This blog is part of an online learning platform which includes the Pathways to New Community Paradigms Wiki and a number of other Internet based resources to explore what is termed here 'new community paradigms' which are a transformational change brought about by members of a community.

It is intended to offer resources and explore ideas with the potential of purposefully directing the momentum needed for communities to create their own new community paradigms.

It seeks to help those interested in becoming active participants in the governance of their local communities rather than merely passive consumers of government service output. This blog seeks to assist individuals wanting to redefine their role in producing a more direct democratic form of governance by participating both in defining the political body and establishing the policies that will have an impact their community so that new paradigms for their community can be chosen rather than imposed.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Community Engagement versus Engaged Community

The issue considered In the last post was that, “We need to stop sucking at community engagement.”  A fairly easy accusation to make but more should be done in diagnosing the reasons and coming up with alternatives.  First, who is the ‘we’ we are talking about?  Taking this from a new community paradigms perspective it can’t only be those working in government and especially not City Hall.  These can be used as avenues of engagement but not as the foundations for engagement. Instead we have to look more closely at the nature of communities and how they engage, as referred to in the last post, with other external or separate organizations, institutions, and other communities as well as how they engage internally between members to members or members to the larger community.  

To better understand the workings of community engagement will mean listening and learning again from the many voices participating in the LinkedIn Community Engagement Group. Stuart Graeme, who hails from Australia, was introduced on these pages in the last post. He raised the question, “Can anyone help with a definition of community engagement relating to people being involved in their local community not in terms of organisations engaging the community?to which a number of Community Engagement professionals contributed a response.  So it seems that one can learn lessons in community engagement from across both the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. 

Once one starts looking closely at community engagement, it becomes easy to understand why its hard to come up with a definitive understanding because of the number of different terms used to define it with the definition of those terms often being amorphous.  

A more workable definition of the first half of the term under consideration, ‘community’ will wait for a later post. The definition of community will be more of a matter of understanding as a system so will likely be more abstract and involve systems thinking in some aspect. This means taking a few steps back to understand ‘community’ and its ‘engagement’ within an environment as a system.  Less passion and more analysis but for the purpose of better understanding where the passion needs to be directed.  The focus for this post is on the second half ‘engagement’ considered as more of a verb expressing action, state, or a relation between two things as in the act of being engaged.

What is commonly labeled community engagement usually involves some external organization or institution that is seen as being the subject responsible for the engagement.  How engagement, as a verb, is implemented depends upon the planned objective of the subject institution. The institution has its own motivation to engage the community. “City Hall will host a legally mandated meeting, on Thursday at 7 pm, on a new project to get comments from the public.” The community then becomes the passive object.  The last post referred to local governments needing buy in from residents for certain projects.  It is therefore reasonable to suspect that what is called community engagement is, as one CE professional put it, often more about governing and controlling and not really about the community.  

Community engagement can be realized in two basic ways or a combination of the two, either by the assistance of some external development services, including local government, religious or other nongovernmental organizations or instead by communities themselves through the use of self-administrative and social structures.  Currently, most energy and resources are allocated by and toward the first category with either meager support to active opposition for the second.  Under new community paradigms, resources and energy are allocated by both approaches to supporting the second path to be taken by the community itself. 

The idea of restricting “community engagement by formal organizations" conveys something one-directional.  As one CE professional pointed out, engagement should be a mutual two way process and not only a one way process. 

Another CE professional participating in the discussion proposed that instead of talking about community engagement what should be talked about is an engaged community.  One active citizen made it known, according to one story, that as far as he was concerned the community was already very engaged with each other, and that the project should really be about the government institution in question learning to engage with an already engaged community.  

Others cited lessons learned from Results Based Community Planning by the Australian Local Community Services Association through which they discovered that when the local councils (similar I suspect to city councils or planning commissions here) presented an idea as a plan, what it conveyed to the community was an excessively top down management approach.  The community preferred instead to talk about community action.  

