Your local bank. Your favorite soft drink. The big municipal infrastructure project.
These days it seems like everyone is somehow in the business of “community engagement” and “building community.”
I would like to call attention to a really important distinction between these two terms: engaging communities in a decision-making process is not the same as building community.
Wait….wha? Well, what’s the difference?
Community Engagement vs Building 101
Any time a community is involved in a decision-making process, it’s “community engagement.” Easy enough.
However, it is possible to engage community members without any interaction between community members.
Without any interaction between people, there is no listening or exchange of ideas, no new connections between neighbors, or any development of a collective sense of “us.” In other words, no “community building”.
So how do you build community through community engagement?
Contact Theory, which I wrote about in a previous post, is the underlying psychological mechanism for community building.
Under the right conditions, the more contact between people in your community engagement process, the more community-building there will be.
There’s a lot of work and skill that goes into creating those right conditions, but that’s material for future posts!
The Engagement Hustle
I will admit that I have a chip on my shoulder for how loosely claims of “community engagement” and “community building” are used by governments and professionals, especially in design and planning.
I see a lot of slick marketing and public-relations content that equates or inflates community engagement for community building.
I also see a lot of projects striving for community building that fall short, often because the clients or consultants don’t understand the difference and/or are not able to wire a project for a successful community building outcome.
Even worse is when engagement work is done insincerely, like when there are predetermined outcomes or token community influence. This is “Checkbox Engagement” – done to check the box that shows that communities were somehow involved in a project.
Often Checkbox Engagement is just looking to sweep for and neutralize community-issue land-mines that will derail the trajectory of a project already in motion.
Darn those pesky community members!
Along the Spectrum
We can sort community engagement practices along a spectrum based on how much they cultivate interpersonal contact and therefore community building.
On one end of the spectrum is community engagement that merely informs, recruits, or consults with a community to make a decision. Sometimes this is called “outreach.”
In my line of work (the design and planning for public spaces) these techniques often take the form of surveys, voting, tabling, etc. Under the right circumstances, these tools can be useful and valuable when engaging communities.
However, most of these techniques are conducted in isolated channels of one-way interactions between the contributor and the client/consultant. No contact = no community building.
On the other end of the spectrum are techniques where people listen to each other, get to know each other, exchange ideas, and build off each others’ contributions. This type of engagement cultivates a sense of a greater good, collective effort, and place-based belonging. Let’s call it “Deep Engagement.”
Projects at this far end of the community building spectrum empower community members and give them control over the places where they live. It is grassroots democracy in action.
My personal and professional bias is that the world desperately needs more of the connection-making that comes from Deep Engagement, and every community process that does not aspire to this potential is a tragic missed opportunity.
A picture is worth…
To help minimize gaps in expectations and execution, we need a better understanding and a more nuanced language for talking about how community engagement can maximize its community building potential.
So to help, I’ve assembled a handy chart showing the most common community engagement techniques along a spectrum of community building impact. This chart focuses largely on the techniques that are used to work with communities in the design and planning of public spaces, but could be applied anywhere communities are involved in decision making. Check it out below.
Here’s a link to a .pdf of the chart, in case you are struggling to see it in a high enough resolution.
A few notes about this chart:
- It’s a work in progress, and I would love your feedback.
- The chart’s basic structure is borrowed from IAP2’s “Spectrum of Public Participation.”
- Note the distinction of different types of community meetings, depending on how they are facilitated.
- This chart is not comprehensive. For example, it is missing a finer resolution of techniques and strategies that can be used as part of community gatherings. It also omits community organizing techniques that are used as part of an activist campaign or movement, such as training or door knocking. How would you fit them into this chart, if at all?
Where does your work fall on this spectrum of engagement? How would you make this chart better? I would love to hear from you!