Sunday, February 7, 2010

Why we need to get better at dialogue

Recently, I have taken on the responsibility of assisting with the planning of a large-scale community engagement summit here in Wisconsin.  One of the first things I have learned in the less-than-two-weeks that I have been involved in this project is that community engagement means different things to different people.  Last week's post included a description of a number of models that people think of when they use the term "community engagement."  There is clearly some confusion about what we mean when we use this term.

I am concerned that before we can have community engagement dialogue, we need to have a dialogue to define what we mean by community engagement!

Successful community engagement values the input of all who come to the table.  AND, successful community engagement works to include all voices, no matter how disagreeable they may appear to to the conveners.

Successful community engagement also reaches out beyond parents.  Parents continue to make up a smaller and smaller percentage of the community.  Focusing only on parents ignores the concerns of a majority the citizens in our communities.

Finally, our society has diversified considerably over the last thirty years.  New ethnic groups now make their homes in our communities.  We have a responsibility to make a concerted effort to welcome these new comers into our communities.  Their customs and ideas may be different from long established practice and thinking, but it doesn't mean there is something wrong with them.

This TED Talk, Weird or Just Different, illustrates this concept and gives us something to think about as we consider how to successfully initiate community engagement activities.

Social reformers have a history of acting like they have the answers; that all the "clients" have to do is take their advice and all will be well.  This paternalistic attitude has never worked.  It didn't work during the Progressive Era.  It didn't work in the 1960s.  And it won't work today; even if we dress it us as community engagement.  The experts have to remember that community members have an expertise that is as important to the conversation as their own technical expertise.

I welcome your thoughts about community engagement.  Also, I'd be interested in learning more about your experiences, especially with successful community engagement practices that encourage dialogue among diverse groups.

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