Tales from the Trenches with Rina Day

Tell us a bit about yourself.
In my practice I strive to be a creative and effective engagement practitioner, and have extensive experience working with the three tiers of government, non-profit organisations and the private sector in Australia.

I have taught at the University of Western Sydney, guest lecturer in Sydney and overseas, and delivered training for the Vocational Program at the University of NSW. In India, I was the Senior Lecturer in Textiles and Clothing with the Bombay University from 1984 to 1989, and since 1992 I have been guest lecturing at two well known universities in the State of Gujarat. I am also an experienced textile artist and curator.

My colleagues, and my husband (Peter), often say I am a ‘people person’ and have a flair for engaging people at different levels. I feel that this has been enhanced, by the IAP2 training I attended in 2008. It helped me to manage my engagement practice in a formal way.

Tell us a bit about your organisation
Environmental Art and Design (EA+D) has been creating Public Art for over 38 years. EA+D is an award winning small family business and we have been commissioned by all three tiers of government, universities and the private sector.
We have created over 200 projects on the eastern coast of Australia and overseas, including the United Nations and Department of Foreign Affairs.

The works include developing arts plans, cityscape analysis and creating site-specific public art in different forms – sculptures, murals, mosaics and ceramics. What makes us unique, and sets us apart from other organisations, is that all our projects include an element of community engagement.

Ten years prior to the founding of IAP2, our Artistic Director (Peter Day) was already laying down foundations for how crucial effective engagement is to the commissioning of community and public projects. Peter’s partly completed PhD thesis focuses on Community Participation and Public Art. Two well-known community engagement practitioners, Australian, Wendy Sarkissian, and Claire Cooper Marcus, from the University of California at Berkley, influenced Peter’s work in the 1980’s.

What does your role involve?
By building on, and enhancing the work previously done by EA+D, and using my expertise and IAP2 training, my role is to develop project specific, stakeholder engagement plans. I facilitate community meetings, supervise the consultation process and the distilling of data that will inform the project in accordance with contemporary expectations.
One important aspect of my work is identifying the key individuals and broad stakeholders in relation to the project. In addition, ensuring a wide range of stakeholders are informed and invited, which often takes time, lateral thinking and research. We see effective implementation of the engagement plan as a very important part of our practice, as they often lead to gathering crucial information.

What would be a typical day in your working life?
In this role my days can be varied, currently I also work in local government in the field of Integrated Planning and Reporting.

My work in the role of Stakeholder Engagement Specialist with EA+D, depends on the stage of a project. In the very early stages, I will be planning and developing the engagement strategy with the stakeholders.
The stakeholders are as diverse as the projects I work on, and can range from young people through to older community members, client stakeholder groups, advisory committees, or all of the above. Once the engagement process is designed and approved, I then coordinate and supervise the delivery. Finally, I assist in distilling and refining the gathered information.

Can you share some of the good and bad experiences you have encountered over your career and how they have helped you grow as an engagement professional and person?
One of the things I have learnt over the years is that there are still a lot of people that are uncomfortable with community engagement. There have been times when effective engagement has been undertaken but the results are not what the client expected or wanted. Unfortunately, as consultants, we have had to do what the client requested.

Through these experiences, I have grown in my practice, and acknowledge how important it is to encourage the client and allay their fears. I work with the client on commissioned projects to make sure they understand the importance of the engagement process, and recognise that the benefits far outweigh any risks. The benefits include the community having their say resulting in creating a sense of ownership and pride of their urban and natural environment.

Speaking of risk, thankfully engagement these days is not like it used to be in 80’s and early 90’s. According to Peter Day, EA+D – Artistic Director, there have been numerous incidents of being verbally abused and almost assaulted due to communities under duress, perceiving the engagement process as being threatening. In one particular incident a participant threatened our Artistic Director with a hammer. Yep, engagement has certainly changed over the years!

If you are working on a project at the moment would you like to share the journey to date?
a. What principles did you find most useful in carrying out this project?
b. Did you come across any surprises on this project?
When I think about these questions, a couple of projects come to mind. The first are the most recent public art projects commissioned by a Developer, ‘Fisheel Trap’ and ‘Eel Mosaic and Seating Ensemble’ within the Parramatta Local Government Area. With these projects, there was engagement with Parramatta City Council’s Aboriginal Advisory Committee and Gadigal Sub Committee. As a result of this process, the committee recommended to engage an Aboriginal artist to tell a specific story on eels for the eel mosaic design. They also recommended to employ an Aboriginal artist to assist with the mosaic, as part of Council’s traineeship program. This truly collaborative process supported the creation of two very much-loved works of public art around the Parramatta River, and gave a young artist the opportunity to develop their professional skills, knowledge and experience.

The second project was the creation of a sculptural mural in Hurstville Local Government Area, where the brief was to focus on young people. A broad cross-section of young people were engaged that included, students at bus stops, Council’s youth advisory committee, the young writers group and disengaged young people at risk, even the local young police were consulted. The process highlighted how important it is to involve all stakeholders, including the ones that may take us out of our comfort zone. It was so rewarding to break down barriers and push through the resistance with the young people at risk. Their voices were just as important and insightful as all the others in this project. The outcome was that feedback from all groups informed the project, including stories of acid spitting bunnies, and a stainless-steel laser cut component, the word ‘Respect’, as drawn by one of the young people. The public art is the telling of young people’s stories, experiences and expectations.
A range of examples are included in the slideshow that briefly specifies stakeholder group engaged, demonstrates engagement activities and the result ie Public Art.

What do you find is the most rewarding aspect of working in this field?
A good cup of tea, people love to chat over a good cuppa!!

What I also find truly rewarding is effective community engagement i.e a genuine meaningful process. It is one that not only builds trust but also adds value, assisting in an informed decision-making process and giving a voice to the community.
I believe, meaningful engagement is fundamental and an important research tool for projects that involve community and support community pride and well-being.

What do you see as the most challenging part of your role or working in engagement in general?
The most challenging thing about engagement practice is that the engagement process is often devalued and misunderstood by many clients and bureaucrats. This means that valuable time is taken up in convincing the clients of the importance of engagement and that it is a process to be embraced not feared.

What prompted you to enter engagement professionally?
I am committed to social justice principles and the Aussie notion of a ‘fair go’. I believe that everyone has a right to have a say in their community and environment, and community engagement gives that.
Effective engagement is all about capacity building, and giving the community an opportunity to have their say, and that’s important to me. By being an engagement practitioner I can also finally close the loop by ensuring the community are informed of the engagement outcomes.

I strongly believe in ensuring that the community is informed, involved and together celebrate the outcomes – a most exciting and rewarding aspect of the engagement practice, what more could you ask for in your job!

What are the three biggest professional or personal lessons that you have learnt from working on this field?
1. Time spent in planning and the appropriate allocation of funds is crucial to both influencing the client and the success of the engagement.
2. The importance of closing the loop – this ensures the community is valued, builds trust and finally validates that the message received from the community is understood, considered and projected in the public art design.
3. Never predict where vital information will come from, it can often be from unexpected places and people.

What advice would you give newbies entering engagement?
I believe, engagement practice requires resilience, tenacity, flexibility, and a pragmatic sense of humour to do the job and do it well.
When entering engagement practice, as a new practitioner, you have to be prepared to hang in there, and if not, change your profession or seek a good mentor and/or training.
I love what I do, however there are times when it is quite frustrating because sometimes the advice and recommendations given to client are not taken on board, and as a consultant we just have to accept it! And that is why you can’t take it personally.