Community Engagement is Not About Appeasing, it is about Redefining Self-Determination

Artwork from Amplifer Art by Nicolas Lampert

We have 10 days until the 2020 election. I’ve been hearten to see so many people posting their #votingselfies, or when I walk by my local ballot box there is a steady stream of people depositing ballots. Keep it up. If you can’t vote, please help someone else vote. We all have a role to play in this election.

I’ve been thinking about community engagement over the past few weeks. Maybe it is because of COVID and King County, WA being stuck in a perpetual Phase 2 loop – like those Star Trek episodes where the scene repeats, but only one character realizes it is a loop; I’m a bit tired of the standard engagement practices. Thinking about this right now is a good thing. Engagement is something we should always be doing, especially now since we’re forced to think differently about how we engage with people and COVID is forcing us to reimagine how we engage with each other.

I’m not writing about online engagement or even what “authentic” engagement could and should be – that will be for another day. Instead I want to think about the results of community engagement work.

First, let’s lay a few truths (or at least my truths):

  • Community engagement is not to appease people – it isn’t meant to be a gripe session to allow people with privilege to get what they want
  • Community engagement is not designed to hear from everyone equally
  • Not everything said or talked about must happen, this is where leadership and prioritizing come in
  • Community engagement is not about talking at people, it should be about listening and at its best shifting power to communities furthest from justice
  • Community engagement exist on a continuum of practices – one-time events to power sharing
  • Community engagement can be one time, but at its best evolve over time into a mutually beneficial relationship

When done well community engagement is about really engaging with people who often are not heard from in a process. Such as white (and some POCs), English fluent, access to technology, and know how to navigate systems often know how to be heard in some way – send emails, start petitions, use social media, call a press conference to be heard, write an op-ed, have a network of people who can help them influence others, etc. Community engagement shouldn’t be about engaging with people who fall into this category. I am in this category for if the topic is around education; if you’re reading this post you may fall into this for something you’re affiliated with. For engagement related to education I shouldn’t be the target of engagement – in this case I’m overly privileged and can cause more harm since my opinion will be substituted for others who have a stronger need to be heard from. What I should do is to refocus engagement opportunities to others in my network who have a large stake in the work and help to connect them to the opportunity to engage.

Community Engagement isn’t Meant to be Equal Engagement

A friend recently shared one of the parts of community engagement she struggles with is hearing people share things, especially white people, and then the white community expecting to get what they want because they engaged. They may feel they played by the rules, they showing up en masse and coordinated with messaging sometimes even matching shirts, therefore their opinions matter so much that their desires should be met.

Community engagement should be about engaging with people who can’t access the system through traditional means. Sometimes they don’t feel safe or seen at a general community engagement event, language may be a barrier, transportation or technology may be a barrier. Engagement will probably look different for these families and they won’t be wearing matching shirts and holding coordinated messaging signs (nor should they feel pressured to engage like the mainstream to be heard).

White people sometimes have a hard time realizing just because they show up doesn’t mean they can get what they want, even if they feel they are advocating for POC needs. Not every idea shared can or should be acted upon, and people need to learn to be ok with this. Earlier tonight a friend said she was listening in on a presentation about a school being rebuilt. A homeowner complained the new building will block his view of the lake. Should the school lower their building to preserve one or two homeowners views? Community good vs private interest.

Community engagement is rarely democratic, by this I mean not every idea has equal merit and not everyone showing up or engaged has a vote in the project. Heidi often preaches access and inclusion, in this case engagement, isn’t equity. Just because people engage or accesses an engagement process doesn’t mean their feedback is equal. Often times engagement is designed to hear from people and a leadership body sifts through the data and chooses what to act upon. They should be accountable to those who gave input and explain and defend their decisions. This is also where those with decision making power need to have a strong grounding in race and using a strong racial equity process to weigh the feedback.

The decision making body needs to decide who is farthest from justice and to do the harder work of disaggregating their input and prioritizing their engagement and feedback. This may feel really uncomfortable to white people (and others with privilege) to realize their priorities may not be as important, otherwise hoarding of resources and white privilege will happen again.

Community engagement centering communities of color can reshape and redefine our work, our systems, rebalance, and allow POC self-determination. If we reframe engagement in these ways we can make a difference.

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