Is Community Engagement just lip service or is it empowerment? Is it simply a box to check or a meaningful enquiry? Do we focus on soliciting input to justify our programs and initiatives or do we genuinely seek guidance from the community about how best to serve them? With limited resources, tight timelines and pressure to get things done, it can be overwhelming to think about opening processes up; especially since that could lead to surprises and results that contradict convention. Yet, every time we engage the community we have the opportunity to learn and shape the work in ways that will be meaningful, practical and implementable.
Learning from successful Community Engagement, here are a few things to keep in mind when building your plan:
- Who needs to be involved? The people who have the lived experience of the situation. Since they are living the reality everyday they are the experts in knowing what makes their neighbourhoods unique, what the strengths of the neighbourhood are and where they could use a little outside help to make where they are living even better. To ensure that engagement is authentic, it is crucial that those who want to be involved can be involved and that the engagement is representative of the people, values and interests in the neighbourhood.
- Where should you engage people? Go to where the people already are. Go to their neighbourhood, visit the local parks, attend local events and spend time with local clubs and services. Partnering with agencies who are active in the neighbourhood is a great way to reach people who might otherwise be missed.
- When is the best time to engage the community? Whenever it is the most convenient for them. Ideally, you will have multiple engagement opportunities on varying days of the week and different times to ensure that everyone has a chance to share their thoughts and insights and pose their questions.
- What methods of engagement are best? There are a plethora of methods for engaging communities. There is always the traditional survey and focus groups. But why not incorporate an arts-based activity or host a series of neighbourhood coffee conversations? Feel free to be creative!
At the heart of meaningful, authentic Community Engagement are four key elements: connections, trust, relationship and action. Take the time to get to know community members, when you know each other relationships form and trust develops, ultimately leading to deeper engagement. Following through on what you learn and what you say you will do is essential to continuing to build trust and relationship which will impact the overall success of any change spurred by the engagement efforts. Authentic community engagement is the best way to ensure that the best-laid plans do not end up on a shelf rather come to life in the community.