A Path Towards Authentic Community Engagement

A Path Towards Authentic Community Engagement

An equity-driven collective impact movement should seek to disrupt and reform unequal power dynamics. As we wrote in the previous piece in this series, structurally engaging stakeholders who typically have low political capital is key.

This is part II of our Bringing Community Engagement to Cross-Sector Initiatives. Read the first part here.

Collective impact initiatives cannot be piecemeal and short-term, but rather they should serve as integral components of a long-term movement for sustainable, systemic change. Therefore, sites may need to move from basic technical interventions toward adaptive approaches that integrate critiques of structures and systems. To meaningfully reform those systems requires engaging communities in the social movement itself. One of the most important roles of the collective impact table is facilitating and supporting capacity building in communities. The goal of this work is to nurture and leverage civic power and place it at the center of collective action and policy work.

Such efforts require an explicit discussion of race and equity and the institutionalized structures that support inequity. Collective impact teams can model equitable processes by engaging community residents. Although participants recognize this need, engaging residents and community-based organizations in ways that encourage genuine feedback and long-term, meaningful partnerships requires training and resources. It also takes will to pursue community empowerment goals and actually transfer decision-making power to residents. Sites’ ongoing commitment to horizontal power structures can foster collaboration, community-building, and problem-solving strategies that are centered around and accountable to community members.

Keep “Nothing about us, without us” in mind

When communities aren’t in the driving seat and in control of their change process, efforts will likely fail to achieve their intended impacts. Treat community members as producers and actors, rather than subjects or passive service recipients.

Confront the unavoidable power dynamics at play

Begin your work by acknowledging and confronting the unavoidable power dynamics at play. This acknowledgement should include challenging your lens or the lens with which your team approaches the work (disrupting notions of saviorism, questioning preconceived ideas about and biases toward members of priority communities). Understand how your own social status will be perceived by those you seek to serve. Understand the ways your institutions may have historically treated those you serve and how community members may see you as a result. It’s important that table members consider strategies to mediate relevant tensions (such as culturally competent and trauma-informed processes).

Acknowledge your limitations as an outsider

If you are not a member of the community you seek to serve, know that your understanding of the community is naturally limited. There will likely be intracommunity differences that you must reconcile if your table wants to address the variability of challenges the communities are facing. There will likely also be a unique collection of strengths that not only exist in, but can only be provided by and for, the community. These strengths should be acknowledged, respected and reinforced by those outside who are seeking to serve. Your gaps in knowledge will likely not be filled with occasional visits to the community or by listening to infrequent testimonies from residents. Community members hold implicit, nuanced and invaluable knowledge that makes their participation crucial.

Treat community members as authentic partners

Commitment to equity demands that initiative processes be equitable. Community engagement is not a box to check, but rather a core element of the model. Strategies to building authentic partnerships may include hiring community members to serve on your backbone team; providing space for residents to be at every table consistently (including holding the meetings at a place within the community itself and at a time convenient for community members); compensating community members for their time and contributions to initiative-related work, which includes paying a living wage for their time and covering their transportation fees if community members have to travel; and providing daycare options if needed. The work residents and community members provide to the team is indispensable; the team must accommodate and compensate them as indispensable members.

Avoid tokenizing community members

It may be easy to find a few particularly enthusiastic community leaders. Avoid the trap of allowing only these few community members to have a voice at the initiative table. There is a multiplicity of experiences within any given community, moderated by a range of factors, including but not limited to, age, race, culture, gender, income, family status, work status and health. It is important that the initiative seeks out and integrates that diversity when building community leadership into its processes and structures. Recognize that leaders in community-based organizations, although important players, cannot be substitutes for resident representation.

Build relationships

Community members need to know you as familiar faces, partners and friends. Achieving this kind of relationship will not happen if there is not a diligent effort to establish rapport outside of work meetings, particularly for those who have limited on-the-ground exposure to and interaction with priority communities. One way to foster steady engagement is to host meetings in community spaces, as opposed to asking residents to come to you. Hosting meetings in community spaces relays the message that the team is invested in making the work about the community. Meetings may also be effective if led and facilitated by trusted community members who are trained to appropriately engage everyone.

Be accountable and transparent

Community members who are not individually integrated into initiative work need to be informed about who the initiative team is, why they are doing what they are doing, and what they are offering the communities. Find a way to allow the community to identify measures of success for themselves and be accountable to those measures in the same way the table is accountable to the measures each of their institutions is at the table to achieve together. Further, regularly disseminate information and updates about initiative plans and activities and do so in the communities’ native languages. Consistent systemic communication that solicits feedback must be maintained every step of the way. Provide opportunities for involvement when circulating information and make clear that the work cannot be accomplished without community contributions. Relinquish ownership of the change process.

Communities, particularly those who feel out of control of the various societal forces that affect them, need to be given a sense of control over their own realities. Collective impact teams must place community power and agency at the forefront of their work. Communities need space to unpack what they want for themselves. They need an opportunity to develop a common purpose, and they need to know they are the ones setting the agenda. Let the community’s vision guide your work. Do not impose constraints on the community’s goals and work together as partners to move as close to their collective vision as possible. Building trust is a two-way street—they need to know that you trust them if they are to trust you. Entrust community members with authentic work

Create a plan of action that everyone can contribute to. Do not simply give space to community members to share their experiences and articulate their vision and then leave those participants to assume that you will take care of the rest. As Akilah Watkins-Butler puts it, “Do not approach engagement as extracting their [communities’] lived experiences… allow communities to define their own realities” (Collective Impact Forum, 2016). Trust that the communities will produce the desired outcomes.

One example that Watkins-Butler offers is the development of community-designed resident leader boards charged with leading mini-grant work. Trusting communities with genuine tasks; real resources; and the ability to affect, serve and transform their own communities will create a more equitable network of partnerships.

Build community capacity

Sustainability hinges on the ability of community members to own the work. And it requires that community members are able to lead organizing, visioning, meetings, implementation and evaluation. Consider what capacity gaps may exist within the communities and how that capacity can be developed to achieve sustainability.

Building sustainability may include facilitating and emphasizing opportunities for communities to organize themselves, where they can nurture a common sense of purpose, mutual responsibility, trust and investment in their growth. Provide trainings on successful organizing, including mediation, conflict resolution, meeting facilitation, leadership and self-evaluation. Acknowledging and providing buttresses for community power is key to providing sustainable, long-term trusting partnerships and community development work.

Know that this will take time. A lot of time.

Trust is not built, and more importantly, mistrust is not reversed, overnight. Trust probably won’t be linear, simple or accomplished in a grant cycle. Fidelity and commitment to trust building, however, is essential for sustainable, well-informed impact.

We’ll leave you with Arnstein’s “Ladder of Citizen Participation,” a framework for understanding the ways communities are, or are not, engaged in political processes and the extent to which that engagement allows for true resident influence and power. Tables can use the ladder as a benchmarking tool to self-reflect, assess their current strategies, and determine what they need to do to ensure necessary resident participation.


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