What do you do?

It all started with one question.

“So, what do you do?”

It was an innocent enough question. I would bet most of us have asked this question several times in our lives. We meet someone new, we make small talk, we genuinely want to know more about a person so we ask, “What do you do?”

This question was posed to me a few weeks ago. A mom on our baseball team who I’ve chatted with a few times asked me. This isn’t the first time I’ve been asked this question and in my former life my answer was easy. Teacher. I’m a teacher. The questions flow after that. What grade do you teach? Where do you teach? How long have you been teaching? Working in the field of public engagement for the last 4 years I’ve found this question much harder to answer.

What do I do? There are so many things that I want to blurt out. And I have blurted in the past and most of the time I just get a funny look or the “oh, you do PR work” reply. I have asked my co-workers what they answer when they’re asked this question. They had much better replies than me so I adopted their definition.

I work with organizations that want input from the public who may be affected by a decision.

Blank stares usually follow.

Then I always seem to follow with the bike path example. “Let’s say the town wants to build a new bike path and they’d like to gather input and ideas of community members. My job would be to convene a conversation or conversations with interested community members. That input would be summarized and themed for the town to take into consideration when making decisions.” I usually leave it at that but the conversation that followed with the baseball Mom has made me re-think my pat answer.

She asked if I was working on a project with the City of Calgary that involves the Lakeview Community Association and the proposed 24-hour MacDonald’s. I was instantly intrigued – curious! What is this McDonald’s you speak of and how has it affected you? I didn’t say that exactly but the questions started to flow and I listened and learned about McDonald Canada’s proposal to build this McDonald’s in the heart of her neighbourhood plaza where a gas station used to be.

I learned about the community meetings, the petition, the door knocking, the previous 2014 proposal and so much more. My new friend has been active in the opposition to this McDonald’s and wanted to tell her story. Throughout our conversation this kept playing in my head over and over again:


Really, this is the definition of what I do. As a facilitator and public engagement practitioner I often listen to stories. I most certainly ask questions. I definitely empathize with her plight. I see the issue from her perspective. I understand she’s frustrated that there has been no “closing the loop” on the community meetings. I recognize her annoyance that hundreds of community residents shared their ideas and opinions and she didn’t know what they were supposed to do now.

I’ve had subsequent conversations with her and just learned that 4 days ago the City of Calgary did not approve McDonald’s development permit. McDonald’s has 14 days to appeal this decision. I have not seen her to ask my next set of questions but I can’t wait for this conversation.

After hearing the latest development in the McDonald’s project, other definitions of public engagement popped into my mind. People have power. They have power to make change. Engaged, active citizens can and do make a difference. This is happening all around me, in every town and city. Is that part of my “new” definition? People have power to influence decision-making. Now, will every decision satisfy every person or community? Of course not. We always say in our Dialogue Partners’ training courses that the purpose of public engagement is not to make everyone happy. It is about integrity of the process. It is about feeling that your voice was heard. It is about feeling like you had an opportunity to give your input and that input was considered in decision making.

I came across an interesting article while pondering the “what do you do?” question. If you’re interested in “27 Questions to Ask Instead of What Do You Do?” click here.


Erin Pote