The understanding of community engagement in our field has matured from decision-making informed by residents—like information gathering (surveys), time-limited dialogue (key informant interviews), and tokenism (one resident “spokesperson” on a committee)—to decision-making by and with residents. Yet the term “community engagement” is now used so frequently that its meaning has become ambiguous. Without an understanding of the frame and approach under which it is being used, the term “community engagement” can mistakenly imply that residents are not already engaged in their communities. This can be problematic, conveying a “doing to or for” approach rather than one that supports community-led efforts.
In a rural town near my home, a recent winter storm toppled several large trees. Some of them fell across Main Street, blocking the only route into and out of town. Because of budget constraints and heavier-than-usual snow and ice, the town couldn’t deploy equipment to remove the tree for a couple of weeks. In the meantime, residents had to continue their daily activities. Some took the path of least resistance and changed their schedules so that they wouldn’t need to leave town for a few days. Some took their usual route on Main Street, risking their personal safety to get around the fallen trees. And some people called the town office, one by one, to advocate that the tree be removed immediately. After two days of frustrating approaches to navigating around or ignoring the trees, a local farmer and a group of volunteer firefighters pooled resources and removed the trees themselves. Despite not having a model or formal approach to convene and strategize, community members figured out how to adapt to or solve this problem because they needed to get on with their lives.
While community context is more complex than any one example, this story emphasizes the need to recognize that residents are already engaged in their communities. They 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 “community engagement.”
Well-intended professionals often ask how they can better engage residents to achieve a community or health improvement outcome. However, if a particular health outcome is the sole purpose of community engagement, neither will ever be achieved. Our focus should be on the process and benefits of engagement itself; the formal and informal ways in which residents already operate within their communities; and how they address issues that they feel need to be changed. So how might we effectively support authentic, community-led health improvements?
Be curious. Learn how community residents are already interacting within their political climates and built and social environments. Understand how they are navigating their day-to-day lives and priorities, individually and collectively.
Focus on the formal and informal processes of engagement rather than the desired health issue or strategy. And be clear about what we, as professionals or outsiders, can offer that would actually be valuable to the community and address residents’ priorities. Coalitions and funders can find appropriate roles around offering resources, facilitation, and other supports to help residents leverage collective action and power.
Active Living By Design’s definition of community engagement, one of our Essential Practices, notes that “Coupled with action, empowerment is an ideal outcome of true resident engagement and community organizing.” Communities are dynamic places with various and ever-changing contextual factors that residents are adept at navigating every day. Only when we understand that effective community engagement builds from existing community agency, rather than creating it, can we truly achieve sustainable, community-led outcomes. Join us and other leaders in the field, like ReThink Health, to remove roadblocks to community and resident engagement.