Putting the Community into Community Engagement


This essay was originally posted to The Huffington Post on July 10, 2014.

Community. Engagement.

These two words get a lot of air time at the tables where coalition leaders exchange ideas about how to create “needle moving change,” whether the topic is childhood obesity, teen pregnancy or college readiness. Every group of leaders believes community engagement is critical to success. Every group laments they don’t do it soon enough, often enough, long enough or well enough. Post mortems of community change initiatives frequently cite “lack of community engagement or buy-in” as a reason for failure.

Those of us pushing for community change know that community members are the engine of systemic changes in the attitudes, norms and behaviors that are necessary for big systems reform. So why is it so hard to engage the community? How hard should organizations like mine push leaders to increase community engagement in these complex collective impact partnerships? What tricks can we offer when they say they’ve already tried?

Low community engagement seems to be the norm in the community change business, much like low parent involvement is the bane of educators. So it helps to look at community engagement the way educators look at parent engagement. A recent blog from the CUNY Institute for Education Policy defined parent involvement along three domains: school involvement (participation in school events, interactions with teachers), home involvement (activities at home, such as reading and checking homework) and parent engagement (parent/child conversations about educational aspirations and expectations).

These domains make sense not only for parent involvement; they explain much of the confusion we see when working with coalitions and partnerships that try to involve the community. Let’s look at how coalition leaders typically engage their communities, and how those methods line up with the parent involvement domains:

Events are by far the most frequent method, ranging from focus groups to summits and town hall meetings. These usually occur at the beginning of a planning process, when those at the planning table want to announce their intent, check their early assumptions, gather input and recruit volunteers. However, once the notes are reviewed and course corrections made, there is little else to show for the effort. Success gets measured by increased turnout for the next event or survey.

These “join us” approaches feel like school involvement. Let’s call this “coalition involvement.”

Pledges are solicited after the big goal is set (e.g., increase college completion) and a series of strategies are identified (such as enlisting more tutors). Everyone who was at the previous event is asked to contribute to the goal. In collective impact language, this is a call for individuals and organizations to shift toward mutually reinforcing activities.

Pledges feel like the equivalent of home involvement. Let’s call this “organizational involvement.”

Empowered alignment takes more time and resources, but brings the promise and power that’s often associated with community organizing. You start with multiple individuals and organizations that have created independent tables, with their seats filled by leaders who would feel marginalized or underutilized in “big table” events and pledge efforts. These tables include parents and residents, local advocates and community based organizations, and smaller coalitions that work on issues that they feel are as important as the one in the spotlight. These independent tables feel like the equivalent of the kitchen tables where parents and children talk about education and career plans.

Commitment by the “big table” leaders to acknowledge and support these existing tables may be the most authentic type of community engagement. Let’s call this approach “empowered alignment.”

Coalition leaders understand the value of the basic relationship infrastructure that undergirds their work with each other: things like regular meetings, clear roles and dedicated staffing. They often support the development of similar infrastructures for the work groups or action teams they set up to be one step closer to the ground. (A “cradle to career” education partnership, for example, might set up work groups that focus on kindergarten readiness and college completion.)

Less often, however, do the big table coalition leaders align the multiple existing tables. Case in point: Leaders in Atlanta created a regional partnership that included a focus on increasing college and career readiness. They understood that the solutions went beyond school reform and financial aid. They reached out to the numerous local coalitions that focused on such youth issues as teen pregnancy, violence, substance abuse and obesity. They asked them to join action teams, each organized by age group.

Sounds inclusive. Still, some groups felt that their efforts cut across several of the action teams. They didn’t have time to participate in multiple groups. While they understood how their work contributes to school success, they weren’t convinced that the strategies they focus on would be prioritized on the teams.

The leaders of the regional partnership were dealing with multiple tables, which had to be nourished and aligned. That’s not easy. Among the challenges: Who convenes these tables? Who provides backbone support? How do they connect back to the larger initiative?

It can be done. In my next blog I’ll report about interviews with several local and regional coalitions that invested in multiple tables to expand perspectives, learning and action. Meanwhile, see this new blog from FSG about community engagement challenges in collective impact work.


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