Equitable community engagement is a vital element of healthy communities.
What is community?
Community means different things to different people. It is often seen as both a feeling of belonging and a web of relationships. Communities may be based on geography, or common needs or interests, and the feeling of community may come from shared experience, history, symbols, or aspirations.
What is community engagement?
There are many definitions of community engagement; one that is widely quoted is:
“…the process of working collaboratively with and through groups of people affiliated by geographic proximity, special interest, or similar situations to address issues affecting the well-being of those people. It is a powerful vehicle for bringing about environmental and behavioral changes that will improve the health of the community and its members. It often involves partnerships and coalitions that help mobilize resources and influence systems, change relationships among partners, and serve as catalysts for changing policies, programs, and practices.”
Principles of Community Engagement. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 1997. p. 7
Community engagement leads to improvements in:
- people’s health behaviours
- social, economic, and environmental determinants of health
- the physical environment
- working conditions
- the local economy
- social networks and supports; and
- access to services
There are several levels of intensity of community engagement. IAP2’s Public Participation Spectrum depicts five levels of community engagement. Some community engagement processes may only involve one level, while others could include two or three levels at different times or in different events at the same time.
A variety of techniques and forums can be used for community engagement. Most will be more effective for some purposes than others. They include public meetings, web-based communications, surveys, advisory committees, networks, citizen panels, and deliberative dialogues, to mention a few. Creative tools such as visual-art techniques, storytelling, social-networking technology, exhibits, music, performance, festivals, and community gatherings may increase participation and interest.
What is equitable community engagement?
For a community to provide a high quality of life for all residents, those who are facing the greatest social and economic challenges must participate in decision-making that will affect them to ensure they will foster optimal well-being for all residents. When planning community engagement, potential barriers to participation must be considered, including:
- physical accessibility;
- dietary needs; and
- issues related to poverty (e.g., provide food, childcare, bus fare, subsidized registration fees).
It is challenging to develop meaningful and inclusive community engagement processes, particularly when there are diverse perspectives and competing interests within the community. Vu Le warns us to avoid “Trickle-Down Community Engagement”, which is “when we bypass the people who are most affected by issues, engage and fund larger organizations to tackle these issues, and hope that miraculously the people most affected will help out in the effort, usually for free.”
Striving for equitable community engagement is sometimes frustrating and contentious, and often requires skilled facilitation. More often than not, it also expands people’s perspectives, deepens understanding, and improves decision-making.
Some Useful Resources on Community Engagement
- Ontario Healthy Communities Coalition From the Ground up: An Organizing Handbook for Healthy Communities
- Tamarack Institute. Community Engagement Resource Library
- Community Places. Community Planning Toolkit: Community Engagement
- Social Planning and Research Council of BC. Community Engagement Toolkit
- Centers for Disease Control, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Principles of Community Engagement
- Community Development Foundation. Building healthy communities: A community empowerment approach
- McCue, L. (2018). Community Engagement. HC Link
- McCue, L and Stuart, T. (2016). Civic Engagement: An essential ingredient of healthy communities. HC Link
- iap2. International Association for Public Participation