Community Engagement Can’t Be a Checklist

Are we engaging communities meaningfully, or are we just checking off boxes?

Photo by San Jose Public Library via Flickr

The foundation for growth and impact in any community must be rooted in robust and inclusive community engagement as we strive to achieve racial, cultural, gender and other forms of equity. Engagement is—or should be—a process that happens with a community, not for or on their behalf. It requires time, deliberation and a sustained and thoughtful strategy to achieve transformation as we confront a myriad of intersecting challenges and aspirations.

Increasingly, decision-makers, policy thinkers, and nonprofit and business leaders understand the importance of including diverse input when developing programs, creating products and transforming systems. While this is encouraging, it is important to avoid “tick-box engagement”; a surface-level approach to community engagement. Did we meet with a few types of people in the area? Check. Did we talk to a few community groups? Check. Did we host one public meeting? Check.

Leaders may also use this approach to get fast survey results and give the appearance of diversity. Do we have a woman? Check. A Black person? Check. An older person? Check. Such fast and loose forms of engagement most often perpetuate preconceived assumptions, invite conflict and inevitably exclude those who should be front and center in the decision-making process.

“Thriving, diverse, equitable communities are possible through deep participation, particularly by communities commonly excluded from democratic voice & power,” according to a document from the Movement Strategy Center that provides a framework on community engagement. As engagement practitioners who do this work and understand its importance, we have come together to create a series of guiding principles with specific examples that we hope will help others develop community engagement practices that lead to co-created, sustained and more equitable outcomes across sectors and systems.

Relationships Before Tasks

It’s vital to develop relationships with the community leaders you work with, so invest quality time with community members upfront. Get to know them and their story, let them get to know you and yours. With a new relationship comes accountability, responsibility, and reciprocity. While it’s true that you are working to “get things done,” it’s important to always value people over transactions or the task at hand. Our role as engagement practitioners is to be a bridge that connects community members to the resources, skills, and tools to help them get what they need, so that means trusting and respecting that community leaders or stakeholders know what they need. This will ultimately build trust and enable better teamwork. For example, while working at a community development corporation in North Philadelphia, Jasmin Velez collaborated directly with neighborhood community members on a project focused on placing planters at every house. Her approach was to give project ownership to those in the area, meeting frequently to support their work. That approach enabled her to build a relationship with one woman who felt respected through the process and began to trust Velez enough to share personal financial / landlord household challenges that she, and others, were facing. Velez was then able to connect her to the right people in the City to address the issue. As Velez explains, if you do it right, “These are relationships you build for the long-term—it’s a commitment you’re making.”

Explicitly Respond to Historic (and Current) Inequity

A sustainable vision for a community best mirrors its residents’ priorities. But communities of color have long been historically excluded from neighborhood decision making. Centering (racial) equity in engagement efforts explicitly recognizes the need to dismantle historical injustices. Examples of these include power imbalances, historic and systematic disenfranchisement and oppression. When residents along Delaware Avenue in Philadelphia were being pressured to sell their homes to make way for riverfront development, organizers there acknowledged historic patterns of redlining and inequities in bank financing to convince residents to fight to maintain the integrity of the neighborhood that had come to love. Acknowledgment and accountability for these past and current injustices can also ensure solutions are being made with more community input and therefore more likely to acknowledge past harms or successes. Acknowledgement and accountability past and current injustices can also ensure solutions are being made with more community input. That creates a virtuous circle in which past harms will continue to be acknowledged. This lens not only revitalizes the usual approach to community engagement, but it completely changes the typical results.  

Shift Power

Ensure community members are actively engaged and are part of designing any engagement process. When engagement firm Connect the Dots worked in West Philadelphia on an equitable development project in the area, the team spent the first part of the process building partnerships with local community leaders and liaisons who knew more about the community than they did. Connect the Dots then brought these community groups on board as extended parts of the team, and together–with community input—built the wider engagement process from the ground up. Enlisting local partners to co-create the engagement process took time, but it resulted in a tailored public involvement process that had broad support and truly met people where they were. Connect the Dots also brought One’s Up onto this project. Led by Alex Peay, One’s Up trains local youth as liaisons and ambassadors to work in their communities—creating a space for young people to address social justice issues while improving their access to social mobility. Their approach is centered on transparency and truth, working to enable youth to realize their voice and their right to know what’s happening inside and outside the organization, including information on how much money the initiative raises and how that relates to their paychecks.

Be Open and Authentic

Be you. Show up as your full self. Be genuine—this is no time for vague platitudes. Share your own lived experience, leaving room for understanding and acceptance of all experiences in engagement efforts large and small. Share thoughts honestly, with humility and as much transparency as possible to prevent misinterpretation and show realness every step of the way. When Shuja Moore, community engagement coordinator at the Enterprise Center, knocked on doors to encourage community members to fill out applications for a program called Block Build facilitating a number of free home repairs, he was often met with distrust. In one household, a family member of a woman he was helping entered the room and, unsure of his intentions, wanted him to leave. He responded by being his authentic, friendly self, connecting with her on a personal level and cracking a joke to cut the tension. With a smile, he gave a clear explanation that he was there to help and mentioned others in the community that he had worked with already. He even shared how she could follow up to make sure what he was saying was accurate and true. He connected with those in the room. They, in turn, connected with Moore and began to trust him. Be willing to let community leaders into your thoughts and motivations and be willing to understand and accept their beliefs, experiences, history, and concerns.

