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Before Starting a Community Engagement Effort…

1. Be clear about the purposes or goals of the engagement effort and the populations and/or communities you want to engage.

Those wishing to engage the community need to be able to communicate to that community why its participation is worthwhile. Of course, as seen in the discussion about coalition building and community organizing in Chapter 1, simply being able to articulate that involvement is worthwhile does not guarantee participation. Those implementing the effort should be prepared for a variety of responses from the community. There may be many barriers to engagement and, as discussed in Chapter 1’s section on community participation, appropriate compensation should be provided to participants. The processes for involvement and participation must be appropriate for meeting the overall goals and objectives of the engagement.

The impetus for specific engagement efforts may vary. For example, legislation or policy may make community involvement a condition of funding. Engagement leaders may see community organizing and mobilization as part of their mission or profession, or they may recognize the strengths of community engagement: its potential to enhance the ethical foundations of action, the identification of issues, the design and delivery of programs, and translational research. Alternatively, outside pressures may demand that an entity be more responsive to community concerns.

Just as the impetus for community engagement varies, so do its goals. For example, efforts in community engagement could be focused on specific health issues, such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, mental illness, substance abuse, immunizations, or cardiovascular disease. Alternatively, efforts could have a very broad focus, as in the following examples:

  • Focus on overall community improvement, including economic and infrastructure development, which will directly or indirectly contribute to health improvements and disease prevention.
  • Ask community members to specify their health-related concerns, identify areas that need action, and become involved in planning, designing, implementing, and evaluating appropriate programs.

The level at which goals are focused has implications for managing and sustaining the engagement. A broader goal may enable community leaders to involve larger segments of the community, whereas a narrower focus may keep activities more directed and manageable.

Similarly, participation by the community could have several possible dimensions. Broadly speaking, leaders of efforts to engage communities need to be clear about whether they are (1) seeking data, information, advice, and feedback to help them design programs, or (2) interested in partnering and sharing control with the community. The latter includes being willing to address the issues that the community identifies as important, even if those are not the ones originally anticipated.

It is equally important to be clear about who is to be engaged, at least initially. Is it all those who reside within certain geographic boundaries? Or is it a specific racial/ethnic group, an income-specific population, or an age group, such as youth? Is it a specific set of institutions and groups, such as faith communities, schools, or the judicial system? Or is it a combination? Is it a “virtual” community sharing a common interest? How might other collaborations or partnerships in the community of interest enhance engagement efforts? Answers to these questions will begin to provide the parameters for the engagement effort.

2. Become knowledgeable about the community’s culture, economic conditions, social networks, political and power structures, norms and values, demographic trends, history, and experience with efforts by outside groups to engage it in various programs. Learn about the community’s perceptions of those initiating the engagement activities.

It is important to learn as much about the community as possible, through both qualitative and quantitative methods, and from as many sources as feasible. Many of the organizing concepts, models, and frameworks presented in Chapter 1 support this principle. Social ecological theories, for example, emphasize the need to understand the larger physical and social/cultural environment and its interaction with individual health behaviors. An understanding of how the community perceives the benefits and costs of participating will facilitate decision making and consensus building and will translate into improved program planning, design, policy development, organization, and advocacy. The concept of stages of diffusion of innovation (discussed in Chapter 1) highlights the need to assess the community’s readiness to adopt new strategies. Understanding the community will help leaders in the engagement effort to map community assets, develop a picture of how business is done, and identify the individuals and groups whose support is necessary, including which individuals or groups must be approached and involved in the initial stages of engagement.

Many communities are already involved in coalitions and partnerships developed around specific issues such as HIV/AIDS, the prevention of substance abuse, and community and economic development. It is important to consider how attempts to engage or mobilize the community around new issues may affect these preexisting efforts.

It is also helpful for those initiating the community engagement process to consider how the community perceives them (or their affiliations). Understanding these perceptions will help them identify strengths they can build upon and barriers they need to overcome. There are many community-engagement techniques that can be used to (1) learn about the community’s perceptions of the credibility of those initiating the process and (2) simultaneously lay the groundwork for meaningful and genuine partnerships.

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