Community Engagement: What Does It Mean? Why Does It Matter?

Dr. Gene RoehlkepartainBy: Dr. Gene Roehlkepartain

As the United States remembers the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., there will be many conversations about what he did and what it took to mobilize the nation in the Civil Rights Movement. Some of those conversations will highlight the power of a community to bring about change for the common good.

An underlying idea in this and other movements is the power of everyday citizens to make a difference.

This often leads to a conversation about what it takes to engage the community. Yet, the conversation can quickly lose focus, obscured by a lack of shared understanding about what we mean when we talk about “community engagement.” For some, community engagement means residents taking direct action for a common cause (such as civil rights or environmentalism). For others, it focuses on building public support for policies, programs, or investments. Still others emphasize the ways individuals can make a difference, such as reading to children in their homes or mentoring a young person.

Regardless of the definition, most community activists and leaders agree that engaging the community is complex and challenging.

A new Search Institute working paper seeks to stimulate a fresh conversation and new research about how we think about community engagement, particularly when focused on post-secondary success for young people from diverse backgrounds. Together with colleagues from the University of Minnesota, we convened two dozen local leaders to begin surfacing critical questions about the role of community engagement in contributing to young people’s success.

Getting the Questions RightThe resulting report, Getting the Questions Right, shares people’s reflections and proposes key research questions for the future. These include:

  1. How do people in diverse communities understand community and engagement?
  2. To what extent do various forms of community engagement uniquely contribute to student success?
  3. What strategies appear to be effective for engaging communities across lines of race, class, and culture?
  4. What is the return on investment of spending time, money, and political capital in community engagement around educational success?

None of these questions--or others like them--will be answered easily. They demand thoughtful reflection and systematic examination by many people from different perspectives. Thus, this paper ends with questions, not answers, and then invites feedback. We hope you’ll join us and contribute to this ongoing conversation in the comments below.

Publish Date: 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

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Young Adults

I work with couples in child birth classes. Part of what I do is give them a sense of their community resources for support as they raise their children, and how they can become resources for each other as they begin the adventure of parenting. I'm not sure many of them join community organizations or community efforts for change. They will eventually be involved with local schools. Some will join mothers groups. But young parents often feel isolated from the larger, non-child culture, and from each other as they fear judgement about their parenting skills. Isolation really batters their own self concept and the insights they could use to help their babies build their own identities.

Cultivating Youth Leaders

We have over 5000+ graduates from Anytown(TM). Anytown cultivates diverse leaders by creating an environment where all members are welcomed, supported, and feel safe in school: socially, emotionally, intellectually and physically; and developing engaging practices that promote social and civic responsibilities and a commitment to social justice. Research shows that even relatively milder forms of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination have shown significant effects on individuals’ health and wellbeing.
Our teens represent a diverse cross section of the greater Tampa Bay community. The participant demographics are African American, White, Hispanic, Asian and Multi-racial or other. Approximately 50% of the group is female and the age distribution is typically high school youth. 55% of the teens receive free/reduced price lunch at school and 20% speak a language other than English at home. Youth with autism, cerebral palsy and HIV positive status have attended as participants at ANYTOWN™. Our key strategies for program success include staffing the program with trained community volunteers, youth-adult partnerships and financial access. 25 full-time volunteers staff each week-long session of the residential program. They range in age from 16-65 and their demographics mirror those identified above for the teen participants. Another strategy is youth-adult partnerships. All workshops, presentations, dialogue and dorm groups are co-facilitated with youth (under age 25) and adults working as partners. This is a core demonstration of our inclusive leadership value. The program includes a year of follow up activities through the Be Intentional Institute. They are specifically designed for graduates after their intensive week-long residential session. Anytown is available in multiple states with possibility of opening in new regions.

Partnerships and Encouraging Youth Involvement

Our small community of Hollister, CA, is holding a Youth Rally this Spring. One thing that has been difficult is 1) youth coming to the planning meetings for this rally (any ages are invited), then 2) of those youth who do show up, the few who are there don't really speak up a lot. My 13 year-old recently told me that it is difficult for her to understand what's going on at the meetings. I believe that we need to keep inviting youth, but when they do show up, they don't run the meeting, they don't speak up and give their opinions when asked, and it's a small group of adults running the show. I believe that having no ice-breakers, to many administrative agendas and ways of speaking, and speedy way in which we engage youth takes away their opportunities, but it is difficult to get adults to realize this. I will continue to ask youth what they think, to engage them, maybe bring a snack, waters, and smiles to each meeting, and most importantly to listen to what they are saying, and what they are not saying. We have to each do this more, I think.

Encouraging youth

Hi Maggie,

I am a residence of Sacramento, CA and seems to me this is a problem all across the state. First there are not enough youth engagement programs here and secondly, too many adults who are not skilled at working with youth. No one wants to take trainings, partner with other organization or do anything that will be helpful in developing programs for youth. I think this is why the dropout rate is so high in this state. Personally, I am looking for a team of people who are willing to take the focus off of themselves are focus on the children in this state.

Community Engagement

I am very involved in community development through an ongoing project called Envision Opelika 2025. The envisioning process just completed a 12-year envisioning process that saw the construction of a $36 million Sportsplex, downtown revitalization, renovation of a school building into the Cultural Arts Center of East Alabama, and the formation of the Opelika Character Council that promotes excellence in character in all sectors of our community. The EO Board has decided to engage in another 12-year period of envisioning. The effort is citizens-driven. The engagement to accomplish common goals is based on trusting relationships that have been built over a long period of time. That is one of the most important ingredients in community development. There is no one person more important than any other. There is common ground that everyone stands on.