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Community Engagement: Why It Matters

Posted on April 13, 2016
By Megan Wanless
engage-april2016-ifw2.jpgThere is a temptation, particularly in data-driven and evidence-based practices, to act in a top down manner in the design and implementation of community engagement programs.

But, there is power in those with lived experience and in reframing approaches and opportunities that engage community members directly in social change.

In an article recently published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review, "Community Engagement Matters (Now More Than Ever)", Melody Barnes and Paul Schmitz juxtapose what not to do to effect social change with six factors that are essential to building community support by way of a top down, data-driven example of educational reform in a Newark community, led in isolation by philanthropists and city leaders.

The lessons learned by such unsuccessful efforts to move the needle on systems change have become acutely relevant in recent years, according to Barns and Schmitz.

In simplest terms, they stress the importance of engagement directly with community members to effect evidence-based social change.

In order to accomplish this, the article details six Factors of Engagement that are said to be essential to building community support. The factors are complementary:

  1. Organize for Ownership - The International Association for Public Participation has developed a spectrum that encompasses various forms of engagement. At one end is informing, on the other end is empowerment. Organizing for ownership is about cultivating leaders within the community and empowering them to lead or be a part of leading change at every phase of your initiative.

  2. Allowing for Complexity - Instead of trying to "plug and play" your approach, recognize and consider the complex systems of influences and the cultural context when you plan for and execute on your engagement efforts.

  3. Working with Local Institutions - In some cases, local organizations have built up social capital that creates an enabling environment for engagement. Collaboration with local groups can take effort but goes a long way towards building capacity.

  4. Applying an Equity Lens - Too often social change efforts do not engage the right people. Members of the community should not only be at the table, they should hold leadership positions as well.

  5. Building Momentum - One of the ways to accomplish momentum is by achieving quick wins up front - early examples of demonstrated progress. These can help enable community members to see that their engagement matters.

  6. Managing Constituencies Through Change - When evolving your engagement strategy, be mindful of the impact and perception various constituencies may have to change. Transparency, visibility and continuous communication all play a role in managing change with key stakeholders.

One example of a collaborative actively demonstrating the benefits of engagement directly with the community to effect social change is the Promise Neighbourhood Institute at PolicyLink (PNI). Promise Neighbourhoods are communities of opportunity centered around strong schools to wrap children in supports from cradle to college to career. To effect change, they effectively coordinate the efforts of and engage with local schools, families, social services, health centres, and community-building programs to serve 200,000 children nationwide.

Learn more:

Community Engagement, Megan Wanless

Megan Wanless

By Megan Wanless

Megan is a Senior Community Animator at the Tamarack Institute and works across the organization to improve and deepen the learning experience for over 27,000 members within Tamarack’s learning communities and online platforms. Having worked with Tamarack for over 5 years, Megan oversees key strategic areas for the organization including strategic learning, content production and events. Prior to Tamarack, Megan worked in the field of international development, earning a Master of Social Science degree from the University of Edinburgh and worked in Malawi to engage with communities around sexual and reproductive rights using applied theatre. With a Bachelor Arts Degree in Theatre, Megan has been leveraging theatre as a tool for community change for many years and has had the pleasure of practicing it in communities within Canada as well as South Africa, Uganda and Malawi.

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