The art and heart of community engagement
How can leaders and orgs ensure resident wisdom and experience are reflected in action plans?
“I can do anything, anything, with a big ball of string!” – Dr. Seuss
Imagine all the people in the town you live in or care about are connected by a big ball of yarn. From above, it looks like a giant spider web. What shape does it take? Who is connected to whom—and why? What is the strength of connection between people? Who isn’t connected at all? Where connections are missing or weak, how can we intentionally engage communities in ways that strengthen the decision-making process?
Community engagement is essential to make progress on the persistent problems cities and towns face. When we at the Working Cities Challenge reach out to groups affected by the various challenges our teams have identified, and when those groups get involved, it leads to a deeper understanding of issues on the ground, builds public will for the effort, and empowers residents to hold our team accountable for results. Developing broader community ownership of the work is important for an effort's sustainability beyond the life cycle of its grant.
We’ve met with cross-sector leaders from Connecticut Working Cities as they sharpened their community engagement plans and prepared initiatives to improve life for their lower-income neighbors and communities of color. Here’s some of what they learned during their time together, and what they’ll do to advance their engagement plans to help make progress on their team’s “shared result,” a 10-year goal that teams push toward to benefit lower-income people in the community:
Be clear about the who. A critical first step in community engagement is defining the actual “community” teams hope to reach, particularly for efforts that don’t target a specific neighborhood. That’s not always as straightforward as it sounds.
Be clear about the how. Listen. Go where people are. Be more human. People want to belong and make a difference. Develop an authentic invitation to participate. Connect with both head and heart. Listen some more, and respond in concrete ways to what you hear and learn. Our teams are committed to learning how residents, particularly people of color, are involved and engaged in local decision-making and how these diverse perspectives can help shape their learning and action plans.
Be clear about the why. Teams should be clear on the purpose of their community engagement and not do it just because they feel like they should. Teams might pursue a range of activities under the banner of community engagement—general community building, advocacy, research for strategy design, program recruitment, and leadership building—but it’s important for the team to have a shared understanding about how these actions will help make progress on the team’s shared result.
“If you are looking for more or better engagement, you can’t wish it into existence, ... you can’t tinker,” said Bill Traynor of Trusted Space Partners, which helps organizations build stronger networks and spur local change. “It is very hard to reform the existing ways of doing things.”
Instead, Traynor said, it’s important to disrupt the operating culture by creating an alternative that:
- is more attractive
- is fun and lively,
- offers a compelling and truthful invitation
- follows through on its promise
The yarn that makes up the fabric of local communities civic infrastructure is frayed in many of our cities. Still, with thoughtful planning and doing, many of the ingredients necessary to re-stitch our community quilt are within reach.