Our Blog

Authentic Community Engagement Requires Vulnerability

By Risa Wilkerson on May 18th, 2016

When was the last time you were disarmed and uncomfortable in a professional setting, and stayed in that place longer than usual for the greater good? In order to create healthy community change, community engagement is vital and can sometimes create such discomfort. One of Active Living By Design’s six Essential Practices, community engagement is an intentional process of empowering adult and/or youth residents to authentically engage in and contribute to the planning and implementation of solutions within their own communities.

“Authentic” is the key word. Engaging communities means more than informing the public; it requires having ongoing, two-way dialogue. Community engagement requires a level of uncertainty, risk, and an openness to divergent ideas that can make many of us nervous.

Objections to authentic community engagement often run along the lines of:

  • “It will take too long, and we have a deadline.”
  • “We already know what the community thinks.”
  • “We know what is best for them,” or “They just need to be educated.”
  • “The funds are intended to address X, but the community wants to talk about Y.”
  • “We would like to, but the board/administration won’t allow it.”

There are a lot of ways we justify not reaching out to people in the community. And when stakes are high or a lot of resources are invested, control is something we cling to tightly (“we” being nonprofit organizations, government representatives, and foundations, among others). Strategic planning is important for organizations like these to thrive, yet a fully-formed plan that lacks the community’s voice can create conflict and backlash from the people we are trying to serve. Taking a risk by asking for outside input—where the outcome of a decision cannot be predicted—puts us in a vulnerable position.

But this vulnerability is precisely what opens the door to connection, understanding, and empathy—all of which enrich the process of community engagement.

Brené Brown addressed this issue in her 2010 TED Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability.” Much of her research focuses on individuals and connection, and the concepts also apply to organizations seeking to create healthy community change. When it comes to resident input, even well-meaning nonprofits, local governments, and foundations hesitate to seem vulnerable or “lean into the discomfort of the work,” to use Brown’s words.

As Henry Grabar puts it in a recent planning article, “The professionalization of the field demanded answers, and metrics like fear, hope, and pleasure are harder to measure than property values and job growth.” We tend to gravitate toward absolutes and quantifiable answers, but community engagement introduces equally important qualitative data that may be more difficult to quantify, thus exposing vulnerabilities.

Nonprofits, local governments, and foundations that embrace that vulnerability and consistently engage the community in their processes are more likely to create stronger connections and build greater trust with the people who are impacted the most by programs, policies, and environmental changes.

In Rancho Cucamonga, CA, for example, the city government created Healthy RC, a partnership that integrates community residents’ voices into much of the city’s departmental work, normalizing such engagement rather than viewing it as a novel approach. Loosening the reigns on our plans and presumptions and allowing community members to influence our decisions along the way can actually increase efficiency and help us to get it right the first time. Trust is built through shared power, openness, transparency, and a certain level of vulnerability.

A recent blog post by the Interaction Institute for Social Change beautifully describes that moment of judgement needed to navigate community input. The facilitation of this moment is both inspiring and instructional. And the author sums up the point nicely by saying: “It takes [a] level of vulnerability on all of our parts to step into the scary place of facing our blind spots and hearing corrective information that can help us to change.”

Risa Wilkerson

Executive Director

Action-driven optimist, abundance thinker, and simplicity seeker.