Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 24  |  Friday, May 18, 2001  |  Number 8
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

Talk of the Lab

by Judy Jackson

Our Neighbors, Our Future

Fermilab has an active program of outreach to neighboring communities. A recent meeting in my own neighborhood provided a salutary taste of how it might feel to be on the other end of community outreach.

My neighbors and I share our neighborhood in a town near Fermilab with a small college. Rather than being contained on a central campus, the college buildings are scattered among residential houses on the east side of town. The students are a well-behaved lot, and town and gown coexist peacefully, for the most part. Each day, the students walk through our neighborhood on their way between dorms and classes.

Behind my house runs an alley, a classic Midwest alley, a place for garages, clumps of day lilies and learning to ride a two-wheeler. We use the alley for the usual alley purposes, and the college students use it as a route to classrooms and a student center across the street.

About a month ago, college officials invited my neighbors and me to an evening meeting to discuss an idea for upgrading the alley into a "pedestrian mall." A college vice president welcomed us to a conference room and pointed out the coffee and cookies. A member of the board of trustees explained that they were seeking our input into the college's alley-transformation plans, which he called "very preliminary." He described what the college had in mind for the alley, listed the advantages it would bring to all of us, and asked for our comments on the preliminary plan.

The trouble was, the plan didn't feel preliminary. There was a blueprint, for one thing, with a detailed colored rendering of how the pedestrian mall would look. It showed a wide brick walkway with benches and landscape plantings. What it didn't show was our existing garages and parking spaces and driveways. The plan conveniently relocated those, deep into our back yards. The plan didn't show the fifty-year-old shade trees, which would have to be removed. It didn't show one whole street, which in its current location would bisect the new mall. Closing the street, the trustee explained, was "just an option," but would make the new mall more mall-like.

As we studied the plan, with its implications for our own homes and our own daily lives, we began to ask questions and voice concerns. It soon grew clear from the officials' responses that, while they were willing to consider minor modifications to the plan ("We don't necessarily need benches."), they had already decided on its basic outlines.

When one vociferous neighbor raised a question about the effect of the college's plans on the neighborhood, the trustee replied: "If you don't like it here, why don't you move?"

It didn't feel right. It didn't feel as if the college really wanted our views. It felt as if they expected us to say yes to a decision they had already made.

In its meeting with us, the college was using a classic model of community interaction known in public relations circles as "decide, announce, defend." In this model, the opportunity for community involvement comes only after decisions have already been made. Even though an organization may profess to seek community involvement in decision-making, what it really wants (as the community is quick to perceive) is community approval of its decision.

The "decide, announce, defend" model has met the test of time. And failed. Again and again, organizations have learned that, when they make decisions that affect the community, they must involve the community during the decision-making process, not afterward. To do otherwise is to lose the community's trust.

There is a lesson here for Fermilab. Someday we may want to build a new accelerator, perhaps even an accelerator that extends beyond the borders of our site. Building such an accelerator would not only have a profound effect on the future of our own laboratory and of U.S. high-energy physics, but also on our local community. We believe that most of the effects would be positive, in the form of the economic, cultural and environmental benefits that it would bring. But that's our opinion. Our neighbors may not agree. They are bound to have concerns about safety and property values and neighborhood disruption. They are bound to want a say in the decision. Wouldn't you?

How can Fermilab address such issues and build public support for our future? Clearly, the traditional "decide, announce, defend" model is a formula for failure. Involving the community from the beginningóstarting nowóin planning for a future accelerator will be challenging, time-consuming and costly; but ultimately it is likely to be the only way to create the level of community trust and support that such a project will require.

Because it does not own all the land along the alley, the college in my town cannot proceed with its mall plan without the agreement of the neighbors. At the moment, prospects for the alley-to-mall makeover look dim. As we think about our own future prospects, let's promise ourselves at least one thing: No one from Fermilab will ever tell a neighbor, "If you don't like it here, why don't you move?"

last modified 6/4/2001 by C. Hebert   email Fermilab