Who Will Aspen Engagement Effort Invite to the Big Table?

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July 2, 2012; Source: Knight Blog

The Knight Foundation considers community engagement one of the best ways to solve community problems, but “there isn’t yet an agreed upon way to describe it, copy it, measure it—or even know it’s spreading.” Knight and other funders are supporting a new Forum for Community Solutions at the Aspen Institute. The forum proposes “to host roundtable discussions with mayors, community leaders, philanthropists and businesses” to ask them what has worked in their community. The group also plans to initiate a forum for projects to help 16-24 year olds who don’t have a job and aren’t in school.

The Knight Foundation points to a recent report, “Case Studies of Effective Collaboratives,” which found that “nearly all of [the coalitions studied] struggled with how to engage residents as co-producers of change,” according to Knight. In reading the case studies, there are some clues at to why such struggles occurred:

  • Community members are not always at the table where decisions are made. The easiest—and most often overlooked—way to engage stakeholders is to give them a seat at the “big” table. Don’t just poll them or ask them to come to a focus group, but, in the language of community organizing, empower them to make decisions.
  • Experts are producing data, but data doesn’t solve all problems. The case studies repeatedly focus on the role of data collection. It’s important to have facts, but it’s also important to remember that facts don’t solve problems or create community consensus. In fact, if stakeholders perceive “experts” as driving the discussion and discussion making, they may be less likely to be engaged.
  • Young people know their environment, but no one asks them to help solve problems. Whether the issue is crime or improving schools, young people have a ton of valuable information to share. Yet many times, no one asks them what they think. Young people will be more engaged if they are actively involved in programs and projects that will affect them. They’ll be even more engaged if they get to sit at the big table.

As the Aspen Institute develops its new Forum for Community Solutions, let’s keep in mind that we already know a lot about what works in community engagement, but don’t always practice it. Successful community engagement requires everyone—from the experts to the mayors to the previously uninvolved residents of a community—to believe that the big table approach will work. As long as stakeholders are thought of as people who need to be educated or serviced, they will remain disengaged. Watch for more on this report from NPQ. –Mary Jo Draper

  • Margot H Knight

    As a veteran of community progress and change (in my case for arts and culture), the best thing to do would to be to give the people “on the ground” working with people who are homeless, hungry, undereducated, unemployed, disadvantaged etc. grants to pay dues to join and go to the conferences and inter-city visits of their local/regional chambers of commerce, economic development commissions and tourism bureaus.

    As long as the business community forums (and many philanthropic ones, too) are a “pay to play” world, the voices needed at the table to advance solutions to social problems will always be in Siberia. And the business community drives the community agenda in most communities. This is not necessarily a bad thing–just a fact. I have come to believe local businesspeople are well-intentioned and have the ability to listen BUT you have to be at the table and equal to them in terms of your investment in whatever organization is the umbrella in your community to be heard as an equal. Many are Type A people, they are certain they can “fix” education, hunger, drug use etc. and wlll drive through an unworkable plan if grassroots organizers aren’t full partners at the decision-making table.

    And when community organizers get to those tables, they need to listen and learn too. Reciprocity counts. I’ve learned more about sports venues, tourism marketing, bed taxes, water management and economic incentives for business development than I would have ever imagined possible. And, in return, sometimes, we made policy and financial progress for arts and culture.