Advancing Our Practice: Sharing Strategies and Expertise

An experienced event planner wondering how to connect new constituencies to critical community conversations. An animal advocate struggling with working across cultures to prevent animal cruelty. A state employee charged with seeking community input on issues that have largely already been decided. An artist bridging the roles of community member and practitioner.

These were just a few of the community engagement professionals who attended the Building the Field of Community Engagement initiative’s final Engaged Learning Series event of 2015. Several dozen people gathered in North Minneapolis in September for the event titled Advancing Our Practice: Sharing Strategies and Expertise. The event gave community engagement practitioners a space to explore challenges with their peers, as well as to brainstorm possible solutions and action strategies to test in their work.

For those of us who have been involved in the Building the Field initiative since its inception, the Engaged Learning Series events have always served as informal surveys of what community engagement practitioners are thinking about and struggling with. People often come to these events with more questions than answers.

We view that as a good thing. Community engagement is an evolving field, and it is a practice that must constantly change by definition. As community engagement professionals, we must always be open to new ways of doing, knowing and learning. Participants at the September event raised many questions that have surfaced at previous events, as well as new ones that push us to think creatively about what information and tools we need to be successful as a field. The questions generally fall into three categories:

Engaging Community Members

  • What is the most effective way to engage communities that are less receptive to change?
  • How do we change our messaging to reach new communities?
  • Who has identified solutions in our communities? Do community members have other ideas?
  • How do we use community engagement to get a greater variety of people involved in our work?
  • How do we inspire people to participate more deeply?
  • How can we effectively engage the community through the arts? How do we use art to help people heal?
  • How do we get out of the way and keep true to the process of community engagement?
  •  What should we do when we inherit relationships that have been transactional in the past?

Building and Maintaining Support within Organizations

  • How do we create buy-in and support for community engagement? What tactics can we use to build the case?
  • How can we build authentic community engagement within organizations that have historically not used this strategy
  • How do we integrate community engagement practices as integral values at large institutions?
  • How can we encourage authentic community engagement in short-term institutional decision-making?

Bringing Together the Knowledge and Interests of Organizations and Community Members

  • How do we bridge the gaps between funders and the stories we know from communities?
  • Once we have organizational buy-in, how do we communicate the value of community engagement to external stakeholders like funders, donors and people who use services?
  • How can we capture the wisdom of experienced practitioners in organizations, while also allowing space for the wisdom of communities?
  • How do we encourage leaders to care about the lives and struggles of community members?

Participants also added ideas for solutions, based on the knowledge and experience they have gained in their communities. These recommendations are also divided into three categories.

Valuing and understanding community members:

  • We need to have a real understanding of why communities hold their beliefs
  • We need to highlight the value of community members’ expertise in decision-making and policymaking
  • We need to celebrate everyone’s abilities and talents
  • When people share their narratives, that is community engagement
  • We need to hire staff from the community
  • We need to acknowledge and validate people’s lived experiences
  • We must redefine success on the community’s terms
  • We need to ask community members: What would trust look like for you? How should we show up? What should we talk about?

Letting go of our own need to control the process:

  • We need to do more listening than talking
  • We need to get rid of our need to “own” the work
  •  If we are not a part of the mission, we cannot do the work—we have to work in our realm of influence

Implementing strong community engagement practices:

  • Relationships are the basis for everything, and relationships take time
  • Self-awareness is key to understanding the difference between outreach and engagement
  • We can use our own personal stories to make connections with others
  • People come together around issues that matter to them—we need to facilitate that process
  • We need to create safe spaces for engagement
  • We can create spaces where people feel empowered through artistic expression

The list of questions and recommendations sheds some light on the types of conversations we need to have and hope to continue as we look to 2016. The next year will bring exciting changes and new opportunities to engage in the Building the Field of Community Engagement initiative. What is clear is that this work is only just beginning. We need to keep raising questions, and we need diverse voices to lead and engage in these conversations to build upon these practical answers. With each iteration of this work, the questions evolve and the answers deepen, because they are generated by diverse people who care deeply and bring experience and knowledge from many different contexts. This shows that together, we are building the field of community engagement.