Twelve ingredients for inclusive community engagement

Wendy Sarkissian and her colleagues in Kitchen table sustainability: Practical recipes for community engagement with sustainability identifies 12 “ingredients” that help promote inclusive community engagement.

1. Inclusion: Cast a wide net

It is important to involve not just articulate, easy to consult people. We need to pay particular attention to those who are not as easy to engage including marginalised individuals and groups, children, people who have English as a second language, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and people with a disability. We need to think about how we can involve them.

2. Timing: Provide plenty of time and handle timing carefully

Community engagement, particularly if we are going involve difficult to engage groups, takes time. We need to allow enough time to encourage full engagement and to provide participants with the time to “receive, integrate, reflect and respond to information.” Particularly when communities have previously experienced poor community engagement processes it can take time to build trust.

3. Respect: Practice respectful listening and speaking

We need to listen “deeply” to community members and be respectful in all our dealings.

4. Integration: Take a holistic approach

Particularly when discussing sustainability, it is important to consider the “multiple layers and components of social systems.”

5. Process transparency: Speak openly about ethics

Community engagement is often built on an ethical commitment to participation. By speaking openly about ethics we have the potential to challenge the way in which power is exercised and raise important issues that might otherwise be ignored.

6. Accessibility: Pay attention to the “rituals of discussion”

We can enhance people’s participation by paying attention to things like where we hold events, how we create space, ensuring people feel welcome and nurtured, how we wrap up discussions and paying attention to the detail of our processes.

7. Communication: Pay attention to language

If we want to engage a wide range of people, we need to use language that is inclusive and appropriate to the people we are trying to reach.

8. Openness: Keep things open

At times we can close off discussion too quickly or focus on too narrower agenda. The diamond of participatory decision making suggests it can help if we allow for divergent thinking (where we might appear to be moving further away from agreement), spend time in a “groan zone” before moving into convergent thinking where progress can be made.

9. Information transparency: Keep the information flowing

In order to ensure we have effective community engagement, we need to provide open and transparent two-way information. In particularly we need to be honest about opportunities and constraints.

10. Reflexivity and accountability: Engage in evaluation and regular reviews

Rather than just undertaking evaluation at the end of the process, we can obtain feedback and reflect on the process from the start so that we can be reflect on our work and be responsive to the particular community context.

11. Transformation: Look for the discursive key

By listening and paying close attention we new understandings and concepts can emerge. A “discursive key” can “turn” the totally transform the plan or project based on new insights.

12. Professionalism: Hold yourself to a high standard.

At times community engagement can be challenging and frustrating. It can help to remain professional and having a wide range of skills and processes that can help keep things moving forward.

Reference

Sarkissian, W., Hofer, N., Shore, Y., Vajda, S., & Wilkinson, C. (2009). Kitchen table sustainability: Practical recipes for community engagement with sustainability. London: Earthscan.

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace & sustainability.
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