Defining Community Engagement

For more than 20 years, I’ve been studying and practicing community engagement. Sometimes I’ve worked with parents, business owners, nonprofits, churches, government agencies and community groups; often, I’ve worked with children and youth and the adults who serve them. This article shares what I’ve learned are the elements of community engagement.

What Doesn’t Work

Before embarking on any exploration of community engagement, its important to understand that most definitions of the term are ill-conceived, if well-meaning. This is because most posit community engagement is either a process or an outcome that is definable according to the needs of the definer. For example, the CDC says community engagement is,

“the process of working collaboratively with and through groups of people affiliated by geographic proximity, special interest, or similar situations to address issues affecting the well-being of those people.”

This definition is meant to rationalize CDC’s mission to improve the health and well-being of people in the United States. The unfortunate part of the CDC salamugundi is that it tosses the values, beliefs and activities of everyday people to the wind by insisting we line up according to CDC’s purpose.

Community engagement is both more than this and less.

In Practical Terms

“Community engagement happens when groups of who identify together choose the same things over and over.” – Adam Fletcher

Based on my experiences as a community engagement practitioner, organizational consultant and as an activist/sociologist, that’s the most practical, operative and fair definition of community engagement today. I came to understand engagement this way just within the last few years as I worked with groups of disenfranchised families involved in the foster care and juvenile justice systems in Washington state.

What these families taught me is that our systems are so fraught with discrimination against working class and low-income people, and so regularly express subjective bias against people of color, that they cannot clearly see or understand exactly what constitutes community engagement within and throughout these communities. Middle class white culture pervades almost every popular notion of community engagement today.

Community engagement does not rely on phycological, emotional, cultural or educational connections; it is not reliant on your notions of positivity or purposefulness, and; it does not necessitate specific inputs or outcomes. Instead, it is simply choosing the same things again and again.

Just because, as a whole, a group of people who co-identify smokes pot, steals cable TV, distrusts police or otherwise acts in ways that white middle class people don’t agree with, that doesn’t mean they are not experiencing community engagement.

Similarly, when a group of people shows up to volunteer for a few hours, or does yoga together for 90 minutes, or sends a flurry of one-time emails to a politician about a subject, they are not necessarily experiencing community engagement.

Fully understanding the definition I’ve shared here is trickier than it appears, and warrants further examination in a different post. I’d love to hear your thoughts about what I’ve shared so far; please leave them in the comments section.

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