Authentic Community Engagement
A Participatory Approach
Meaningful engagement with individuals most impacted by health disparities is at the very heart of Healthier Together’s work. Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation. We strive to maintain citizen power, where individuals who are most impacted and not often invited to participate are part of our decision-making and supported to grow into leadership roles.
Reference: Arnstein, Sherry R. “A Ladder Of Citizen Participation.” Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 35, No. 4, July 1969.
Engagement looks different based on the community, the context and ecological factors, and the people. Finding the right entry point and role for everyone is important. For some, developing the organizing structure is of interest. For others, implementing plans and activities is their strength. Some may want to be deeply involved in the decision-making process while others want to be informed about progress. The goal is to strike a balance between form and function to cultivate and nurture the shared purpose and share power in dynamic and generative ways.
It’s a Matter of Trust
Creating pathways for authentic community engagement is time intensive and requires relationships built on trust. There are no short-cuts. Burnout, fatigue and frustration is common. There is pressure to achieve. It sometimes feels like it would be more expeditious to make a decision if everything did not need to go through the community. But without spending time on building trust and creating relationships, people’s talents, insights and resources would never have come to light. We believe authentic community participation holds the key to authentic community change.
It Takes Time
Earning trust in community engagement work takes time, consistency and reassurance. Community agencies may perceive the initiative as an outsider or a threat. They can become gatekeepers, growing protective of residents and fearful promises won’t be kept and the community will be let down. Some may be challenged by eliciting the voices and opinions of people who are viewed by the agencies as “their residents.”
Another challenge is putting a value on resident contributions. Time as a key commodity can neither be over or underestimated. Early on in Healthier Together’s work, there was an assumption that people would give of their time because of the belief that there could be something better for their communities. It was clear institutional bias. The communities and Palm Health Foundation, recognizing the value of time, began to consider ways to support people for the contributions they were making in this work, including compensating residents through mini-grants. It is an issue we continue to explore to determine how to balance the contributions of paid staff with the often equally valuable and time-consuming work of resident leaders.
We learned three valuable lessons that over time helped deepen relationships for community change work to take hold.
• Understand where the community is coming from and don’t take initial rejection personally.
• Don’t pretend to know everything, because you don’t.
• Try new things but be careful to recognize the low downsides and high upsides of those actions, and in particular, in relationship to the communities with histories of disenfranchisement and disadvantage.
• Always close the communication loop from resident engagement. Share action steps and opinions and give credit to those who shared ideas.
• Never underestimate the slightest change.
• Acknowledge and celebrate wins. Sometimes communities are hard on themselves and don’t recognize their own successes.
• Provide space for people to engage where they can add the most value, play to their strengths, and based on the time they can give.
• Recognize that goal-oriented people may not be comfortable in early stages.
• Seek contributions to the effort in all forms. Meaningful contributions often are outside the traditional decision-making/meeting spaces.
• Offer opportunities for training and practice for roles outside of comfort zones.