Selecting an example of community engagement to critique

World cafe 5I ask students doing an online subject on community engagement at the University of Newcastle to critique an example of community engagement as one of their major assessments and, because the students come from a wide range of disciplines, it allows them to select an example relevant to them. I encourage them to use an example they have been involved in through a placement, work or volunteering, but they don’t have to.

Community engagement is a wide field, with no commonly agreed definition and its boundaries (what makes something “community engagement” rather than something else) can thus be quite blurry. There are two key challenges students often face in this assessment task (beside normal academic issues like using literature and referencing appropriately, addressing all the marking criteria, and writing clearly):

  • Selecting an good example of community engagement
  • Deciding on what literature and theoretical material to use in critiquing the example.

In this post I will look at some of the challenges in selecting an example, and in the next I will look at relevant literature.

Selecting an appropriate example of community engagement

Most students pick an interesting example of community engagement and what makes it community engagement is clear. Some students, however, pick an example where it’s debatable whether the example is really community engagement. Some students select examples where an organisation engages the people it is already working with, and there is no clear link to community engagement. If we take a school engaging its students I would need to be convinced this is community engagement. I don’t see what makes teachers engaging their students community engagement. I think there are times where it could be but generally I would expect community engagement by a school to involve more than just their own students.

Some students select examples where the link with the community is not clear. Community, like community engagement, doesn’t have a clear definition and can be used in many ways, which means that virtually any group can be considered a community. This means that lots of things involving people could be considered community engagement. If we consider a workplace as a community, then a business involving its salespeople in a program to increase sales could be considered community engagement. I don’t think it is, but find it hard to explain why. Sometimes students use an example where they could develop an argument for it being community engagement but, because they don’t present such an argument, they don’t do as well as they could. For example they could use a program educating health services about asthma and demonstrate how this is community engagement, but without any supporting argument, they are likely to struggle because it’s essentially health professionals engaging other health professions.

As the Department of Sustainability and Environment suggests, “Linking the term ‘community’ to ‘engagement’ serves to broaden the scope, shifting the focus from the individual to the collective” (Book 1, p. 10). Some students select an example where the focus is on individuals and there is no collective engagement. Once again, they could justify their choice by drawing on relevant community engagement literature, but if they don’t, the relevance to community engagement is not clear.

Sometimes students confuse marketing or media campaigns with community engagement. I suggest to students that community engagement involves a two-way process and these examples (even if it’s social marketing) usually involve one-way communication that does not engage the community. Of course, marketing and media campaigns are often part of a community engagement and community engagement can be part of a marketing or media campaign. (For example involving Aboriginal communities in creating posters with positive images of Aboriginal fathers.)

When I first used this assessment task, many students would choose a charity event such as Red Nose Day, charity fun runs or Jeans for Genes Day. I now recommend that they avoid critiquing these types of charity events. While events like these can be great, community engagement generally implies a two-way interaction where community members are meaningfully involved, and students often struggle to identify how the events actively engage the community in a meaningful way. While some people volunteer to help organise the events, most people are fairly passively involved (e.g., they take part in a fun run and maybe raise some funds, but they essentially just turn up and don’t really have any input in to the program nor engage with the issues involved). These events can be part of a broader community engagement process and some students have successfully highlighted the strengths and limitations of a charity event as community engagement.

Some things that help choose a good example, for critiquing as part of an assessment, include:

  1. The example involves two-way communication and the community is involved in meaningful ways
  2. It is clear what community is being engaged and the community is external to the organisation involved
  3. There is enough information (e.g., from literature, websites, or personal experience) to be able to critique it
  4. It is clear what makes the example community engagement
  5. There is a clear collective focus rather than just focusing on individuals.

Sometimes students take an example which wasn’t great community engagement but critique it really well by discussing some of its limitations and how they could have been addressed.

One of the ways I help students choose a good example is providing a small (assessable) scaffolding task where they briefly outline their proposed example and receive feedback from their tutor and other students.

One of the real advantages of this assignment for me is that they are interesting to read and I learn about some great examples of community engagement!

How would you decide if something is a good example of community engagement (not necessarily an example of good community engagement)?

If you liked this post please follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:

  1. Teaching community engagement to students from 29 disciplines
  2. 10 things I’ve learnt about strengths-based community engagement
  3. Definitions of community engagement
  4. Ethics and community engagement
  5. Bottom-up community development
  6. A community engagement reading list

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.
This entry was posted in Being an academic, Facilitation & teaching, Working with communities and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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