I want to frame my talk about courage in community engagement with a story of a project I worked on in December 2015, where cowardice, fear, and risk management took the upper hand, despite the best intentions and dedicated counter-attacks of two experienced and sophisticated consultant-activists, me, and my long-time and brilliant co-conspirator, Steph Vajda.

I call this failed project “The Earth Goddess and the WhisperOut”, a term coined by my late husband, Karl Langheinrich. Steph and I had co-authored a book a few years ago called SpeakOut, which introduced an innovative interactive community engagement process called the SpeakOut. Karl was its greatest champion, having worked on scores of SpeakOuts with me and Steph (and others) all over Australia. Karl felt that this pathetic shadow of a real project was a “WhisperOut” because speaking out was pretty much banned because of misguided fear. Community members were gagged by risk-adverse fear mongers. Only whispers were permitted.

About this time, a consultant working on the same project (a woman about my age) took great pains to explain to me the difference between being a consultant and an activist. Like oil and water, they would never mix, she declared. Activism has no place in the life of a planning consultant was her stern advice. If you haven’t had this experience, I can warn you (from my position as an elder in the planning profession) that it never goes well when someone starts to tell you “how things work”. Have you had that experience? “Wendy, I am just going to explain to you–just for your own good, of course–how things work around here.” Sadly, these interactions are often gendered. In my case, I was being lectured by an elderly woman!

This talk presents a “real-life” account of how courage and professional ethics can be tested when we work in the “real world”. Learning to navigate our way through situations and dilemmas tests us all. My aim is to provide a few insights so you can think about where you might draw your courage from when you face situations like this.

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