For a long time I thought the way to engage children and youth in their communities was to just do it. Just go and engage them. Then I was trained by a few different national organizations in a common approach to youth engagement: Recruit youth into a program, introduce them to a topic, train them the skills they needed to create change, take action, and reflection with them when they were done. Connect young people to something greater than themselves. For the ten years I promoted this as a pathway to youth engagement. And I was wrong.
After stumbling around and fudging the question of why this model frequently doesn’t work for years, I have come across the answer. You see, for years I took this approach to becoming engaged in my local community myself: I would start doing something I was interested in, learn more about it, do something with it, and learn from it along the way and when I was done. But often the results weren’t sustained or particularly impacting on my world, and didn’t feel fulfilling in impacting others’ lives. My desire to be engaged in my community was often like karate to a 13 year old boy: Interesting for a minute, then gone with the change of tide.
Through my professional experience and personal reflection I discovered that the missing element to engaging people in communities is ourselves: We spend so much time trying to promote community engagement and youth engagement and parent engagement and neighborhood engagement and student engagement and social engagement that we forget to think about the individual people we are trying to engage throughout our communities. Communities are made of people, individual people.
When was the last time you felt connected to something greater within yourself? When have you felt compelled to become engaged in the world around you from within you – not because some nonprofit staff asked you to or a friend recruited you to, but because you genuinely, earnestly, really wanted to? When have you asked yourself critical questions about your own engagement in the world and within yourself? The missing step in community engagement is personal engagement.
Every single person has the right, the obligation, to become deeply engaged to something within themselves, to become genuinely connected to what I am calling Heartspace. What I have found is that the absolutely most successful community engagement programs- most sustainable and impacting- are the ones that connect people to something within themselves first. From that place, and only from that place, can empathy flourish, which is requisite for the most effective social change.
Personal engagement is the next great frontier in social change.
Oh, and let me add that personal engagement is not easy: Paulo Freire wrote that, “Liberation is thus a childbirth, and a painful one.” Personal engagement is a evolutionary liberation of the mind that can cause suffering, and that’s why more people don’t do it. Rather than being encouraged to look around ourselves for the solutions to our world’s suffering, we’re brought inside of ourselves to find out what’s wrong with ourselves. That place of personal acknowledgment can lead to a deep commitment to help others- but not until that bridge is crossed. Getting there can be rocky, so step lightly and stay encouraged.