Overcoming Challenges of Community Engagement
Differences of opinion – and sometimes conflict – about facts, interpretation of the facts, next steps, and communication are inherent to this work. Media attention means that these differences will be amplified. Additionally, local and interpersonal politics may play a role in community engagement.
You may also find yourself engaging with communities whose previous experience with government agencies has resulted in distrust. When you recognize distrust, try to understand a community’s perceptions, history, needs, and challenges. This may help you better understand the distrust. Work to develop relationships and find ways to align with community goals by maximizing opportunities to listen to concerns and help community members better understand how you will address their concerns. Slowly but surely, such actions contribute to building trust and credibility for ATSDR staff in the field.
Additionally, ATSDR’s ability to respond to the full range of community concerns and preferences may be determined by our agency mission and resources. For example, ATSDR focuses on identifying how people might be exposed to environmental contamination within their community and determining whether those exposures could be harmful. However, some communities may approach environmental contamination from other perspectives (e.g., communities with cultural differences or those concerned with economic impacts).
To overcome challenges of community engagement, thoughtful planning, a transparent approach, and dedicated resources to meet the community’s needs and your organization’s needs are critical and necessary.