Tamarack Institute | June Edition, 2019
We all have moments when we ask ourselves a lot questions about what we're achieving. We wonder how and if the contributions we make individually and collectively are being valued or if they're considered insignificant. Are the resources we committed to produce some sort of change are the right resources? Are we really producing evidence and results that will establish a legacy of positive change? And hey, maybe it’s as simple as “why the heck are we doing this in the first place?”
In my years working in the international development and human rights education sector I have given a lot of thought to what most attracts me to capacity development, learning and evaluation. I learned a great deal about the value and importance of participation, asking critical questions, and reflecting on notions of bias and neutrality in our work. Although so many aspects of this work are important to me, an intriguing experience is the ability to witness the evaluation moments of others. An evaluation moment is what I call it when a spark of recognition ignites in the eyes of a client, or participant at a training event. This spark is the sign. It tells me they realize why it is important to value the theory and practice of evaluation in social and systems change work. When this spark emerges it is easy to clearly see the significant role evaluation has in illuminating what needs attention as well as the new ways of doing that support their complex efforts. In these evaluation moments, the veil is lifted.
In these moments, as practitioners we can encourage ways of being reflective about how to help them yield meaningful evidence to critically respond to the unique and diverse issues embedded into our organizational or community contexts that we are seeking to change.
Similar to reflective learning practices, introducing a mindful way of doing evaluation strengthens how we address our assumptions in the evaluation work we do. One way to be mindful is to intentionally integrate cross-cutting and intersectional themes into our evaluation practice, such as gender-equality and diversity or human rights, in particular when working in complex, unique and diverse contexts; which all communities are. When we remain critically conscious of the learning taking place, we become aware of how to provide guidance and support to the contributors of the evaluation legacy we are aiming to build. It is in these types of experiences that taking risks by courageously questioning ourselves and our social change work and the complexity in which it is all happening that change is possible.
As I settle into my new role at the Tamarack Learning Centre, I am conscious of the privilege I have to contribute to this work, and grateful to be given the space to share ideas, thoughts and experiences with an engaged, broader community.
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Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) is about looking at the gifts and assets that exist within a neighbourhood and allowing people to respond to and create local opportunities. How do you use local assets and gifts to guide a city to increase the social fabric and deepen community? Howard Lawrence, who lives in a neighbourhood in Edmonton, had the answer to this question - Abundant Community. Howard saw the power of neighbouring and wanted the city to experience the richness of neighbours sharing their gifts, knowledge, skills and abilities to improve their neighbourhood.
In 2013, Howard took his skills and knowledge of ABCD to the city to request funding for an Abundant Community Initiative to be piloted in one neighbourhood. The City granted $15,000 in initial funding to support a pilot project. The initiative expanded to three neighbourhoods and is now active in 106 of Edmonton’s 260 residential neighbourhoods. As evidence of its success, in 2018 Edmonton City Council funded 3.5 staff solely dedicated to support the Abundant Community Edmonton (ACE) initiative.
Why was the ACE initiative so successful? It comes down to the structure. It is very simple! It has to be a grassroots, citizen-led initiative. The ACE initiative has 5 areas that work together to support each other:
The City of Edmonton places high value on healthy neighbourhoods. They have learned the potential for neighbourly relationships to guide and support the physical, social and mental health of the people of Edmonton. To learn more about how the City of Edmonton has embraced the Abundant Community principles and turned it into action read the newly released case study .
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Last month Max Hardy, a community and citizen engagement expert from Australia, joined Tamarack's Liz Weaver and Sylvia Cheuy on a cross-country tour to deliver Citizens at the Centre - a travelling workshop on how to engage ordinary citizens in the community change process.
It was hectic. Five workshops, in five cities, over eight days - Halifax, Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. A weekend glamping in the Rockies in between, followed by two nights at Tofino before returning to Melbourne Australia.
What was it all about? Along with Sylvia Cheuy and Liz Weaver, we invited participants to consider the emerging role of citizens in tackling our most challenging issues. The minute marathon warmed everyone up, we looked at various frameworks and trends for engaging and then jumped into a citizens’ jury exercise. Some of the performances were memorable.
I shared some anecdotes from down under and passed on some of the things I have learned. The main point was this:
If we genuinely invite citizens to be part of the design of engagement processes, and ask the right questions, they will rise to the occasion becoming partners, even ambassadors, in tackling ‘wicked problems’.
We also talked about taking on the myth of expert-designed processes offering silver bullet solutions. The art of letting go, and inviting others to lead. Making space for that to happen. Learning as we go. Being ready to step up, step away, and support collaborative efforts.
I learned quite a lot, as per usual, from the workshops. We practiced co-design throughout. Sylvia and Liz were brilliant to work with, and we modified each session based on what we learnt along the way, and the energy and aspirations of each group. The 300+ participants brought questions, their stories, their passion. It was not difficult to tap into the energy, and I never felt I had to push participants, which can be exhausting.
After speaking with participants from across Canada, some of the most critical questions and insights posed by staff and participants throughout were:
All of these thoughts can challenge us to be more open and more intentional in our community engagement work.
I’ve been thrilled to be approached by some organizations about supporting them from a distance, and I am easily to tempted to return to Canada. I love working with Tamarack. Quite the dream team. Thanks for the opportunity to learn this important stuff together!
Bye for now!
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Residents of Toronto with lived experience of poverty were active participants in the development of the City’s poverty reduction strategy, TO Prosperity, particularly through the Lived Experience Advisory Group (LEAG).
