Decolonizing the Public Engagement Process

Our family and community inform our worldview. Expanding our viewpoints enriches ourselves, our projects, and our environments. It can also support transformative community development and public participation.

The essence of community engagement is based on the belief that people who are affected by a decision have a right to be involved in the decision-making process. Consider these questions when you develop a community engagement plan:

Who or what is driving the process? Is it the timeline, the funding, the participants or community, or an agency or organization?

What does the process look like? Is it a linear process, and how strict is that process? Are there feedback loops where you can continuously improve the process or change it?

And then how are decisions made? Is it top-down decision-making focused on informing, but not involving, the community? Is it bottom-up decision-making with the community empowered to make decisions? Or is it somewhere in between—a collaborative approach to decision-making?

Who makes the decision? Is it the participants, the funder, or the agency or organizational leader?

In this context, we want to be thoughtful about removing any left-over impacts of oppression. You can decolonize the process by deconstructing hierarchies and other social structures that support the discriminatory status quo.

“Decolonization refers to the process of deconstructing colonial ideologies of the superiority and privilege of Western thought and approaches.”
The act of decolonization involves dismantling structures that perpetuate the status quo and addressing unbalanced power dynamics. It also considers valuing and revitalizing Indigenous knowledge and approaches while addressing settler biases or assumptions that have impacted Indigenous ways of being. For many non-Indigenous people, decolonization is the process of examining your belief systems and preconceived notions about Indigenous Peoples and culture by learning about yourself in relationship to the communities where you live and the people with whom you interact. For many Indigenous people, a decolonized process is an opportunity to express cultural perspectives and approach projects in a different way.
“Decolonization restores Indigenous world view, culture, and traditional ways.”
Indigenous-led community event at Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary.


Consider these engagement strategies for planning and design outcomes that center Indigenous perspectives:

  • Conduct oral histories
  • Facilitate conversations with Elders, communities, and Tribal Government staff
  • Ensure community involvement guides the direction (of project and processes)
  • Build in continuous feedback loops
  • Meet in person (and be mindful of cultural expectations for gathering)
  • Improve research, especially on decolonization
  • Address inaccuracies and bias that may be in the historic record


Intentional engagement leads to building and fostering relationships, listening and learning from many voices, and providing opportunities to talk, share, and influence each other. Advantages of purposeful engagement include:

  • Previously unknown sites and stories are revealed
  • People are telling their own stories and have opportunities to learn from each other
  • Planning in more inclusive and more deeply connected to core groups and audiences
  • Designs are more responsive to people, place, and deep connections (not generic designs)
  • Past bias is addressed

By looking to Indigenous cultural examples for consensus-building, including multiple perspectives (human and non-human), we can rethink a linear project development process. The following presentation walks through engagement methods and strategies used on a range of projects in Minnesota and examines how that engagement is informing planning and design outcomes. Let’s explore mitakuye owas’iƞ (“we are all relatives”) together.

Click on the video below to watch our full presentation:
Regine Kennedy

Regine is an experienced planner and resourceful project manager. She promotes equitable and inclusive planning processes and has become a trusted collaborator of community organizations, state, local, and tribal governments, state and national parks, and heritage sites throughout the country. Regine has received certification in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Workplace.

Maggie Lorenz

Maggie is Executive Director of Wakáŋ Tipi Center, and an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe; she also descends from Spirit Lake Dakota Nation. Maggie serves as the chair of the parent committee at Bdote Learning Center where her daughter attends first grade. She is also a newly appointed trustee at the F. R. Bigelow Foundation. Maggie earned her BA in Psychology from Metropolitan State University in 2010.

John Reynolds

John has worked at the intersection of tribal and government agencies for nearly a decade. His expertise with complex regulatory processes enables him to facilitate cooperation among agencies, Tribes, and other cultural resources professionals. John is proficient in the Dakota language, and brings deep knowledge of American Indian history and archaeology to his work navigating these processes and professional relationships. John is a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.