Why Community Engagement is Needed Now More than Ever

2020 has been a year for the books.

It’s been a year that will go down in history as a time when the world changed rapidly in ways: a global pandemic, worldwide uprisings against police brutality and racism, a major economic downturn, and the continued threat of climate change. And, at the time of writing this post, we’re only halfway through it.

These changes are interconnected, complicated, and result from long term, widespread issues:

  • Systemic racism and lack of economic opportunities has had major negative health and socioeconomic effects on minority communities.
  • These negative effects, often a result of redlining, (which you can learn more about in the excellent video below) often force minority groups into unhealthy, densely packed environments with limited access to green space, underfunded education systems, and a general lack of resources.
  • These poor environmental conditions have caused COVID-19 to take a larger toll on minority communities than other groups, with Black Americans dying from the virus at 2.4 times the rate of white Americans.
  • Additionally, the over policing of these areas has lead to a system wherein law enforcement officers are given free reign to use violence and brute force unnecessarily, often resulting in the death of Black men and women like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, and too many others.

These are complicated issues that feed back in to each other and my attempt to distill them into bullet points above is surely missing many important factors. If you’re interested in learning more about these topics and more, I’ve included a references section at the end of this post with links for further reading.

The point I’m trying to make is that there’s no way solve these problems separately; instead we need to acknowledge that fixing one problem, means fixing all of them. It’s up to us to come together as a global community to find solutions.

Now is the time to ensure that everyone has equitable access to clean, healthy air and water.

Now is the time to end the use of deadly violence and racist policies against Black people by law enforcement and other government agencies, extremist groups, or individuals.

Now is the time to make big changes to prevent the planet from becoming uninhabitable for future generations.

Now is the time to ensure that everyone is given equal access to job opportunities, education, and other resources for building a happy, healthy life.

It’s clear that the top-down approaches of the past are not working. That type of system is what got us here in the first place. That’s why a bottom-up, community engagement-based decision making system is so desperately needed today.

As the world rebuilds and reassesses the systems in place, it has become abundantly clear that community engagement matters now, more than ever. Keeping community engagement top of mind will help ensure that everyone is informed, consulted, involved, and empowered to build a better world than we had before.

If we want to build an equitable, resilient, and more beautiful world, it’s the only way forward.

What is Community Engagement?

The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassion of its members.

Coretta Scott King

Community engagement can mean different things in different contexts. However, in this post, I will be referring to community engagement in the context of planning and decision making.

The goal of community engagement in this context is to develop strategies and processes to solve problems that are sensitive to the community context in which they occur.

So what exactly is community engagement? There are many different definitions out there, but this one from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Recovery, a branch of the CDC, is often cited:

…the process of working collaboratively with and through groups of people affiliated by geographic proximity, special interest, or similar situations to address issues affecting the wellbeing of those people. It is a powerful vehicle for bringing about environmental and behavioral changes that will improve the health of the community and its members. It often involves partnerships and coalitions that help mobilize resources and influence systems, change relationships among partners, and serve as catalysts for changing policies, programs, and practices.

(CDC, 1997, p. 9).

According to the same document, titled Principles of Community Engagement, community engagement can be seen as a continuum, which, as it is implemented, drives increasing levels of involvement, impact, trust, and communication between the stakeholders involved. The image below illustrates this concept:

In practice, community engagement is not easy, and doesn’t fall into place quickly. Building effective community engagement strategies requires time, and the process needs to be continuous in order to support long term change.

Let’s take a look at one example of a group that has been successful in implementing a community engagement-based approach to see what it looks like in the real world.

AIRnyc’s Community-Based Approach to Tackling Asthma in the Bronx

The prevalence of asthma among children in the Bronx far exceeds the national average in the US. In fact, asthma is the leading cause of hospitalization and school absences among children in the area and asthma morbidity rates are also much higher than the national average. Bronx children are twice as likely to be hospitalized for asthma and more likely to die of asthma than other US children.

