Engaging a community for any sustained effort can be challenging. The challenges increase when the goal is health equity and the approach is as multifaceted as healthy community change. Disadvantaged communities often contend with their need to involve external partners and attract external resources, even as internal stakeholders are challenged to support their families and find available time and energy for ongoing citizen action.
Leaders from disadvantaged communities are sometimes approached by well-intentioned partners who bring money, skills, knowledge and networks. While these assets can be constructive if deployed in the right way, local leaders often have to confront outside agendas, priorities and timelines, significant power imbalances and dismissive assumptions about their leadership and assets. For healthy community partnerships that are interested in equity, the primary challenges of community engagement in this context are to be authentic, patient and intentional enough to shift power and achieve lasting impact.
Successful engagement often begins by acknowledging the assets and leadership that already exist and the facilitative orientation and skill needed to capitalize fully on diversity and existing strengths. It also involves working artfully with the inevitable tension that exists when diverse interests are present, arrangements are not fair, the status quo is embedded, and people are uncomfortable. It means keeping partners motivated and working together over time, even after a success invites more struggle, to bring the new vision closer to fruition. For lasting change, community engagement must also build community capacity and quality relationships between partners, and lift leaders inside and outside the community to new levels of effectiveness. Successful engagement motivates and organizes a constituency to increase accountability and promote and defend equitable change.
The effort involved in this kind of community engagement is worthwhile because it is the only way to transform the embedded values and structures of the status quo, build the capacity of disadvantaged communities to hold the system accountable, and secure lasting progress on health equity. It also increases the impact of community changes as residents, including youth, come to own, value and act on what they and their friends have worked so hard to win. As those close to the change process communicate their excitement and pride in their achievements, they motivate their own circles of influence to celebrate and take advantage of new opportunities. Put more concisely, “If they build it, they will come.” And a healthier community and culture can be one of the results.
Here are some core lessons and principles about community engagement we have learned from community partnerships.