Choosing Community Engagement Strategies

This section outlines factors to consider when evaluating community engagement strategies.

Your selection of community engagement strategies is unique to the site—dependent on the community, possible public health hazards, available resources, and other issues. In addition, strategies can change over time based on input from the community and other stakeholders throughout the PHA process. For each site, the site team will need to make judgments about which community engagement strategies are appropriate.

Each site community has specific needs and interacts differently. ATSDR responds to all reasonable requests, continually reminds the community what they can expect from ATSDR, and prioritizes community involvement at the site based on available resources and site-specific factors pdf icon[PDF – 205 KB].

Environmental Public Health

The potential for public health hazards from the site, as determined by your data and the evaluation as it proceeds, will be a major factor in deciding which community engagement strategies and tools are appropriate. Consider the following:

  • If the site is a public health hazard, is the hazard acute or chronic?
  • If the site is a Superfund site, where is it in the remedial process?
  • Are environmental health risks known or unknown?
  • How long has ATSDR been involved?
  • Are there certain factors that make the site a high priority?
  • Does site work involve a health study or exposure investigation?
  • Are there any health outcome data or biologic data relevant to the site?
  • Does it seem plausible that a health connection could be established between contaminant exposures and community health concerns?

If the site poses a public health hazard, it may mean a higher level of community engagement work, such as multiple community meetings, engagement with other agencies, and media interviews.

Community Interest

Community interest is another factor influencing community engagement actions, tools, and activities. Consider the following factors:

  • How many community members are concerned about the site?
  • What are their concerns?
  • Has the community expressed feelings of stress related to environmental site contamination?
  • Is the level of community concern higher (or lower) than would be expected based on the environmental health risk alone at the site?
  • Is the community already experiencing economic or environmental burdens or social vulnerability?
  • How involved in the PHA process would the community like to be?

If there is a high level of community concern and/or the community is already economically burdened or socially vulnerable, there may be a need for frequent interactions with community leaders and citizen groups, multiple and more frequent information-sharing opportunities, and more in-person communication. The Community Concern Assessment Tool pdf icon[PDF – 69.4 KB] in the ATSDR Communication Toolkit can help assess the level of community concern and suggest tone and strategy in responding to the identified concerns.

Community Characteristics

A community’s demographics and socioeconomic status, knowledge, past experiences, and other characteristics also influence community engagement approaches. Consider the following:

  • How many community members live near the site?
  • Are there any potentially sensitive populations that could be exposed?
  • Does demographic information suggest a need for additional community engagement resources, such as translation, interpreter services, or cultural contacts?
  • Are there American Indian or Alaskan Native communities at the site (note: if so, this will require outreach to tribal organizations)?
  • Are there particular issues of concern (e.g., environmental justice, child health, Brownfields and Land Reuse) at the site?
  • What has the community already heard from the media? Are there misconceptions that need to be dispelled?
  • Will high media interest require more resources than usual?

Engagement of Other Groups and Agencies

Other agencies and groups (such as federal and state health and environmental agencies, tribal governments, local health departments, citizens’ advisory groups, medical advisory groups, academic organizations, non-governmental organizations, elected officials) may already be working with and providing information to community members at a site. As appropriate, collaborate with these groups to enhance the efficiency, effectiveness, and credibility of public communication and engagement activities. Consider the following:

  • How many community and/or activist groups are involved? How active are they?
  • Will ATSDR be working with a specific community group already formed or should the agency consider forming a new one?
  • If the site is a Superfund site, where is it in the remedial process?
  • Has ATSDR only recently become involved in this site? Or has ATSDR almost completed its work at this site?
  • Which other agencies are involved and must be kept updated, and is there a specific order and protocol to follow? How resource-intensive will the update process be?
  • Are there any policy implications or notifications needed? If so, coordinate with the appropriate division, representatives, or center policy office.

Community Groups and Committees

ATSDR works with many types of informal community or neighborhood groups. Sometimes neighborhood groups grow in numbers and in impact such that their membership expands to include not only current residents, but many others. Examples include former residents, local environmental activists, national environmental activists, local and national officials, and various agency (local, state, tribal, and federal) representatives. As the group becomes more formalized with specific procedures and policies, it may be described as a coalition, alliance, or forum. A site may have several different community groups, each with its own specific missions and goals.

ATSDR’s role in community meetings can range from being a participant to having some responsibilities for conducting group meetings. Work with community groups to determine the best way for the agency to meet their needs and, at the same time, obtain the information needed for the PHA process.

ATSDR staff strive to ensure that the agency interacts with all segments of a community, not just organized community groups, but also individuals who may even be unaware of the environmental concerns. When segments of a community are strongly divided over the public health issues and activities at a site, ATSDR may recommend establishing a formal community participation group.

Neighborhood groups are made up of people who have decided to work together to address an environmental contamination issue in their neighborhood and its possible effect on the community’s health.

ATSDR's Community Concern Assessment Tool

ATSDR’s Community Concern Assessment Tool pdf icon[PDF – 69.4 KB] provides some guidance on how to determine the level of concern in a community. It will help ensure appropriate tailoring of communication strategies, messages, and materials in a way that community members feel they are heard.

ATSDR's Community Engagement Playbook

ATSDR’s Community Engagement Playbook is a practical and concise guide that walks the reader through the phases of a site-based environmental public health initiative. It offers a flexible menu of “plays” or activities for a site team to implement throughout engagement with a community affected by environmental contamination.

Page last reviewed: April 14, 2022