Lots of organizations and institutions struggle with how to do effective "community engagement." And almost everywhere we go, the most common attitude we encounter is FRUSTRATION. Often times, we work to help our partners get in touch with the "WHY" of community engagement. We know that its generally a good idea to get folks involved in your stuff, but what are you really after? And is the 'community engagement' approach you are using really designed to get you those things?
In recent work with The Community Builders, a large non-profit housing development organization with thousands of housing units all over the country, we have had the opportunity to develop a clearer, more operational delineation of both the "point" of community engagement and what we think our work to increase community engagement can yield in mixed income developments.
The Community Builders, through an initiative called Ways and Means, is trying to transform and re-design their approach to supporting resident economic success and quality of community life in thier mixed income developments. Ways and Means has many components, but one important aspect is "community engagement" - activating and mobilizing residents to participate in community life in positive ways.
Getting a handle on how to do this work effectively has been a challenge -- as it generally is for the entire field. How do you start, what do you focus on, how do you know when you are effective, what can we expect to see in terms of results? All of these questions tend to pile up in front of us and the net effect is - at best - lots of ambivalence about what we are doing, how we are doing it and why we are bothering. And as any community builder will tell you....ambivalence - the opposite of aspirational energy - will cause more harm than good when it comes to connecting with and building trust with residents.
Last month I was asked to be a resource person for a group of site staff who are working to tackle this problem. In our early conversations we were able to see what the practice on the ground was telling us about the "WHY" question. The result was a Framework that, at least for Ways and Means, breaks the general imperative for "community engagement" up into three really important and operational (and hopefully measurable) sub-imperatives: (See Graphic Below)
Increasing Mutual Support - To what extent are we creating an environment where neighbors are more likely to know each other and help each other? Are we finding and deploying the talents, energy and knowledge of neighbors in the 'programmatic' rooms so that we have more net capacity?
Increasing Stewardship of the Environment -To what extent are we providing the opportunities for residents to lead, volunteer and take a measure of ownership over the prospects of "quality of life" in the property?Do we have enough transparency and shared decision-making so that these are genuine opportunities for co-ownership?
Bridging Divides - To what extent are we aware of and actively/intentionally working on helping residents step up as "connectors" across lines of difference in the property; across generational lines, racial lines, economic lines, spatial lines, so that we can forge a genuine community in the property, and connect the property to the community at large.
Beyond helping us understand the "why", this delineation is prompting exactly the questions and analysis that we need in order to get to another level of intentionality around this work.