Strategy for Community Engagement
When it comes to community engagement, having a strategy is paramount. A properly defined strategy informs and prepares those engaging to learn about their audience. So, doing your homework is the first step before beginning the engagement process. It’s not essential or even possible to know everything, but reaching a level of cultural competency can improve your understanding of a community. One must be proficient in the culture’s language and how it functions. But, it’s also important to leave behind one’s own points of view and biases that can hurt relations with the community. Community meetings are a place to take in information about the community without bias, to listen and to learn.
Moving the Dial
“Moving the dial”, or advancing one’s position on the spectrum of understanding, can be a vulnerable and uncomfortable process. However, to reach a level of cultural acceptance, meeting facilitators (as well as anyone participating in community engagement) must ask themselves how their level of understanding can impact the work they do with people who might not look like them or who might think differently.
When you ask yourself this question, having tolerance is the first step to gaining cultural competency. Tolerance is the fair, objective, permissive attitude towards people whose opinions, race, or religion differ from your own. It expresses the sentiment that “I can live with X”. Full approval is not necessary for one to reach this stage. Unproductive moments can be seen playing out on the national stage as many attention-grabbing “us vs. them” conversations flood TV news hours and chat shows. Treating others how you want to be treated is necessary to create an environment where experiences can be shared.
Beyond tolerance – acceptance and understanding also play a large role in successful engagement.
However, to bring oneself to a place of acceptance or even complete understanding, those involved in community engagement must come ready to listen and to embrace the vulnerability that can come with it.
Acceptance takes an individual from “I guess I can live with X” to “X is an okay way of thinking or being”. Though the difference between the two is slight, the positive ramifications of reaching this level of understanding are great.
Still, there is more that can be done to increase the effectiveness of our engagement efforts. And that is to understand. To truly understand is to be open minded and willing to learn. The goal in all of this is to be able to deal with others’ differences effectively. And understanding is the surest way of doing so. It takes a person from “X is an okay way of thinking or being” to “I might not like or agree with X, but I can respect X…I can listen.” It may be that person A feels strongly about a candidate for public office, a candidate person B feels strongly against. Person B may not agree with person A’s beliefs but it’s important for person B to respect person A’s beliefs and be able to listen.
In order to advance from tolerance to acceptance to understanding, one has to build meaningful relationships. And it may go without saying that making this journey will come with unique challenges for each community as well as specific rules and rituals the community honors. This is the nature of human interaction, as illustrated by the iceberg metaphor from part 1. There are characteristics of every person and community that lay beneath the surface. But the introduction of complexity should be seen as an opportunity for building relationships and creating connections rather than as an obstacle to reaching your goals.
It is important to note that small actions count. Consult with the community on appropriate places to meet that are convenient for participants. Learn people’s names, share a meal or at least bring snacks, and be sincere in your efforts. This only takes a willingness to engage with openness and benevolence, and to apologize when you’re wrong. Then, the focus turns to moving forward together.
Anne Ketz, RPA, CIP
Anne’s career in cultural resources management and planning extends over 30 years and three continents. Originally from the United Kingdom, now living in the United States, Anne has witnessed the fields of interpretive planning and resources management change significantly and has been instrumental in its establishment as a vital part of community planning. In her free-time, Anne enjoys traveling to special historic and cultural places around the world.
As a community engagement specialist, Ashlyn designs innovative ways to create meaningful relationships and gather valuable stakeholder input. She is a strong facilitator with a range of tools for dialogue and collaboration with diverse communities. Ashlyn’s education in legal studies and intercultural communication helps her develop integrative and culturally-competent solutions for community projects across the country.