By: 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.