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For Engagement to Occur, It Is Necessary to…

3. Go to the community, establish relationships, build trust, work with the formal and informal leadership, and seek commitment from community organizations and leaders to create processes for mobilizing the community.

Engagement is based on community support. The literature on community participation and organization discussed in Chapter 1 illuminates this principle and suggests that positive change is more likely to occur when community members are an integral part of a program’s development and implementation. All partners must be actively respected from the start. For example, meeting with key community leaders and groups in their surroundings helps to build trust for a true partnership. Such meetings provide the organizers of engagement activities with more information about the community, its concerns, and the factors that will facilitate or constrain participation. In addition, community members need to see and experience “real” benefits for the extra time, effort, and involvement they are asked to give. Once a successful rapport is established, meetings and exchanges with community members can build into an ongoing and substantive partnership.

When contacting the community, some engagement leaders find it most effective to reach out to the fullest possible range of formal and informal leaders and organizations. They try to work with all factions, expand the engagement table, and avoid becoming identified with one group. Coalition building, as described in Chapter 1, can be a key part of community engagement. Alternatively, implementers of engagement efforts may find that identifying and working primarily with key stakeholders is the most successful approach. Therefore, they engage with a smaller, perhaps more manageable, number of community members to achieve their mission. The range of individuals and groups contacted for an engagement effort depends in part on the issue at hand, the engagement strategy chosen, and whether the effort is mandated or voluntary.

It is essential for those engaging a community to adhere to the highest ethical standards. Indeed, under some circumstances, community engagement might itself be considered an ethical imperative. The rights, interests, and well-being of individuals and communities must have the utmost priority. Past ethical failures such as the Tuskegee syphilis study have created distrust among some communities and have produced great challenges for community organizers. The community must be educated about any potential for harm through its involvement with or endorsement of an initiative so it can make an informed decision. Failure to act ethically is not an option.

4. Remember and accept that collective self-determination is the responsibility and right of all people in a community. No external entity should assume it can bestow on a community the power to act in its own self-interest.

Just because an institution or organization introduces itself into the community does not mean that it automatically becomes of the community. An organization is of the community when it is controlled by individuals or groups who are members of the community. This concept of self-determination is central to the concept of community empowerment. The dynamic can be quite complex, however, because communities themselves may have factions that contend for power and influence. More broadly, it should be recognized that internal and external forces may be at play in any engagement effort. As addressed in Principle 6, a diversity of ideas may be encountered and negotiated throughout the engagement process.

The literature on community empowerment strongly supports the idea that problems and potential solutions should be defined by the community. Communities and individuals need to “own” the issues, name the problem, identify action areas, plan and implement strategies, and evaluate outcomes. Moreover, people in a community are more likely to become involved if they identify with the issues being addressed, consider them important, and feel they have influence and can make a contribution. Participation will also be easier to elicit if people encounter few barriers to participation, consider the benefits of participating to outweigh the costs (e.g., time, energy, dollars), and believe that the participation process and related organizational climate are open and supportive.

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