Community engagement is one of the bedrock principles of comprehensive community development. Engaging the residents of a neighborhood in revitalization plans helps ensure that revitalization is of the people, by the people and for the people, to borrow from Abraham Lincoln. After all, how can you serve the neighborhood effectively without knowing the neighbors’ wants and needs?
But figuring out this critical step is not as easy as it sounds. Genuinely engaging residents requires more than a community-wide meeting or two. Engagement efforts can fall short for various reasons. Neighbors may not trust that organizing entities have their best interests at heart. A community that’s been “planned to death” and never seen results may be feeling fatigue and the frustration of not being heard. Residents of high-crime communities may be suffering from trauma; for them, engaging may even feel unsafe.
Does any of this sound familiar from your own engagement efforts? You may be wondering what to do when your first try at engagement isn’t working. We talked to renowned community development expert and Institute for Comprehensive Community Development fellow Jim Capraro about how to get engagement on track. Drawing on Capraro’s extensive experience, as well as from a recent convening of organizations partnering under the Department of Justice Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation program (BJCI) to develop comprehensive, community-oriented strategies to reduce crime, our top engagement tips are:
Understand what is meaningful to the community
Jim Capraro’s rule of thumb in his own organizing work and in training others to do engagement is that “no one is going to engage unless it’s meaningful to them.” The first step in engagement, therefore, is to figure out what is meaningful to the community members and leaders. Taking the time to understand and appreciate residents and their concerns means you will need to listen more than you talk, at least at first. You should hear what the residents think is important, without directing them. You may have a good sense for what needs to be done in the neighborhood and you can certainly be transparent about the issues you are most interested in, but as Capraro notes, “you can’t go in with a prescription before you have heard the symptoms.”
Engaging meaningfully with residents will likely yield responses that are relevant to what you are trying to do, but sometimes the community’s priorities may not align perfectly with your own. You will need to strike the balance between the community’s needs and desires and what you can provide. This means understanding your own capacity and finding the right people to work with.
In the “Troubleshooting” section of their paper, Building Sustainable Communities: Moving From Quality-Of-Life Planning to Implementation, Capraro and co-author Joel Bookman explain how to take remedial action when the right partners have not been engaged in your efforts. The first step is to “[c]reate an inventory of agencies, organizations and institutions that might be recruited to become ‘implementers’ in the … targeted community.” For example, if you want to improve neighborhood safety, you will need to find organizations and leaders to whom safety is important. Then your task is to engage meaningfully with those players in support of your agenda.
But it’s not enough to hear what people and partners have to say. The partners with which you are working will need to have real, meaningful roles in the revitalization work if they are to stay engaged. The community leaders need to be involved in the effort in leadership roles and they need to have real responsibilities in true partnership with the community development professionals.
Respect the community’s prior experiences
Take the time to learn about what a community may have experienced in the past and be informed before you approach residents with a new initiative. This will be helpful in cases of “overplanning.” If neighbors have already been involved in planning charrettes and visioning sessions over the years, you can start by looking back at what has been done rather than reinventing any wheels. You may find there is already a good foundation to build your own efforts upon and you will avoid asking people questions they have already answered.
In other cases, it’s helpful to understand how the circumstances of the local environment have shaped residents’ viewpoints. For example, leaders setting out to plan for crime reduction strategies often encounter mutual suspicion between residents and law enforcement. Partnering with other organizations that are already working in the community is one way to gain trust. The partners in the Byrne Criminal Justice Initiative (BCJI) Innovation initiative in Milwaukee’s Washington Park neighborhood enlisted community “gatekeepers,” both formal and informal leaders who had the trust of residents. The BCJI team brought in guest speakers to explain how and why officers police the community in the way they do and to share information with the community proactively.
Residents of high-crime neighborhoods have often experienced trauma as a result of living in a dangerous environment. Community leaders must identify strategies that respect that reality and will not re-traumatize vulnerable people. The model of Trauma-Informed Community Building gives housing developers, service providers and community builders a lens to understand residents’ experiences and engage the community in sensitive and supportive ways.
Get help navigating cultural barriers
This step can be as simple as finding translators to ensure everyone can participate in community meetings, but often you need to do more. As Capraro explains, there is a difference between a neighborhood and a community. There may be multiple communities living in one neighborhood: white, African-American, East African, Central American. They may be geographically proximate, but distinguished by cultural differences. “So the real organizing in that neighborhood,” Capraro explains, “is bridging the barriers between these communities and creating relationships across communities throughout the neighborhood.”
When you approach revitalization work in a neighborhood, you may need to engage communities that don’t share a language or culture with you or with one another. One way to bridge these differences is to recruit liaisons who are of the community, who speak the language and understand the culture. They can help the community understand what you’re trying to do and help you understand what the community’s priorities are.
Consider diversity as well when determining who may be authentic leaders in a community. They are not always the businesspeople, heads of organizations or aldermen. Capraro notes that a leader is simply someone who has a following: “What makes you a leader is that other people trust you.” The more people trust someone, he continues, the greater their power to lead.
Leadership roles can be formally recognized (such as church pastors) or they can be informal (think of a shop owner to whom everyone comes for the latest news) and you should consider both when you’re looking to engage fully with a community. In speaking to a recent gathering of local BCJI leaders from around the country, Annie E. Casey Foundation Senior Associate Amoretta Morris urged, “We have to bring unusual suspects to the table and if you don’t have them at the table, then you need to push your outreach efforts a bit more.”
Think of the work as relationship building
Community engagement is not about bringing your message to some collective mass of residents. The goal is to engage with real people and that means building relationships. Your engagement efforts, therefore, should start with individuals and then work up to larger gatherings like community-wide meetings. Jim Capraro refers to this as “relational engagement” and it is the foundation on which true, community-wide engagement rests.
In neighborhoods that are home to diverse ethnic, religious or cultural communities, these one-to-one relational meetings are critical to engagement work. Capraro explains, “The critical thing is that the leaders from those communities are doing the meetings. It’s important that the community leaders are building relationships with each other. They should meet with their own communities and with leaders from other communities for a sustainable network of relationships.” To find and recruit these leaders, he says, you simply need to go into the neighborhood and start talking to people. They know who the leaders are. Once you have identified the leaders, go and meet with them, and don’t stop until you have met as many as you can. “Think more meetings rather than less,” says Capraro.
If you haven’t done this kind of connecting and you’re feeling a lack of engagement in your revitalization efforts, it’s not too late. Introduce yourself to people in the neighborhood. Ask them questions and listen to the answers. Ask them whom else you should meet. Set a goal to meet people you have not met before and think outside the box about your community’s leadership. Building upon these individual relationships will help you find the right partners to move ahead productively.
For more on relational organizing, see:
Jim Capraro’s four-part series on the Collective Impact Forum blog, Collective Impact in Neighborhood Revitalization