Making It Real: Only Authentic Community Engagement Can Be Equitable
We cannot expect those who control the system to make the changes that will impact people with lived experience. Even those organizations with the most genuine intentions can contribute negatively and unknowingly to conditions that oppress those who are marginalized. It is nearly impossible to manufacture solutions to solve problems when one is incapable of understanding the entirety of one’s conditions. It is only through a process of authentic community engagement where individuals with lived experience can be included the discussion as decision makers and drivers of those solutions.
When Strategy Arts began fully implementing community engagement strategies in our processes over a year ago, we quickly realized the strength that authentic engagement possessed in all our projects. Some organizations, we discovered, were more than ready to fully implement community engagement while others needed more time to learn and grow. Our main priority was to ensure that it wasn’t the trendy community engagement, but that it was intentional, transparent… real. Our focus was to ensure that we had a lens on diversity, equity and inclusion — not the acronym — and that we added additional support where necessary to fulfill capacity for projects that were community-centric.
We define community engagement as both a purposeful process and an outcome developed through a working relationship with a community that involves decision-making, relationship development, and capacity building to move a vision forward in action. It is implemented to build and ensure equity; by recognizing that communities require different resources and support, the organization can work towards the goal of eliminating disparities while empowering individuals within those communities to maintain or regain their agency. It is implemented to address issues and problems, by seeking viable and credible strategies that are proposed or reinforced by the communities who are the most experienced with the issue. It is implemented to design solutions; by conducting meaningful engagement that also enhances the efforts of the organization as open, accountable and willing to listen.
Traditionally, in collective impact there has been heightened criticism around community engagement as being inauthentic and not functioning at the level needed to implement real change:
-Vu Le’s article “Why Communities of Color are Getting Frustrated with Collective Impact” and subsequent talks point to some of the rationale for what collective impact gets wrong around community engagement from Columbusing (where organizations or academics position community engagement strategies as new though they have long existed) to Trickle-Down Community Engagement (where organizations bypass the people most affected then expect them to help for free after the organizations receive funding).
-Another type of base level community engagement that organizations take part in is also known as “checking the box,” which emphasizes meeting the minimum requirement (usually for grants and funding) that enables them to proceed. According to Kerrien Suarez at Equity In the Center, this is a transactional phase where organizations simply count and check the type of diversity present at their organization or in their planning efforts. Sherry R. Arnstein initially challenges checking the box in her seminal 1969 publication A Ladder of Citizen Participation where she describes community engagement as having eight levels of power in the planning process from manipulation to citizen control.
As community engagement strategists, we assist in the act of translation from the community to the collective or vice versa. We do not formulate the solutions but help to structure the environment and engineer the bridges to connect communities and the organizations that seek to serve them. This role is fraught with complexity as we are paid consultants who need to be welcomed into communities that likely have had inauthentic efforts attempted in the past. While we work for the clients who are usually a nonprofit organization, government agency or initiative that sought out our services for support with organizational issues or strategic planning, we are deeply committed to processes that co-create with the communities being served. Strategy Arts understands that embarking into community engagement with the organizations we contract with could be problematic if our work was not intentional. We also live by our mission to be inclusive and representative. Often the greatest critique of this kind of work is that people of color or those with lived experience are not hired or paid to do community engagement. Unfortunately, and many times to the detriment of the community, it remains common that those who are doing “community engagement work” are not from those communities. Some firms instead make recommendations about engagement and devise a plan that may not emphasize the appropriate outreach or qualitative outcomes. Simply because community engagement, if done right, is challenging work, complex to quantify and valuable at so many levels.
Empowering those from underrepresented communities to speak into solutions with the resources that rightfully belong to them, is the bread and butter of community engagement. When we’re no longer needed to bridge those gaps with the community and organizations, and when there is a keen understanding that people within their own communities are the experts, we will happily be out of a job. But for now, there is more work to be done.
“People who are in poverty understand the problem and the solutions, they just need the opportunity and the equity to move forward.” –john a. powell, Relationship Between Race and Poverty in the Time of Othering