tweets about the "tangling" of cycle chic with gentrification and racism. And I will, really! But before that, I wanted to share a thought that I had about the situation. This is entirely based on one blog entry on BikePortland and the comments on that entry, so if I'm missing out on other important information, please let me know.

I once attended a customer service training where we spent some time talking about irate customers. I got some good advice that has been borne out in my experience. Irate is sometimes used as a criticism, but in this case it was used in a purely descriptive sense. An irate person is someone who feels that they haven't been heard. I know from personal experience that it can be one of the most frustrating experiences to have something important to say, but to feel that nobody is listening, that nobody cares. It can fill some people with rage.

The lesson of this training was that when a customer is irate, the only thing you can do is listen. At that time the most important thing for them is to be heard. They don't want their technical problem fixed, they don't want a refund, they don't want an all-expenses-paid cruise to the Bahamas. If you try to solve their problem they'll just get angrier. Sometimes what they wanted to say doesn't have anything to do with the technical problem. It doesn't matter. Right then they just want to be heard and respected.

Once the customer has had a chance to tell their story - and you have to show that you've heard it and understood it in some way - the entire interaction changes. The urgency and hostility fade, and they relax. If they're not also confused, then you can start working on the problem itself. Sometimes they don't even have a problem anymore!

From the BikePortland post, it sounds like the Black residents of North Williams have a lot to say. Although they spoke calmly, they said very clearly that they needed to talk about the history of racial conflict before doing anything about reallocating street space. A white resident, Jack Olsen, who showed up to support the reallocation plan, was confused and frustrated by the focus on the past. He said, "I can begin to comprehend why that resentment is there; but if we delay this safety campaign and project for a year, and in that time another first grader is hit and killed, I'd feel that it was a huge failure on our part as a community."

I can very much relate to Olsen's frustration, but I want to reassure him and anyone else who feels impatient when something like this happens. It's pretty clear that the people at the meeting were acting in good faith. A listening phase like this rarely lasts a year. It has to happen for people like Michelle DePass and Donna Maxey to feel part of this project. The only alternative is to move the project along without their say, which will just increase their frustration and resentment. That choice seems pretty clear to me.

My suggestion to anyone who feels impatient about this is to listen harder. Jonathan Maus sets a good example by quoting people in their own words, then paraphrasing them to show his understanding. Once people feel that their story is heard, they stop being irate. Then everyone can work together (or not) to solve the problem.

Jack Olsen observed that there doesn't seem to have been any substantive objection to the actual plan. As with some of the technical problems I've worked on, it may turn out that there's no real disagreement about the street allocation plan itself. If that's the case, once the listening is done, the street could be ready for restriping!

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