What is Community Engagement? 1

We talk a lot about engagement. The Brian Solis book Engage! has sold millions of copies effectively stealing the meme from Star Trek’s Captain Picard. But what do we really mean by “engage” at the community level? What is community engagement?

We’ve looked at this before. A few months ago Dave blogged about the difference between Engagement and Involvement and more recently about High Definition Engagement to which I added a post about Differentiated Engagement . We also have a great solution paper that explores the unique challenges of Parent Engagement. All of these offer perspectives and help us look at and understand engagement in different ways. Here are a few more perspectives.

Defining community engagement

The National School Boards Association defines  community engagement as

an ongoing, collaborative process during which the school district works with the public to build understanding, guidance, and active support for the education of the children in its community

The Annenberg Institute (1998) has identified five shared characteristics of community engagement. (see also Engaging the Public in its Schools ASCD). The characteristics are:

  1. An inclusive and dialogue driven process
  2. A dedication to making meaningful and long-term improvement in schools
  3. A commitment to creating dynamic, two-way partnerships
  4. Sincere efforts to find common ground
  5. An atmosphere of candor and mutual trust
Persuasion is not engagement

An engaged community is very different from a persuaded community. David Mathews defines an engaged public as a committed, interrelated citizenry rather than a persuaded populace.

Public [or community] engagement presupposes a much more collaborative process in which individuals and groups think through issues together in a struggle to arrive at solutions they can all live with. (Wadsworth 1997)

 Communication is not engagement

One of best ways I’ve seen to define community engagement overall if from Kathy Gardner Chadwick’s book Improving Schools Through Community Engagement - A Practical Guide for Educators. In it she cites Annenberg’s research team with a clear comparison of the difference between communication and enagagement.

Communication vs Engagagement

 Who are we engaging?

Another BIG consideration is the “who”. When we talk about engaging community we need to know what engagement is and we need to know who our community is. Who do we need to engage? Who are are not engaging well enough? Once we can answer these kinds of questions (questions that would work great in a Ts btw), then we can start trying to find our where they are and how we need to change what we do, so that we can engage with our community.

In the school system, government sector, public health and for many non-profit organizations, the “who” is everybody. This is where business has an advantage. If you have a product or specific service you can often target of at least segment your customers so that your community engagement is a bit more manageable. Not so in the public fold. Community engagement can mean you need to engage everyone.

In education for example this means genuinely engaging students, teachers, administrators, school boards, local government, business owners, non-profits in you area, other publicly funded organizations, people who live in your area who don’t have children, the media… Everybody.

Despite the challenges, school districts and individual schools are succeeding in engaging community. I suspect this may have something to do with the people driving engagement process. Educators are innovators and they have picked up the challenge of community engagement and run with it for the past decade.

Many school districts, schools and individual teachers have been quick to find ways to use new technologies to increase community engagement. Check out Richard Byrne’s amazing Free Technology For Teachers Blog if you’re new to the idea of using tech to teach or to engage. Or stop by one of the many Twitter chats that focus on education and online community engagement.

If you are feeling like you need some motivation, check out these community engagement success stories from the Tamarack Community Resource site.  They lists some great examples of how effectively community engagement can be done in the education system and how impressive the outcomes of those initiatives have been. Annenberg also has a full listing of case studies of community engagement projects.

So… Let’s engage!

Ohhh… You’re waiting to be invited? Not sure where to start? Feel it’s not your place?

We can all do something to engage community or become engaged in community.  To quote Seth Godin, “Everyone is now also a leader.” We don’t need to wait for permission or an invitation. We just need to make it something we value and then reach out and start something.

What can you do to engage your community?

Do you have examples of community engagement events or processes? We’d love to hear about them.


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