A citizen engagement initiative, ‘The Dahlia Project’ included in-depth public consultations on the development of a new mental health centre after local residents protested against the construction. The center continues to pursue local partnerships and capacity building.
Problems and Purpose
In 2012, plans for the construction of a new Mental Health Center of Denver began under the title ‘The Dahlia Project.’ Initially, fundraising was the only form of community engagement pursued by organizers; however, in-depth public consultations became necessary to proceed with the development when local residents protested against the construction. The new Center now provides the community with numerous services and has an ongoing commitment to local partnership and capacity building.
Background History and Context
The Dahlia campus covers 4 acres in Northeast Park Hill. This area used to be a vibrant neighbourhood however it’s now a low-income area in Denver, CO. The largest African-American owned shopping mall in the US used to stand on the same site as the new campus was to be built. This mall was the center of significant political and social controversy since the late 1970’s.
Plans for the Dahlia campus originated when the Mental Health Center began to run out of space, due to an increase in clients now funded by Medicaid: a joint federal and state program that helps with medical costs for those with limited income and resources. It was decided in 2012 to build the new campus and the key organisations in this was the Mental Health Center of Denver.
According to vice president of child and family services Dr. Lydia Prado, when it became known that a Mental Health Center was to be built in the neighbourhood, community members feared that “there would be crazy people around that were going to be harmful.”
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The Mental Health Center of Denver reported a revenue of $77.5 million in 2013 as proof of their ability to fund the construction of a new building. Between the years 2014 and 2015 the Health Center raised $14.6 million, including donations from the Piton Foundation, the Temple Hoyne Buell Foundation and Boettcher Foundation. The Mental Health Center also ran fundraisers all throughout the building of the campus, one of which was held in fall of 2015, just a couple of months before it was opened. In the main reception of the finished article is a “thank you” mural that showcases the names of 750 contributors (both organizations and people) that have given significant amounts of time, talent etc. to ensure the success of the campus.
The architect Anderson Mason Dale designed the 45,000-square foot center. They are a 50-person firm located in Denver who focus mainly on the planning, programming and designing of buildings for colleges, universities, schools, libraries, justice facilities, office buildings, cultural venues and housing. The contracting was handled by Taylor Kohrs who are a small community contractor.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Eight volunteer co-researchers from the management team gathered insight and perspectives from community. Interviewers were given training before engaging with the community. Two outside advisors were chosen - the first being Dr. Lydia Prado and the second a community elder - to identify and select community members for involvement in the consultations. A significant portion of the local population - approx. 1,300 people - were already clients of the existing Health Center so were easily identifiable as participants in the consultation.
Methods and Tools Used
Interviews and public meetings appear to be the main methods of community engagement used during the consultation phase. The project organizers had two goals: first, to assuage fears over the threat posed by patients of the mental health center, and, second, to take suggestions about the center’s design and functionality into consideration when finalizing the building plans.
After its construction, the Dahlia Campus continues to engage with the community through capacity building and service provision. According to the Campus website, "people arrive for many different reasons—taking their kids to the dentist, enrolling a child in preschool, visiting the food pantry, attending a parenting class or learning how to grow a garden and prepare healthy meals. Social activities will feature gospel singing, recipe clubs, sewing and knitting circles, activities for grandparents raising grandchildren and much more."
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Public consultations were called by organizers when the Mental Health Center began attracting negative press and causing unnecessary fear and opposition among residents. Local activists also felt that the project threatened the cultural heritage and local identity of Dahlia Square. A historically marginalized and underserved community to begin with, residents protested their need for better amenities and services such as access to healthy food, a place for community gatherings and a gym.
Over two years, numerous community meetings were held by the management advisors to better explain the project’s rationale and provide education on mental health disorders and treatment. Organizers were also keen to listen to the community’s wants and needs in order to better fit them into the initial design and subsequent development of the Center. Through these meetings, advisors and co-researchers alike gave the community the opportunity to create a mental health center unique for the neighbourhood.
