Community engagement is central to cities’ racial equity strategies. It’s also where cities need a lot of support.
We are lifting up lessons we’ve learned from our Racial Equity Here cohort, five cities working to operationalize racial equity in local governments. Check out our Racial Equity Here page for more about what we’ve learned from this work.
Community engagement — especially in communities of color — is one of those terms thrown around a lot by cities, nonprofits, and funders. It is used to describe any type of activity from a meeting where residents are informed about a new initiative to a townhall meeting where residents express their concerns and help design solutions.
What does community engagement really mean and why is it so important to cities in their racial equity strategy? We learned the following about five cities’ community engagement strategy as part of their efforts to apply a racial equity lens to their policies and operations.
Health, economic security, and other aspects of well-being are co-produced by cities and their residents. Co-production can only happen when there is community engagement, and residents are able to influence — not just be informed about — decisions and public services that affect their lives. This is especially crucial for communities of color who are typically the ones most affected by health, economic, and education disparities. When cities are developing their racial equity strategy, it is imperative that they hear from residents of color how the city’s policies and practices inadvertently disadvantage the residents and what solutions are needed for a different outcome. Residents’ engagement by their cities can also help improve their sense of self and collective efficacy, which research has linked to health and well-being. In the end, co-production through community engagement ensures residents’ co-ownership of the solutions, which will also make the solutions more sustainable.
Community engagement, partnership engagement, and strategic communications are interrelated. Community engagement — especially engagement of communities of color — must begin as soon as a city decides to make racial equity a priority. However, some cities may hesitate to engage the community for fear of disappointing their residents or inviting too much criticism. Some cities don’t want to bring attention to anything negative. In addition, they may be nervous that they won’t be able to meet the community’s demand for action and change. Cities also tend to wait until they have a plan before making public announcements about their decisions or activities.
This is why cities need a communication strategy early on to convey their goal for racial equity, their vision for a racially equitable city, and how they can’t do it alone, but need residents, nonprofit organizations, and businesses to be part of the effort. This is better than informing residents of the goal and plan later. Therefore, cities cannot think about strategic communications as a public relations, crisis management, or independent activity, but an activity in service of community and partnership engagement for racial equity. The five cities reported that in hindsight, they should have included the staff person responsible for their cities’ communications and public relations in their racial equity teams.
Community engagement — what engagement means and who the community is need to be clear. The discussions about community engagement facilitated by the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE) with the five cities raised some of the cities’ awareness that holding meetings to inform residents about their decisions and plans — which was the typical practice — was not the same thing as community engagement. Cities must strive for the highest level of engagement where residents can influence decisions that affect them. This means that cities have to consider the following in order to treat all residents equitably and be intentionally inclusive of communities of color who experience the consequences of racial inequity on a daily basis: meetings in the evenings outside of traditional work hours, venues that people of color are familiar with and feel safe and welcomed, interpretation assistance for people with limited English proficiency, skilled facilitation that help uncover the root causes of poor health and well-being outcomes, and most important, an agenda that seeks input and not just informs.
Cities must strive for the highest level of engagement where residents can influence decisions that affect them.
Cities need to go beyond the usual suspects. The five cities reached out and engaged organizations with which they already had relationships — these organizations typically were the usual suspects for publicly-supported efforts. This helped the cities maintain their relationships with particular influential leaders and constituencies. At the same time, the cities risked maintaining the status quo by not reaching deeper into communities, especially communities of color, to identify additional formal and informal trusted leaders who are critical for their racial equity goals, but most likely don’t have a direct line of communications to the city’s leadership. It would be helpful for cities to get technical assistance and coaching to understand how communities organize for self-support and how to go about identifying authentic community leaders.
In summary, community engagement cannot wait until cities decide that they are ready to go public with their racial equity work, and cities must strive for the highest level of engagement. To do racial equity work naturally means to authentically engage the community because the exclusion of certain communities — particularly communities of color and low-income communities — is the consequence for structural racism.
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