One group working to tackle this issue is AIRnyc. The organization works differently than a lot of groups, because they actually send community health workers to meet people where they live. They provide in-home asthma self-management services to residents in the area using evidence-based practices and a data-driven model.

The program has built up a system of quality, community-based care that addresses the health issues in the Bronx and provides treatment not just for the ailment (asthma) but for the whole person. This means going into homes and pointing out things like mold or dust and working with families to help address these issues, even going so far as to help them gain access to healthcare programs and other types of social services.

The other aspect of the program that has made it so successful is that the community health workers themselves live in the communities they are serving. They are fluent in the languages spoken in the area and have built up trust within the community through long lasting relationships and cultural knowledge of the neighborhood. Families that have received services often refer the group to others who need help, building out a self-fulfilling network of care and health.

The community impact of the 18 years of work the group has put in is evident. According to their website, the services provided have resulted in 75% fewer hospital admissions, and a 45% reduction in school absences. Their approach shows that with time, participation, and a bottom-up approach, major impacts can be made using community engagement methods.

Taking a Bottom-Up Approach to Advocacy, Policy, and Resiliency

To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination.

bell hooks, Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope

When we first started working with the Gowanus Canal Conservancy (GCC) on a green infrastructure monitoring project, I was really struck by how much community engagement was core to the mission of the group. The group is adamant about making sure that community members are having their needs met by the investments made in the area, whether it’s from city agencies, private landowners, or businesses.

That’s why a bottom-up approach was so important to what we were doing. This wasn’t GCC’s first rodeo with green infrastructure monitoring—previous efforts involved collaborations with academic institutions and city agencies and were highly technical. The projects also tended to have more of a top-down approach, with much of the decision making coming from the groups doing the monitoring, and less from the community at large.

The below chart shows a typical cycle for a project of this type:

As you can see, the process starts with government funding given to the nonprofit group, who then works with professional researchers, often from academic institutions, who implement the technology and collect the data, which is then passed back to government insititutions, who then make the policy decisions that affect the citizens.

But what if neighbors, community organizations, technology, and government could work together on a project, in a way that allows everyone in these groups to understand what the data collected means, and even add more context to it? It would look something like this:

In this approach, everyone has equal footing and comes together to make decisions on what the best solutions for a community are. By making the data collected more accessible and easy to understand, those who are really impacted by policy decisions can start thinking critically about if those decisions really serve their best interests. Additionally, it can offer new ideas and solutions that those at the top might not have thought of before. Often, it takes looking at a problem from a new perspective that can offer the most innovative solutions.

So what does this mean in practice?

For GCC, this meant that not only was the community involved in the process of the environmental monitoring, but they also understood the need for it, and were able to see the data collected, analyze it, and understand it. That data also showed that activities like volunteer stewardship of the green infrastructure actually improved the health of the plants and made them better at absorbing stormwater, thereby reducing the amount of water going into the sewer system during rain events, preventing overflows. Not only were the residents inspired to start expanding the scope of the project, they also were spurred to behavioral change in the form of more consistent stewardship, allowing them to further engage and take pride in the environment they live in. At Temboo, we call this “environmental engagement”, and it’s something we’ve worked hard to build into our platform. One example of this is our recently added notes feature that allows communities to add more context to the data collected. You can learn more about it here.

The runoff effects of a community engagement based approach became evident through this project, and the group is planning to expand their monitoring to gather even more information on what is working, and how the community can help.

Stories of Community Engagement

As I wrote this post, I learned about so many inspiring and interesting success stories where community engagement played a big role in decision making and problem solving efforts. Rather than trying to include a brief summary of each here, I decided to start a series, where I interview groups and individuals to hear their stories of community engagement success.

Hopefully hearing these success stories will prompt more community engagement and show how this type of approach can offer a better way forward for everyone.

Check back soon for the first interview and if you’d like to keep up with the series, sign up for our newsletter below to get our weekly emails. And if you have a story to share, send me an email at jessica.califano@temboo.com and I’ll follow up!

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References and Further Reading