Community Meetings are Still on Top…For Now?

How we engage matters. While some approaches are efficient at soliciting input, others are better at engendering community. These latter approaches build bridges between people of different identity groups. And they cultivate the lasting connections that underlie strong communities of place. They are socially cohesive.

What engagement practices have the most potential for social cohesion? Which of those are most common? Knowing these answers can inform a shift in our practices towards social regeneration. And given our socially fragmented and polarized times, this work is urgent.

Okay then, what engagement tools and techniques are practitioners even using?

In search of some answers, I launched the Practice of Community Engagement Survey in October 2023. I received about 150 responses from a mix of consultants, government employees, and non-profit/community groups. If you need an overview of the survey and the makeup of its respondents, take a look at my last post.

In the survey, I asked, “How often do you use the following tools or techniques in your community engagement practice?” Respondents had the option to adjust a slider to rank the various techniques from “0= never” to “10 = for almost every project.”

Below is a chart of the survey results by their average ranking in red. I’ve also included individual breakdowns between the three respondent groups, in case the differences are helpful to see.

There’s some interesting data to unpack here. But I’d like to take this moment to understand how our most common techniques compare to their socially cohesive potential.

The social-psychological study of Intergroup Contact Theory and Optimal Contact provides a framework for understanding social cohesion. Optimal Contact defines the conditions under which people will bridge their group differences and form new larger conceptions of “Us.” If you need a refresher in Optimal Contact, I cover the basics in this previous post, but here are the three conditions:

  1. Optimal Contact maximizes the interaction between people of different groups.
  2. Optimal Contact minimizes anxiety about intergroup interaction.
  3. Optimal Contact induces empathy or perspective taking between people of different groups.

I color coded each of the surveyed techniques from hot (red) to cool (blue) based on the ranking in the above chart.

Then I created the chart below to see how our engagement practices map against their Optimal Contact potential. It shows the most common engagement practices on two axes: the number of people they can reach (the vertical axis on a logarithmic scale), and their capacity for Optimal Contact in place-based communities (the horizontal axis). Each practice is represented by a rectangle, demonstrating its range of maximum and minimum potential.

What do you see?

Many of the most popular engagement practices reside on the left-hand side of the spectrum, meaning that they have less potential to be socially cohesive. These approaches are widely used because they meet the basic goals of most community engagement processes: to solicit community input to inform planning or design. They are easy to implement, minimize conflict, and can involve a lot of people.

The most powerful technique for Optimal Contact, community build/construction work parties, is also the least practiced. Why? We’ll tackle that one later.

You may notice that community meetings are an outlier. They are one of the most popular tools in our engagement tool chest, but they also have the broadest range of potential impact.

For example, you can organize a vibrant community meeting with over 100 people representing different backgrounds, where participants share their perspectives in a low-anxiety environment. Or you can host a community meeting with only a handful of people, lots of tension, and a narrow demographic profile.

I will admit, it surprised me to see community meetings at the top of this list.

I’m increasingly hearing from engagement practitioners that they are foregoing community meetings, preferring instead to table at existing community events or host open houses (ranked #5 & #6 on the above to the chart). The survey details may indicate this shift, as consultants ranked open houses higher than community meetings in their responses.

The underlying reasoning is the community meetings often attract only a limited slice of the public — typically white folks of higher socioeconomic classes. And since we’ve been raising the bar for diversity and inclusivity in our engagement work, it’s easier to simply show up to existing gatherings of targeted racial/ethnic groups.

I understand why this strategy has value in addressing systemic inequality. Yet I worry we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The type of engagement at open houses and tabling events is typically just one-way conversations between project staff and individual community members. There’s little exchange of perspectives across community members, which is why the rank so low on our Optimal Contact spectrum.

What is lost when people don’t engage directly with their neighbors about their hopes and dreams, or witness how their ideas fit amongst the chorus of other community voices?

More importantly, we miss an incredible opportunity to build bridging connections between people of different identity groups.

What is lost when people don’t engage directly with their neighbors about their hopes and dreams, or witness how their ideas fit amongst the chorus of other community voices?

The foundation of a tolerant and pluralistic democracy — one where people of many identities and beliefs can reside — is built from the ground up. It starts at the neighborhood scale, where people of different backgrounds gather together to decide how to best steward that patch of earth where they live. This is where we build the muscle memory for inclusion and tolerance.

It is important that we take advantage of every opportunity to bring diverse people together to exchange ideas under the right (Optimal Contact) conditions. This opportunity is rare, but presents itself fully every time we engage with place-based communities in shaping their future.

But we let this opportunity slip away while chasing the checkboxes of inclusivity through techniques like tabling, open houses, and online surveys. We inadvertently contribute to a world further defined and separated by our ascriptive racial and ethnic social identities.

So instead of abandoning community meetings, we need to refine and improve them to capture their community bridging and building potential. Clearly, community meetings are still popular. Let’s make sure every meeting strives for the upper right corner of our spectrum with lots of people and lots of Optimal Contact.

How do we do this? Well, you’re in luck! In case you missed it last year, I wrote about it in a four-part series. You can start here.

Stay tuned next time for more insights from the Survey on Community Engagement. We’ll explore who decides which community engagement approaches are used, and how they may (or may not) align with the missions of their sponsors.