Launched in 2017, the LEAG is one of The City of Toronto’s poverty reduction strategy reinforcing accountability structures. Members apply personal lived/living experience with poverty to inform the development, implementation, and monitoring of TO Prosperity. The group provides an avenue for individuals with lived/living experience to participate in city processes. This helps balance the voices of lived/living experience with staff accountability.
The LEAG was formed based on an equity-based application and selection process. Its membership is inclusive of residents from various equity-seeking groups and represents a vast range of Toronto’s perspectives and identities. Members apply a number of principles that have strong connections to community development to ensure that engagement processes related to the strategy are inclusive and meaningful.
The LEAG’s mandate focuses on advocacy, education and awareness, and monitoring and evaluation. Members participate in a wide variety of City policy, program, and service-development processes. They act as a conduit between City staff and communities, and organize and participate in presentations and conversations with City divisions, the private sector, community agencies, and residents. They also contribute insights into a range of programs and issues, including Ontario Works, unemployment, systemic discrimination and the impacts of violence.
LEAG members participate in policy and program development processes with City divisions in charge of implementing the Strategy, sometimes through one-off consultations, and other times through or longer term, co-led work. For example, members supported the roll out of a new service model for Ontario Works by facilitating workshops and explaining to frontline staff the positive impact the new model could have on the lives of social assistance clients.
The LEAG meets monthly as a group to deeply learn about TO Prosperity initiatives, build individual and group capacity to lead and support these initiatives, and participate in consultation and facilitation opportunities with Toronto’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Office (PRSO) and other City divisions. The group also engages in monthly meetings with the PRSO that offer opportunities for members to build capacity, gain understanding of municipal policy and budget processes, and dive into specific issues.
The LEAG’s coming together represents the culmination of years of input from community members who demanded better access routes for people with lived/living experience to participate in City processes. The group’s success in pushing public participation to a more collaborative and empowering place stems from a strong commitment to an equitable and inclusive process by all parties.
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I think there are a lot of reasons that community engagement is a popular topic at the moment, but one of my biggest hypotheses is that there are a number of established organizations in the nonprofit sector, philanthropy, health care, higher education, and government who have been treating the work of community engagement as activity-driven and transactional for decades. They are starting to realize―because of the demands of their funders and the frustration of the communities they work with who are fed up with being “acted upon”―that they need to change their approach to one that is purpose-driven and intentional if they are going to be able to make progress. However, many of these organizations do not know how to start to make that change.
Over the last seven months, my colleague and collaborator, Alice Chen of Wayfinding Wisdom, and I have been working with one such organization and its partners across the country to understand how they approach community engagement in their work, and what they felt they needed to do it more effectively. From what we learned, we developed an introductory curriculum focused on building a community engagement mindset that can be adapted for different contexts. As part of the curriculum, we developed this set of strategic questions to ask and answer when practicing community engagement, especially if you seek to do the work in an intentional, strategic, and positively impactful way.
1. What is your organizational mission, and how might Community Engagement help you achieve it?
One of the things that comes up over-and-over again in discussions of community engagement is that people see it as work “in addition” or “on top of” the work they are already doing, not as a way to do their work. To flip that way of thinking, start from what your organization is about and what assets it already has―what is your mission, vision, theory of change, programs, policies, cultures, staff, relationships―and how might engaging “the community” help you to achieve your mission?
2. What is your Community Engagement purpose?
Think of the community engagement purpose as having ARMS – it needs to be achievable, relevant, measurable, and specific. A key part of having ARMS is being able to name the specific group that you aim to benefit through your community engagement purpose and how you aim to benefit them.
For instance, an organization which is focused on child health might have a community engagement purpose of ensuring that all second graders in Townville are getting thirty minutes of physical activity a day. There are many ways that this purpose can be achieved – through school policy, working directly with caregivers, after school programs, and more. But, identifying the strategies that will help the child health organization achieve its purpose will require engaging individuals and organizations in different ways until they learn into the solutions.
3. Who are the other actors you might engage to achieve your purpose?
Part of building a community engagement mindset is taking the time to create a living and evolving map of who the other actors are that connect to your community engagement purpose and/or core population. It might seem overwhelming, but if you cross-reference the organizations on your actor map with the existing relationships you identified your organization having as part of question one, you’ve probably identified a good place to start your outreach.
4. How and why are you engaging other actors?
￼This is a big one! There are a range of approaches and tactics for community engagement ranging from informing people about what’s going on to collaborating to work together to even engaging your core population with the goal that they “own” the work. To go deeper, I recommend you take a look at Tamarack’s adapted Community Engagement Continuum, as well as a very practical index of community engagement techniques that is organized by level of engagement.
5. What are your organization's principles and values for doing Community Engagement work?￼
In community engagement, there is what you’re going to do, and then there is how you are going to do it. An organization’s values and the way it makes those values actionable (principles) are as important and foundational for what you are trying to achieve. I want to point you to Elevated Chicago!’s recently released Community Engagement Principles and Recommendations as an excellent example of translating values (in their case around racial and socio-economic equity) into a set of principles for action.
Alison Gold is founder of Optimistic Anthropolgy, whose mission is to work with individuals, organizations, and cross-sector collaborations to build their knowledge, process, and culture to make a more positive future for all people.
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September 30 - October 3 | Vancouver BC
Join changemakers from near and far to deepen your knowledge of the 5 practices needed to move your community change agenda from idea to action to impact. Learn the latest thinking, understand your role as a changemaker, and replenish your toolkit with practical ideas and tools you can use in your own community.
We've recently released new details about our workshop offerings, so be sure to take a look at our learning agenda to see how you can best equip yourself for lasting impact.