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Three Tips for Hyper-Local Community Engagement

By Risa Wilkerson on November 15th, 2018

Earlier this fall, on a whim, I emailed the families who live in the eight houses nearest to mine and invited them to an informal block party. My expectations were low (to match my planning). But what happened was a real-life version of the stone soup story, and I’m reflecting on the good that came of it.

Twenty-two people showed up, ranging from four to 76 years old. Along with my five pizzas, others brought chips and dip, homemade casseroles, beverages, and fold-out chairs. It also happened to be one person’s birthday, so her husband brought a cake and we all sang “Happy Birthday.” Someone else supplied speakers and music, and all the children came with a ball, bike, or toy. What’s more, a neighbor sent a message to the same email list two weeks later, inviting everyone to watch an outdoor movie in their yard (which was a first for the neighborhood).

I didn’t conduct a survey to evaluate the event, but I learned a few tips about how to transform a spur-of-the-moment impulse into a community-building success.

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

I didn’t send a Doodle poll to find the best date. I didn’t delegate food responsibilities or ask about the best location. I just emailed, “I’ll be setting up some pizzas, drinks, chairs, and a table on the road this Saturday evening. We'll keep it informal and would love just to hang and chat with whoever can join us!” While these are examples of how not to organize a convening (at Healthy Places by Design, we’re fans of a robust “annotated agenda” that describes roles and responsibilities to the minute), reducing the formality of an event can make it easier to make things happen.

“Readiness” is one example of how pressure for a perfect outcome can get in the way of getting things done. We often hear that people don’t feel ready to address certain topics in their communities. They aren’t ready to approach those in positions of power with a request; or aren’t ready to relinquish their power to community leaders; or aren’t ready to talk about—or fund—strategies that address health disparities caused by racism and poverty.

But there is never a “perfect” time to disrupt the status quo. Taking action only when the timing feels right is a privilege and a reminder of who holds power. If you ask people who are most impacted by racial injustice, lack of resources, or the daily stressors of poverty, they’re ready for change. They’ve been ready.

Being a connector is valued and requires little more than trust and transparency.

My ulterior motive for the block party was to plant a seed for creating a sense of trust and sharing among neighbors, so that when a crisis does happen, or when one of us needs the proverbial cup of sugar, we’d be better equipped to support each other. While this isn’t a new idea, it seems to be fading in our current culture. My neighbors thanked me repeatedly over the course of the night. I reminded them that all I did was send an email, buy some pizza, and walk down my driveway.

But when creating healthier communities, there are higher stakes. To stand up, speak out, and organize around something you believe in might not go as smoothly. That doesn’t mean your contribution doesn’t make a difference. As a connector, you can help people who too often go unheard find their voices, amplify their messages, and set the table to see who shows up.

Elected officials like to say that “all politics is local.” All healthy changes are also local. Sometimes hyper-local! And it is liberating to know that change can happen in ways that don’t always require attending a city council meeting or waiting for a proposal to be funded. And when coordinated action is needed, local connections help build shared understanding and a more unified voice to mobilize.

You don’t need an evaluator to know if social cohesion is happening.

Neighbors across the street from me, who had lived there for eight years, met the neighbors next door to me, who had lived there for a decade, for the first time.

Goals like “connectedness” are hard to measure, but you can tell when it’s working. Neighbors come together when there is a crisis or when an issue isn’t being addressed. Joanne Lee referenced this idea earlier in the year, pointing out that neighbors “just may not be engaged in a way that corresponds to a formal model, or in the way that professionals (who are often outsiders in paid positions) define it.” Our sector often relies on academics with advanced degrees to let us know if community members feel a sense of belonging. But sometimes going directly to the source can be even more informative.

Two families couldn’t come to the block party, and one family spent the evening in the hospital by the night’s end (don’t worry, everyone was fine), but that doesn’t mean the event didn’t meet its intended goal of social connection. And now, despite the colder weather, I’m seeing more neighbors lingering on the street as they rake leaves, walk their dogs, and get the mail. Most importantly, they’re talking to each other.

Risa Wilkerson

Executive Director

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