Strengths-based community engagement recognises that communities have many strengths that can help achieve a wide range of objectives. The following are 10 things I’ve learned from doing strengths-based community engagement in a variety of contexts. They aren’t commandments or principles, just things I’ve learned.
There are numerous resources about strengths-based community development (e.g., What is asset-based community-driven development?) but not all community engagement focuses on community development. You will probably notice that there is still an element of community building in the list, because I believe that it is important that our approach to community engagement should contribute to community well-being.
1. Build on individual and community strengths
The strengths perspective focuses on strengths and aspirations rather than problems and deficits. This isn’t to say we ignore problems and needs, but the way we respond to them is by building on what is already working. If we see communities as being full of strengths and resources, it makes sense to involve them in our work and we are more likely to want to engage community members. Through community engagement we can discover how communities can help us achieve our objectives (which hopefully have been created based on their interests). The processes we use can encourage a focus on individual and community strengths.
2. Remember – relationships matter
As community engagement practitioners I believe that we have a responsibility to act in ways that build social capital. Once again, we can use community engagement processes that help build or strengthen relationships rather than undermine them. While community engagement is often about vertical community engagement, we can do it in ways that promote horizontal community engagement as well. Having introductions, working in small groups, having tea and coffee are very basic ways we can promote relationship building. There are also numerous examples where community engagement processes use creative processes that help build relationships. (See for example an Edible Town, the Transition Streets Challenge, or making parents feel welcome at school.)
3. Be curious
I found it helps to be genuinely curious about the people I’m working with: e.g., what they think, what they want, what inspires them and what they can offer. Rather than coming in as an expert with the answers, we can come in with a spirit of curiosity where we hope to learn as well.
4. Don’t be afraid of disagreement and even conflict
Communities are not homogenous – there are differences and competing interests. We need to be willing to explore areas of contention and disagreement. Once again we can create processes (e.g., design charrettes) that promote a cooperative approach to differences rather than processes that encourage argument from entrenched positions.
5. Address power imbalances
While the term community suggests cohesion and equality, this is not necessarily the case. In planning community engagement we need to think about power imbalances and to think about how we can ensure that some people do not dominate or over-ride others. I like small group processes such as World Café because it gives everybody a say and can help prevent some people dominating. We need to think about whose interests are being served? Are we reinforcing the interests of powerful groups and contributing to a more just world?
6. Consider who is not at the table
If we are going to address power imbalances, we need to think about who is not at the table – whose voices are not included. In particular we need to think about how to involve marginalised groups. We might need to make an extra effort to ensure they can have input. (There’s an interesting example in an article about the catalytic role of an outsider by Terry Bergdall HERE, pages 6-7.)
7. Keep it in perspective (there’s more to life than community engagement)
It’s important to keep our work in perspective – particularly in the context of other people’s lives. We might be addressing a really important issue (to us or more broadly), but it mightn’t have the same priority for other people. We need to think about why other people might want to be engaged. How can we make it interesting and relevant to them? It might be important to consider ways that we can go to people rather than expecting them to come to us.
In my work with Transition Newcastle, I sometimes find it hard to “keep it in perspective”. (There can’t be many things more important than environmental sustainability!) While environmental sustainability might be very important, the things that we do in Transition Newcastle might not be a priority. People have busy lives and there are many other competing demands. I also have to accept that environmental sustainability is NOT a priority for everybody. This means that one our focuses is trying to make it more of a priority for all levels of society.
8. Respond to the good in people
I essentially believe that people act with good intentions. Even if they don’t, my experience suggests that we get better outcomes if we respond to them in a positive way and find the “good” in them. If we create environments that invite cooperation and acceptance, people are more likely to act in these ways. I realise that people do have ulterior motives, they can be manipulative and they don’t always act honourably. But if we respond to their positive motivations and characteristics, my experience is that they are more likely to act on those.
When I’ve run fathering workshops in prison, one of their reasons they were able to engage the men successfully is that we were treating them as fathers and talking about things that were important to them. We were responded to them as fathers, not criminals.
If we think about what motivates people and what their interests are, we can respond to them in ways that show we are respectful and wanting to work with them. This is not enough, but it is a good starting point.
9. Approach community engagement as an art, not a science
It seems to me that community engagement is an art, not a science. There is no way to prove what will be the best approach in a given situation. Essentially community engagement is a complex problem and we cannot just follow a recipe to ensure a positive result. Community engagement takes creativity, intuition, and experience.
We thus need to be flexible in our approach. Things might not go to plan; what works in one context, or one time, might not work in another context or a similar at another time; external factors might have an impact. We need to plan and be well prepared, but be able to adapt as we go along. We need to try a variety of approaches and process to develop a style that works for us (and the communities we work with).
10. Reflect on your practice
Probably the most important thing I have learned is to reflect on my practice. Each time are involved in community engagement we can learn something. We can learn from our mistakes and from our successes. Obtain feedback from people involved so you can learn from their insights as well. Try working with practitioners who have a different approach to you – what can you learn from them? By reflecting on our practice, we can continue to grow and develop.
A strengths-based approach to community engagement is going to shape how we see individual and communities and it is going to help determine the types of process we use.
What have you learnt from building on the strengths of communities?
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