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Interview with Place It! Founders James Rojas and John Kamp

Analyst Cheryl Lim interviewed PlaceIt! Founder and engagement experts James Rojas and his partner/co-facilitator John Kamp in anticipation of their new book, Dream, Play, Build, which will be released in February 2022.

Credit: LA Great Streets

C: James and John, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. The Karp Strategies team has worked with you over the past several years, and used the incredibly successful Place It! method in countless public workshops that we have facilitated.

Your book, “Dream, Play, Build” will be out in February 2022. Can you tell us about the inspiration for this book and how it came about?

We really wanted to share the knowledge that we had both acquired over the years with others. We’ve had the chance to also step back and reflect, and had been noticing phenomena about how people would respond when they worked with their hands versus talking. I wanted to explore why outcomes were different when they did use their hands. Southern California, where we work, is a very diverse place. Not everybody speaks English. You really have to give everybody the tools to build consensus and collaboration.

C: What do you think are the key differences between in-person and virtual engagement, now that we live in a COVID virtual world?

There are a lot of differences. In the virtual world, people become intimate very quickly because they are in their safe space. You are able to share a lot of knowledge that way. In the public realm, people tend to hold back because people are looking at them. But when they bring items from their homes, like a baby blanket, or other precious items that are of great value to them, it makes them feel safe. It is a collection of memories. We try to think about how to convey that in the public realm.

C: How have you adapted to conducting virtual engagement?

We’ve pivoted and adapted well. We’ve done virtual walking tours - we recently had folks video themselves at their favorite spot in the neighborhood and tell us why they liked it. Then we would splice it together to create that virtual walking tour. We’ve been able to work with folks that we wouldn’t have normally been able to, so that has been wonderful. We have been able to do national workshops and focus on national issues - pedestrian safety was a recent one - and we were able to draw virtually from every part of the country at the same time. We’ve been able to create a cyber community of inquiry this way. But, we think that being around other people physically, in person, is still what we need as human beings. We don’t want the virtual format to be the only format that we use - we’d really love the hybrid method.

C: How do you think we can optimize virtual engagement and harness participants’ creativity? How have you adapted Place It! - which is fundamentally a hands-on activity - to the virtual world?

It is still a hands-on activity, but people use their own objects. People talk about their own memories and mementos through their objects. It really is like show and tell. You get a deeper, richer, understanding about memory. People understand a little bit better about why places are so important and the things we hold dear and personal. People are so happy to tell their story. We start from the objective that we’re going to engage people with their senses. If you start from that, it opens up all the doors. It does not mean people have to engage staring at the screen. We had folks go outdoors to explore the space with their families and friends, and then they documented that and shared it with us. There is a tendency for facilitators to only engage in the moment, but you can really give “homework” that allows people to engage and explore outdoors too. It becomes a really positive experience, and people will get to articulate why certain spaces and places matter to them.

C: You have decades of experience engaging communities. From all the work that you’ve done, what do you think facilitators should pay attention to the most when they plan and facilitate engagement work?

It is important to start with the learning outcomes that you want participants to take away. A lot of engagement is done by promoting the work of the facilitator, which is not a bad thing per se. But we would like to maintain the focus on what folks are going to take away from the workshop. From there, we can figure out, “how are we going to facilitate and help people use their senses?”

People that gravitate towards Place It! are people that have an interest in people and want to engage people in a really deep way. Facilitators have to have an interest in other people to make it a successful workshop. Place It! is a tool to help people dive deeper. We talk about this in the book, but we approach workshops as being knowledge-producing rather than knowledge sharing. Start from the premise of, how can we produce knowledge? That will directly shape what you do for the workshop. The participants are educating you, the facilitator. You give them the tools to help them understand. Planners think that they are out there educating people - that’s not how it should work. Planners should hear stories from the communities first, which will help shape the way planning is done. Through our workshops, we want folks to know that there is value in your story, and your story matters. A city really has to work through that starting point.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about your book?

One of the biggest strengths of the book is that it explores the psychology behind working with your hands and working with your senses and how it influences outcomes. It also explores outcomes and how they change, and how you can measure them. The book takes the reader on a journey of many stories. We see the book as a resource not just for planners, but for artists, schoolteachers, and anyone who works with people in a spatial capacity.


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