Use Active Listening

Every conversation or meeting is a place to create space for new perspectives and an opportunity to shift or add to your and the greater community’s perspective. Start with questions and reflect on what people say to validate what you are learning along the way. By paying attention to those who are speaking without mind-wandering or holding onto an agenda, you can make sure you are following the lead of the community and not letting your biases and assumptions get in the way. For example, The Prosperity Agenda was partnering with a local apprenticeship program on supporting goal setting while apprentices got access to educational training and mentorship for future work. However, after talking to a few apprentices it became clear that they didn’t need help setting goals; instead they just needed space and resources to make a flexible plan on how to reach their goals. By starting with questions and active listening, we were able to pivot out of our assumptions and instead focus on what was needed. By following up with comments like, “Tell me more. Help me understand that,” we suspend judgment and hear what is important to people. Active listening allows us to cultivate our collective wisdom as a community and ensure we are making investments in the right areas.

Identify and Support Leaders

There are often already strong leaders in the communities where you are working. Developing relationships with these leaders is important. Take time to meet with them one-on-one and learn more about them, who they know, who knows them, and the position they hold in the community. Key leaders will often have historically informed insights on how to achieve the highest engagement with other community members. When Vernon Johnson joined the Health Sciences Leadership Charter School team in Philadelphia to open a new school in his community, his first stop was to meet with the child day care providers who knew the children and the families who would attend the proposed school. He asked the day care providers for their thoughts on the plan, and they approved of it. And from there he built a base of community support. Start with questions–what is important to this community? What is top of mind? The more you understand the values of community members and what is important to them, the more you will be able to help them move forward. To find these leaders, continue to ask the question, “Who do you believe is important for me to speak with?” Asking that question will lead you to those in the community who wield power. And while compensation is often not a motivating factor for many leaders, it can help leaders assign value to their efforts and sustain their efforts over time. Compensation can of course be financial—but can also relate to providing access to places of power, connections, support, and more.

Meet People Where They Are

Approach all community members with care, concern, and an understanding that they are valued. A key part of that is accessibility. Make accommodations for language barriers, set meeting times that accommodate older and younger participants, provide access for those with physical disabilities, bridge the digital divide, and develop multiple options for people to engage at various levels of effort. Create a welcoming atmosphere for communities of color, for relevant cultural and ethnic groups in the community, and those with varying gender and sexual identities. The care and concern you express through accommodating needs and requests of the community demonstrates that you are someone who cares about what they care about and will work in their best interest. For example, contributor Majeedah Rashid at Nicetown CDC explains that her team has started providing technology-focused orientation classes for their partners, the local Block Captain Committee of Nicetown, to help get them comfortable using virtual engagement so they can continue their work on their own. “Everything we do we try to meet people where they are—trying to build their capacity to be independent,” Rashid explains. 

Adapt to Context and Learning, and Don’t Forget to Celebrate the Wins

While running an engagement process or programming, it’s important to frequently check in, reflect, and shape your work around the participants. For example, Let’s Go Outdoors was working on an intergenerational community storytelling program for children, but in the process, recognized that some of the adults present were unable to read. Understanding that the wide variety of experiences and opportunities—or lack thereof—that span across generations, Let’s Go Outdoors created a safe, welcoming, and respectful space and brought in flexible and varied methods of learning. Techniques utilized were ensuring that books had pictures and sight words to offer ease for varied reading levels, while another was having an Educator respectfully “insert” themselves into a families reading session to support/give guidance and/or nurture the learning between caregiver and child(ren).  Another instrumental strategy was offering an all-ages interactive activity to build on speech/language development using “Sounds in Motion (Trademarked)” curriculum and a connecting hands-on book-themed experience. Moreover, taking time to evaluate the engagement process is also key to growing together. Evaluation requires constantly asking questions: How do participants and leaders feel about a recent action? Are there things that could have made the action better? What could or should be done differently? Did the action strengthen the change effort? When groups evaluate, individuals grow, and the group grows together. Whether it’s learning to run successful Zoom meetings or gaining group consensus regarding a major organizational shift, find time to whoop, wave, clap, and thank leaders. Community-level change is stressful. Carving out time to infuse joy into situations and moments can serve as just the right recognition that can motivate and inspire.

Centering equity practices in community engagement takes thoughtful planning and effort. It requires looking at issues with equity, ensuring as many voices as possible are at the table, and ensuring those we serve are at the center of the process, including its design. By leaning into these principles, we will continue to build thriving communities and to achieve the needed social justice outcomes.

Contributors:

Verónica Ayala Flores, LISC
Alex Peay, Rising Sons and One’s Up
Majeedah Rashid, Nicetown CDC
Keisha Scovens, Let’s Go Outdoors
Tarsha Scovens, Let’s Go Outdoors
Shuja Moore, The Enterprise Center and Walkies Films (walkiesfilms.com)
Jasmin Velez, local community engagement expert
Keyana Johnson, of Temple University (student) and Neighborhood Advisory Subcommittee (West Philadelphia)

Marisa Denker is co-director and co-founder of Connect the Dots, a WBE/DBE community and stakeholder engagement specialist firm focused on cocreating equitable cities, based in the northeast (and Ireland).
Winslow Mason Jr. is the Senior Director for Strategic Change at Community Action Association of Pennsylvania and specializes in community and stakeholder engagement.
Alicia is a passionate systems-thinker, life-long learner, facilitator, and advocate for racial and economic justice. As the Managing Director at The Prosperity Agenda, she launches new strategic initiatives, cultivates partners and manages place-based projects rooted in the wisdom, experience, and expertise of families enduring economic inequality.

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