Honoring the Practice of Community Engagement by Karen DeYoung

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…the process of working collaboratively with and through groups of people affiliated by geographic proximity, special interest, or similar situations to address issues affecting the well-being of those people. – CDC, Principles of Community Engagement*

I was recently reminded of the importance of using community engagement principles when a client hired DeYoung Consulting to gather community input; the project’s purpose was to use those insights to ensure equity in delivery of their services. While I’m often engaged to plan and implement such a project, in this case I was to serve as facilitator. The client was using their own framework to organize the meetings, recruit participants and structure the meeting. This framework was very unlike my own practice, which includes engaging community members from the beginning of the process.

Using community engagement practices, I have seen nonprofit organizations and government agencies partner with community members create a collective vision, enhance buy-in, establish improved service delivery, inform policy-making, expand awareness and instill a sense of the individual’s significance in the larger decisions that affect their lives and
.

Some key elements of effective community engagement include:

  • Understanding the broader sense of community
  • Representing as many of the affected communities’ as possible (i.e. private citizens, leaders from communities of color, service providers, faith-based communities, seniors, etc.)
  • Abandoning any assumptions one has about the involved communities
  • Honoring the fact that a participant’s culture and background shapes their concept of community, and
  • Embracing the co-learning process

Additionally, efforts should begin by asking the community what they would like to see/what they need. In the case of my most recent client, they decided to present pre-selected data points to which the community would respond. As the meeting unfolded, it became clear that the community could not relate to this data. After a few minutes, we ended up honoring the dynamics of this group and simply documenting their concerns.

Few would describe true community engagement as “easy.” It is time-consuming and can be quite messy. But it is effective. And the benefits of working in partnership with the community are worth it.

*CDC, 1997, p 9 – published in CDC, Principles of Community Engagement Second Edition, 2011, p. 3