How successful such efforts are depends upon the make up of the community as illustrated by another story involving Steve Johnson of Organ’s Portland University, who when participating in a number of community discussions of a planning matter observed that in some cases, “People just turned up and before anyone announced the process they just started working together. They grabbed markers, flip chart paper, and started talking, writing, drawing and came up with some ideas, documents concerns and aspirations, etc.”  At others, even though he made the same workshop resources available when people arrived they instead just sat down, looking awkward, waiting for someone to lead them. The lesson to be learned is that the extend to which communities can be engaged needs to take into account the extent to which the members of those communities are engaged with each other. 

Communities are in reality organic and complex rather than mechanical and complicated entities. Seeing communities as complex allows one to understand community engagement from an organic perspective by which the engagement is initiated and led by the community through a grassroots, bottom up approach.   Community engagement from an organic bottoms up perspective involves grassroots social structures participating in the improvement of their community from the identification of communal challenges to the realization, and management of projects identified to address those challenges.  Involving the community as a whole in a participatory manner becomes what defines community engagement. 

Engagement, when not coupled with community from a top down perspective, then is more likely to refer to activism, advocacy, networking, representing, connecting or other appropriately descriptive verbs.

Grassroots community engagement, however, rarely occurs spontaneously without some organizing focus or energy and that often comes from a formally constituted organization, whether internal or external. 

Community engagement then, according to one CE professional, becomes about planning the process to build both the 'Bonding' and 'Bridging' of 'Social Capital' within a  community.  One metric whether community engagement has been successful or not is the extent to which the process has helped the community to build social capital, making the community stronger and more connected.  "Social Capital" was seen though by some as being part of a technical discourse with which the majority of people are not engaged, making it a more useful term when examining community engagement from a more systems perspective.

Governmental institutions, however, often do not take kindly to the organic development of communities. The trouble is that government institutions treat community problems and community engagement as complicated issues, which they can at least in part control, as compared to a complex problem with which they have a great deal of difficulty.  

The organic based direction a community takes can be diverted by institutions attempting to fulfill what they see as their institutional mission.  Even when well intentioned, professionals whether directly involved in community engagement or more likely indirectly as part of some other function, say economic development, often lack a true understanding or appreciation of what community engagement as a means of building real community capacity is about. 

Even if one starts with the right motivations and frame of reference, it is still difficult to work with a community that is disengaged or disenfranchised or with a group that lacks sufficient social capital in the larger community.  This can arguably be widely applicable as many if not most people in any large community feel disengaged, as social capital is only generated where people are actively engaged.  The individual then rather than the organization becomes the most basic component of community engagement.

Those individuals engaged in their communities at an organizational level are often known as ‘community volunteers’, while those working in the community without the backing of any organization are likely to be known simply as ‘good neighbors’.  This goes back to some of the ideas discussed in the last post. 

Stuart Graeme examines ideas of individual community engagement by citing an article by Colin Williams, "Fostering community engagement and tackling undeclared work" which asserted that community engagement involves "spending time, engaged in unpaid activity, doing something that aims to benefit someone (individuals or groups) other than or in addition to close relatives, or to benefit the environment."  

In Stuart’s view this does not necessarily have to happen through an organization but could arise more like the "good neighbor" concept.  It would be based, in my view upon the existence of what has been labeled ‘Civil Society, particularly when thinking of community paradigms as a set of community relations.  Stuart also seems to suggest that these 'good neighbors' could be the ones to start in engaging with the community to build the connectedness comprising the 'Bonding' and 'Bridging' of of 'Social Capital.'  

They are also the ones who initiate the creation of new community paradigms by ‘Building Better Blocks’ or encouraging direct deliberative democracy in their communities.  The idea of volunteering becomes not only a matter of community engagement, it is also a matter of community building especially in a period of often unavoidable austerity as we find ourselves.  It can have an economic impact as well as a social or political impact on a community as was first raised by this endeavor under  A Beginning: Working to create Liveable Cities through Liveanomics and "Liveanomics" EIU Livable Cities Studies wiki page.

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