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No Silver Bullet to Community Engagement—Building Upon What Already Exists

Community Voices for Health Spotlight

No Silver Bullet to Community Engagement—Building Upon What Already Exists

Our previous blog post challenged the request for quick fixes to community engagement challenges that practitioners in this industry often receive. This entry into the series will dive into the importance of designing transformative engagement processes through building upon what exists and through deep relationship building. 

The first tenant in the Community Voices for Health (CVH) program is to build on how people are already engaging and forming relationships. Simply put, we can do our best work when we understand that we are not starting from scratch. The CVH program intentionally invested in 6 partnerships across 6 states that already had deep connections within their own communities. More often than not, community engagement involves partnership with an organization or group of people already working within a community to achieve a goal. Often, community members’ roles and voices are tokenized by external interlocutors in the process. To create truly transformative change that also centers the experiences of the existing community, deep relationships need to be formed. 

Often, the history of a community’s involvement in different processes is overlooked, and communities are seen as a place of deficit-  an entity that needs to be fixed or added onto. We encourage a constructive  approach to understanding a community’s needs to build upon what is already working, rather than proposing something entirely new. Taking the time to understand how communities are already thriving is an important first step. 

A common framework for this approach is called Asset-Based Community Development. Another approach is examining community patents: Antionio Reyonoso, current Borough President of Brooklyn, introduces the concept of community patents in his 2017 Ted Talk. One example he uses weighs different options to provide access to organic foods in a neighborhood. One avenue is to bring in an organic foods store, whereas another avenue is to discuss bringing organic foods to stores that already exist in the community, like a bodega. It is clear that there is nuance to the needs that exist within the community. The relationship necessary to voice these concerns is an important foundation, upon which the trust to develop creative and mutually beneficial solutions can be built. Community patents look at what the unique aspects of a are community to identify what is already benefiting the community and how that can be built upon. 

In order to make deep connections within a community, relationships have to be built. Relationship-building can happen in many ways, though the onset of a project is a critical time to begin the process.  It’s also important to think of relationship-building not as a single point in time, but a continuous process. Leveraging even the smallest parts of engagement to build authentic relationships is important. Marginalized communities often experience “community development fatigue”. Many neighborhoods are tired of their lives being treated like a petri dish by organizations and initiatives trying but ultimately failing to make lasting transformations. The relationship building process is crucial in developing trust to create real change. Relationships also require a lot of nurturance, attention, and growth. There is often concern about having enough time in the budget or timeline of a project to devote to robust relationship building. Knowing that this is key to a successful endeavor, relationship-building should be a priority when planning  timelines and budgets at the start of a project. An increasing number of foundations are also recognizing the importance of this step and are increasingly willing to fund it as well. 

Ultimately, taking the time to get to know a community is well worth the effort to create the transformative outcomes that have the most impact. In our next blog post, we’ll be discussing the role that power analysis plays in community engagement projects and how to apply that analysis within project teams to strengthen partnerships.

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