Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Community Engagement: What Does This Term Mean?

I've been thinking more about this term since I last talked about community engagement and extending genuine invitations a few weeks ago.  I've decided that I was a bit too definitive in describing community engagement; that others have different definitions than I.  Below I list other ideas about community engagement that go beyond the deliberative model to which I am drawn. This is hardly a definitive list, simply a place to start thinking about the various aspects of community engagement.

For example, Joyce Epstein's Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships categorizes involvement activities as parenting, communicating, volunteering, learning at home, decision making and collaborating with the community. Part of Epstein's model focuses on parents and the role they can directly play in their own child's educational development, work that I would categorize as important but not necessarily community engagement.

Others would point to advocacy work as community engagement.  Groups like the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools and Parent United Network work to educate citizens on important education issues and encourage citizens to form local parent groups to advocate for policy changes at the state and federal levels. I see advocacy as a persuasive model, whereby parents work to encourage policy makers to include parent perspectives in their policy decision making.

I think these are important components of the community engagement continuum.  For me, however, at the end of the day, I am drawn to models that encourage conversation and relationship building. Models like  World Cafe and Study Circles provide opportunities for dialogue that might lead to developing a better understanding of others' positions.

We live in a time of perpetual change.  In fact, I think it is safe to say that change is the new status quo.  How can we cope with the pace and pressures of change?  Our ability to build relationships is a key component of the solution.

In her book Turning to One Another, Margaret Wheatley writes:

 "I have learned that when we begin listening to each other, and when we talk about things that matter to us, the world begins to change."

It is this idea, the power of dialogue to make a difference, that draws me to more deliberative models of community engagement.

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