by John Creighton
Community engagement is a public sector buzzword. Engagement is hailed as a key strategy to help keep institutions such as public libraries relevant now and in the future. But was does community engagement mean? And, more important, what is the purpose of community engagement?
Community engagement often is translated as a set of activities and/or events. People attend book readings, ﬁlm screenings, a community dialogue. Attendance at these events becomes the purpose of engagement as well as the measure of success.
These types of activities are often worthwhile. But, does hosting an event, even if well attended, really make a library more relevant in the community? Is a meeting room with ample seating capacity an irreplaceable community asset? Can no other organization besides a library host a book reading, ﬁlm screening or discussion?
To discover the full potential of civic engagement we must look beyond activities and set aside attendance as the primary metric of success.
Richard Harwood, founder of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, offers a deﬁnition for the purpose of community engagement that elevates engagement’s potential to new heights. Harwood challenges organizations to pursue community engagement as a means to improve the civic health of the community.
Let me state that again. The purpose of community engagement is to improve the civic health of the community.
What are some of the elements of a civically healthy community? The Harwood Institute’s research identiﬁes factors such as these:
- Diverse layers of leadership at all levels of the community.
- A strong set of links and connections between diverse groups of people.
- Boundary spanning organizations and leaders willing to hold up a mirror to the community.
- A culture of constructive dialogue.
Embracing the idea that the purpose of community engagement is to improve the community’s civic health challenges engagement organizers to consider a different set of questions. The same activities are viewed in a different light.
A library team, for instance, might think differently about ﬁlm screenings. The relevant questions become:
- How can we use ﬁlm screenings to cultivate more diverse leadership at more levels of the community?
- How will the ﬁlm screenings help people of different backgrounds forge strong connections?
- In what ways will the ﬁlm screenings challenge people to look in the mirror and engage in constructive dialogue?
The ability to achieve these goals becomes the priority. Attendance becomes a secondary goal. These types of questions might even lead a library team to look outside its own buildings as the best place to show ﬁlms and host conversations.
The measures of success change, too. Gatherings of a small group of people who are from diverse parts of the community may be deemed more successful than a well-attended event of like-minded library patrons.
An institution that is able to contribute to the civic health of its community – rather than just host an entertaining event – over time is far more relevant.
To what extent is your organization improving the civic health of your community?
John Creighton, a Longmont, Colorado leadership consultant, writes on community life and public leadership at johncr8on.com. He can be found on Twitter @johncr8on and on Facebook. John also is a member of The Harwood Institute’s national faculty.