There is a missing piece in most civic engagement and community engagement initiatives. Most well-meaning practitioners come storming into programming intending to teach folks about issues, engage them in actions, and move forward to change the world.
- In schools, parent engagement coordinators focus on connecting parents with teachers or committees they can support.
- In nonprofits, youth engagement workers dive into connecting young people with social change action.
- In business, community engagement coordinators want to connecting consumers with their brands.
While none of these are inherently wrong, they are all flawed.
Social engagement of any kind requires that people connect with something outside of themselves, true, and that’s what all of these approaches focus on. But another key element is missing: Before connecting to something outside ourselves, we need to connect to within ourselves.
My work with thousands of young people and adults over the last decade has shown me that personal engagement happens when people have a sustained connection to something inside of themselves.
This is different from social engagement, which is when people have a sustained connection to someone or something outside of themselves. Social engagement includes our campaigns for civic engagement, school engagement, voter engagement, worker engagement, and environmental engagement. However, all these forms of social engagement, no matter how effective they appear, are missing something: I have to be engaged within myself in order to be engaged outside of myself.
That is true of everyone. Whenever we appear to succeed in engaging people outside of themselves without first making sure they’re engaged within themselves, we actually fail. Every program for engagement needs to address the broader role of engagement in a person’s life in order to create that sustaining factor of the connection. Without sustainable connections engagement does not happen.
How are you engaged in yourself?