Talks were successful in both their communication of the Center’s goals and their reformulation of the Center as a community resource rather than an exclusive treatment facility. Working together, organizers and residents agreed that the Dahlia Project would result in multifunctional space providing everything from psychiatric treatment to recreational facilities to food shopping. Positive changes in community perception were recorded and studied by the co-researchers. One example is Kaylene Anderson - a lifelong resident of the Park Hill area who, after participating in the consultation, planned to send her daughter to the Center’s preschool and to shop at the adjoining urban farm. Kaylene stated that “this is a big change. I think it’s going to be good for the neighbourhood”. The final act of the consultation was to choose a name which represented the Center's function in the community. Residents decided on the 'Dahlia Campus for Health & Well-Being' - an appropriate title for a facility that "goes beyond [the] traditional mental health clinic model."
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
Since it opened the campus has been a great success with both mental health and building a better community. The Health center is focussed strongly on treating children who have suffered trauma, most often from abuse or neglect, as well as helping their parents and foster parents. The community asked to have somewhere to buy healthy foods and to have a gym. Both have been included on the campus, as well as a 1-acre farm to grow carrots, potatoes and squash along with a greenhouse to produce greens, tilapia and catfish through aquaponics, which is a system that combines traditional aquaculture (raising aquatic animals) with hydroponics. All of this is a success to both the campus and the community as both good mental health work and a community center is what they desired to come through this project.
The Dahlia campus has also won the award for “building well, living well” which was awarded by the Mayor of Denver. Alex Foster who is the spokeswoman for the city’s Community Planning and Development office said, “This one really spoke to placemaking, community and improvement to the built environment and the neighbourhood as a whole.”
Now the community have taken ownership over the project with participants saying, “this is ours”, this creates the feeling that all fears have passed and that the management did a good job and will be able to implement another facility like this in another location to help further both Mental Health and help harbour a great community spirit.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
Community protestation was largely a function of the poorly planned project announcement. By advertising the new campus for the Mental Health Center of Denver as the ‘Dahlia Campus for Health and Well-Being’ residents were reminded of antiquated psychiatric institution used to house mentally unstable and physically violent individuals. An obvious lesson to be learned from this is to use different phrasing when presenting similar projects until popular understandings of mental health treatment become more positive. Engaging the community from the start - either in consultations or educational seminars - would have likely preempted the kind of push-back organizers received later on.
Participant selection in community consultations is often a risky business. In his book Direct Democracy and Representations: Selection of Officials in Athens, Bernard Manin observes that “selection by lot risks elevating unqualified citizens to public office...Incompetence in office was as much a danger in Athens as it is in present-day polities.” (Manin, 1997). This was a risk that the project managers for the Dahlia project accepted as they held many meetings with the community, much like the senate did in ancient Greece, to decide what was going to go into the project. In this case all the ideas that were considered were successfully integrated in project plans. However, if this project were taken up again, differences in participation or proposals could result in a less satisfactory outcome. Because of this uncertainty, similar consultations would do well to have a committee from the management group to vet each idea before accepting it. While it is important to take community perspectives into account, planning should not compromise the original purpose of the project which was, in this case, the much needed expansion of psychiatric and mental health services.
It is difficult to objectively evaluate the deliberative and/or democratic aspects of the consultation since media and other reports largely focus on the outcomes. However, from these accounts, it is clear that the project has at least benefited the community ex-post. For example a PBS News Hour clip from 2017 was optimistically titled “Inclusive wellness center is an oasis for a neighbourhood left behind”. The coverage explains how the Dahlia Center was built in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Denver and, since its opening, has been “life changing” for residents, giving them access to affordable childcare and freeing up time to seek employment and address health problems. The Denver Post has also published positive headlines such as “Community input shaped new mental health clinic in Denver’s Park Hill” and “Mental Health Center’s Dahlia Campus wins mayor’s award”. The absence of negative media coverage is not to be overlooked, however, and is most likely a result of the Project organizer’s efforts to gain community support.
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Official website: https://mhcd.org/dahlia-campus-for-health-well-being/
Denver Post "Community input shaped new mental health clinic in Denver’s Park Hill": http://www.denverpost.com/2015/12/14/community-input-shaped-new-mental-h...