What Does Community-Led Really Mean?

Table 5There has been a marked increase in references to ‘Community-Led’ approaches to change across the country. Black Lives Matter, Idle No More, poverty reduction, and youth empowerment provide just a few examples. This shows incredible promise for advances towards community ownership of decision-making practices.

However, when we reviewed a sample of organizations who use the term ‘Community-Led’ to describe their approaches to community change, we found a substantial range in practices, many of which we at Tamarack would not classify as Community-Led. They ranged from completely grassroots citizen action through to organizations consulting with community stakeholders on program development.

The discrepancy may come from the gap that lies between (a) the intent of community change organizations, practitioners, and advocates (e.g. to empower community members to make decisions that impact their future), and (b) engrained ways of working, where power is held by organizations or funders in ‘service’ of the community. It may also come from those who over promise or are disingenuous.

The risk of such a large discrepancy between intent, wording, and actions is significant: communities may continue to be acted-upon; organizations may continue to lack proximity to the issues which could lead to them making assumptions that may exacerbate existing systemic biases; trust between community members and organizations may be eroded; and, organizations may be limiting the autonomy and capability of citizens to positively impact their communities.

If we're interested in understanding how to work together with communities and cultivate community leadership, we have to spend some time and effort to distinguish between various Community-Led approaches. In my new paper, Understanding Community-Led Approaches  I dive into four approaches, ranging from Community Informed to Community Owned, and explore the benefits, risks, and power distribution you can find within each.

I encourage you to explore this paper and seek to clarify you or your organization's desire for Community-Led approaches. Remember, how you engage is the most important, and often the biggest cultural shift for organizations.

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Building the Foundations for Community Engagement

CE Foundations ThumbnailI'm excited to launch a new online course to help support those who are new to the practice of community engagement. Foundations of Community Engagement is an online course where you'll follow along with me as we go through the steps of designing and evaluating a community engagement initiative.

The foundational ideas include:

  • It's important to understand the role of community, and your ultimate engagement goals and purposes, before jumping ahead to selecting what engagement tools are strategies you want to use.

  • Who you engage and how you engage with them are deeply connected

  • Evaluation is key to learning and adapting as you go

Through the course, you'll be able to learn at your own pace by engaging with videos, case studies, papers, a workbook, and other tools and resources. Engage in comments and questions on the online platform and join me for monthly small group coaching to get more personalized feedback and insight.

We've laid out six individual sections of the course in an order that will be helpful to anyone approaching Community Engagement for the first time, but anyone can navigate the course in whichever order works best for them and their need. We want to support you and your work in a way that will lead to the biggest impact for your community.

The Tamarack team is so excited to add Foundations of Community Engagement to our learning offerings, along with our weekly community building webinars, and our virtual workshops. 

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How the Built Environment Can Help Reduce Loneliness

Engage Podcast LonelinessWe all experience loneliness at some point in our lives. Loneliness does not discriminate - it can affect anyone regardless of their gender, age or cultural background. In a 2019 Angus Reid poll on Social Isolation and loneliness in Canada, they described loneliness as a mismatch between the quantity and quality of social relationships that a person has, compared with what a person wants. Two key findings of the report are:

  • 6 in 10 Canadians (62%) say they would like their friends and family to spend more time with them, while only 14% of Canadians would describe the current state of their social lives as “very good.”

  • Further, a substantial one-third (33%) could not definitively say they have friends or family members they could count on to provide financial assistance in an emergency, and nearly 1 in 5 (18%) aren’t certain they’d have someone they could count on for emotional support during times of personal crisis.

A 2020 Global News Ipsos poll conducted in April during COVID-19, found that 54% of Canadians said that physical distancing had left them feeling lonely or isolated. With the closure of our social infrastructures such as schools, parks, restaurants, community centres it seems that there is growing evidence that how we build and plan our neighbourhoods does play a huge role in our ability to be social. 

During a podcast with Paul Young from Public Spaces workshop, Toronto, ON we talked about the impacts our built environment can have on loneliness. We had a great discussion about how we may have designed social connectedness out of our lives, in particular, we focus on cars and big box buildings. The amount of time we now spend in our cars has grown, thus, we plan our towns and cities around moving our cars from point A to point B. Our houses are built with big garages that have replaced the front porch. 

The loss of bumping places has also reduced social connection. Shopping online, big box stores and big recreation centres have replaced local stores, parks and small businesses in neighbourhoods. These neighbourhood spaces were, and could again become, bumping places where you would bump into your neighbour or someone you know. It would take you an hour to buy milk because you would stop and talk to your neighbour. 

To hear more about how the built environment is connected to loneliness and what you can do to influence the built environment in your neighbourhood listen to the podcast

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Sitting With the Enemy


Ame-Lia-TamburriniAme-Lia Tamburrini is founder of Hum Consulting, a consultancy focused on helping facilitate those essential—and sometimes uncomfortable—conversations and take you from divisiveness to collective action. On top of contributing this guest piece, Ame-Lia will be leading us through an upcoming webinar - Circle: A Container to Host Conversations that Matter.

There have been so many tears shed and angry words yelled in the privacy of my home this week. The boiling over point being the murder of George Floyd which unleashed in me a pain so agonizing that I had to step away from life. I’m grateful that I now allow myself to weep and allow the rage to come out in safe spaces. Cancer certainly helped me see the link between bottling all that toxic energy up and the manifestation of disease. Let it out. I can’t say that enough. What I’ve also realized is that clearing that energy is essential for me to see the path forward.

