Phase I: Setting the Stage

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Informing Planning and Goal Setting

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When environmental contamination is identified at a site, or public health work begins, it is critical to start by understanding the community’s concerns and using this information to inform the steps that ATSDR will take based on its mandate, mission, and priorities. While the decision to take on public health work may not always be yours to make, the degree and form of community engagement to employ requires thoughtful consideration.

No matter what stage of the process you are involved in—deciding whether to engage or how to engage—you will need to first have a basic understanding of the community, the environmental contamination it is faced with, and other community concerns.

Conducting media scans, collecting community demographic information, and developing a community profile will help you learn about the community, identify their concerns, and set the stage for determining how you can help. Community engagement specialists can bring this information to the site team and organizational leadership to inform decisions on whether to take on work at a site.

Ultimately, if ATSDR is going to do public health work in a community, you will need to get an in-depth understanding of a community’s unique attributes, historical experiences, and goals to inform a successful engagement strategy.

Community engagement activities in this Phase will inform planning and goal setting for the duration of your public health work.

Ask Yourself

When Deciding Whether to Conduct Environmental Public Health Work…

  • Are the community’s health concerns related to ATSDR’s mandate and mission?
  • Were unique community concerns considered as part of the decision-making process?
  • Do you have the organizational resources to support the successful implementation of community engagement activities?

 Once You’ve Decided to Conduct Environmental Public Health Work…

  • What are the purpose and goals of the community engagement effort?
  • Are you making plans to meet with the community and its leaders to build relationships and to better understand and document their concerns?
  • What type of environmental data will ATSDR be collecting and assessing?
  • How are you communicating about agency public health plans (e.g., public health assessment/consultation/exposure investigations) and establishing expectations for ATSDR’s role with the community?
  • What unique aspects of the community will you account for when you plan your community engagement efforts?
  • Will your engagement allow for the community to continue working toward their own environmental health goals?
Keep in Mind

ATSDR’s public health work may not be the primary concern of the community. It is important to recognize the community’s priorities and concerns, even when they do not align with the priorities and concerns of ATSDR.

Possible Community Engagement Activities:


Two important concepts to keep in mind when considering community engagement with tribal communities are tribal sovereignty and cultural competence. There are unique legal and political relationships between the federal government and Indian tribes.

These relationships are based on the U.S. Constitution, treaties, Supreme Court decisions, federal laws, and Executive Orders. These treaties, laws, orders, and decisions provide authority to the federal government for Indian affairs with federally recognized tribes. Each Tribal government can create and enforce laws and create Tribal government entities to carry out those laws. Public health professionals must be aware that federally recognized tribes may prefer to work with federal agencies, and state-recognized tribes may prefer to work with state agencies [SAMHSA 2009].

Page last reviewed: December 15, 2021