What emerged through this clearing was a painful awakening. A realization that some people in my inner circle did not share the same pain that I did. They did not have a pull to educate themselves or donate or protest. It is as if what is going on in the world does not affect them. Their inaction and overall disinterest somehow hurt me, and predictably, I could feel the walls go up. There was no curiosity. There was no compassion. There was just this voice “I don’t want them in my life anymore.”

It felt hypocritical to me to remain friends with people like that and be dedicated to human rights. Although shutting them out was perfectly justified in general societal discourse, it felt incredibly unsettling. The trouble is, I love these people dearly. They are giving and loving and selfless and kind. It also went against my fundamental belief that all people, regardless of their actions or inactions, are good and worthy of love, and here I was extracting my love and making them the enemy.

Who is the enemy anyway? With lots of listening to myself and others, I realized that these people were actually the perfect mirror for me and the gateway to my own healing.

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We Want to Be Part of the Solution

2020 Tamarack Board CollageThis is the first you have heard from Tamarack about the recent racial violence and subsequent rallies for justice that have occurred around the world. We have though been anything but silent.

Internally we debated how to respond. A variety of individuals provided advice for us to consider. At Tamarack, we wanted to ground our conversation in learning and change. 

We also wanted to hear from our members – some said we need to make a statement - others insisted it was not our place. What we did agree upon was that we would take our time to learn together as a team and to the take the time it takes to become engaged in long term change. That meaningful change can only happen through dialogue and understanding. Our work has taught us that telling people what to believe and how to act is far less effective than working together to create a common agenda.

On June 23, our staff team started a one-month learning process. We want to create a space where we all understand how we can be part of the change as individuals and collectively as an organization. The last session of our learning journey is to consider next steps we can take as an organization internally and then also externally. We will share our commitments with you after that session. I am sure our actions will take several years of effort to complete. This is important – we want to make it a priority.

Our board encouraged us to make a statement. Below is the statement that commits us to a path of learning and action. We are releasing it today to you our learners.

We look forward to working with you, our members and learners, as we learn and grow in understanding and action.

Tamarack’s Commitment to Anti-Racism

Tamarack’s long standing work on poverty reduction has helped us understand the importance of ensuring that individuals with lived experience of poverty are at the forefront of our work. We acknowledge how these voices and experience are often missing from decision making processes.  

The COVID pandemic has starkly revealed and exacerbated systemic inequities in our society, and individuals with fewer resources, from communities of colour, newcomers, Indigenous communities have faced a deeper and more negative impact during this unprecedented time.

The recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Elijah Mcclain, to name a few are clear examples of abuse and racism that run deep in our society. And Canada is not immune to this; we deeply feel the injustices that resulted in the killings of Chantel Moore, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, and others. We are called to respond and change.  

At Tamarack, we acknowledge that systemic racism is very real and prevalent across our country. As an organization and as individuals we recognize that we are part of and have benefited from said system. We want to change this, to become an organization that strives to be anti-racist and that takes action to end systemic racism. 

The Board and Staff of Tamarack have committed to take a learning and change journey. Our efforts will focus on understanding the roots of racism and building an approach to change and transform how we work.  

We know that these will be difficult and challenging conversations, but we commit ourselves to this work. We promise you, our members and stakeholders, to listen, share our learnings with you and engage you in this important and ongoing work. 

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The Latest from Tamarack

Upcoming Events & Courses

Turf, Trust, and Virtual Collaboration

Virtual Workshop 

July 28 | Sold Out - Join the Waitlist

August 13 | Sold Out - Join the Waitlist

Communities use collaboration to tackle some of their most complex issues, but we often dive into collaboration without truly understanding or embracing the human side of this work. This is even more challenging in a virtual environment.

Join Liz Weaver for an online workshop designed to equip you with
simple, practical tools and approaches to building trust in a virtual environment, and effectively engaging diverse community partners.

Learn more and register

_2020 TTC Virtual Square


Foundations of Community Engagement

Online Course | Access course materials anytime and learn at your own pace

Join Tamarack's Lisa Attygalle, Director of Community Engagement, in this new online course designed to build a foundation of knowledge and practice for your community engagement work.

Through video lessons, case studies, readings, and activities, you'll dig into the role of community, who should be engaged, community engagement techniques, how to overcome challenges, and how to evaluate your engagement activities.

This course is available to use at your own pace, but you'll be learning alongside a diverse group of Tamarack Institute learners. Engage in comments and questions on the online platform, and join Lisa for monthly small group coaching to get more personalized feedback and insight.

Learn more and register

2020 CE Foundations Square


Upcoming Webinars

Circle: A Container to Host Conversations that Matter

Date: July 16, 2020

Speakers: Ame-Lia Tamburrini & Sylvia Cheuy


Virtual Work is Here: A Guide for Youth in the Virtual Workforce

Date: July 22, 2020

Speakers: Lina Pulido, Miranda Newman and Chelsea Ward


Navigating Change: Three Tools for Moving from Response to Resilience

Date: July 29, 2020

Speakers: Liz Weaver & Sylvia Cheuy


Engaging Youth: Inspiring Stories and Lessons Learned / Engager les jeunes: récits inspirants et leçons apprises 

Date: August 19, 2020

Speakers / Conférencières: Lisa Attygalle & Kimber Kunimoto