One might ask, why community engagement? The short answer: communities support what they help to create. Very often we see experts come into communities with solutions that may work in one community, but not another. Residents often have perspective on the challenges faced by their community. Research shows that when residents have ownership over the decisions in their community, they are more likely to sustain it when outside resources are no longer available.
Community Development Values
The following community development values inform CDF’s work. They are from CDF Board Member Doris Littrell’s book Practicing Community Development (page 25).
The basic dignity of all people.
- If we are to honor this value, all people are respected, held in regard and have worth. Answering the question “who should participate in shaping the future of our community?” is our guide as community development people. The answer is – Anyone who wants to. This means that community development people must work to help community people understand the insidious consequences of racism, sexism, classism, ageism, religionism and other such forms of discrimination and work to banish the practice and enforcement of such formal and informal social policies.
People have the right to participate in decisions that impact their current and future well-being.
- People do have the right to participate in decision formation, implementation and enforcement which have an effect on them. To participate means that people’s voices are heard, taken into account, given honest consideration. People and organizations speak from many different points of view, values and beliefs and interests.
- There is a major difference between citizen participation in the traditional public debate model and the public dialogue model. The model is based on “I am right and you are wrong and my job is to change your mind, or win”. The dialogue model is based on “let’s learn to understand what’s important to both or all of us and see if we can discover common ground from which to work and take action.”
Participatory democracy is the superior method of conducting the civic business of communities.
- People tend to support what they have helped create.
- The concept of participatory democracy does not mean that all the people will or must participate in all the issues all the time. What is does mean is that community systems are open or can be opened to citizen participation for those people to choose to take part.
- Democratic participation is a process rather than a product. It is through this process that community people can work and learn together to form a vision of the future that they desire.
People have the right to strive to create an environment that they desire.
- People have this right even at times when they are outside the mainstream. The ethical issues start when people, private business, agencies or organizations want to impose their desired state of being upon communities or people who have a different vision or view of what is desirable.
- Community people have the right to give direction to their own environment whether they are rural or urban. This means that people can come together and work to create community over time.
- The right to participate does not equal doing or implementing. For people to implement the environment they desire, careful thought and attention must be given to such issues as the political or civic will to govern, the creation of networks to produce effective networks of resources, plus the basic awareness that citizens can be governors.
- What is at stake here is the degree of control people can develop concerning the future of their own community.
Implied within a process of purposeful interaction is the ever-widening concept of “community.”
- Community can be thought of from many different perspectives such as a geographic place, or as an interest group or from a relationship point of view.
- When working within a given neighborhood or community it is important to understand that while political boundaries may be somewhat fixed, relationship boundaries are not. It is well known that people living and working within communities have a variety of internal and external relationships.
- What is not as common is to think of these relationships as resources, especially from a collective point of view. By asking the question who do you know or can contact, who has information, knowledge, influence, interest, decision making ability in regard to resources as it relates to given community concerns, issues or projects one can start a process of mapping a community’s or neighborhood’s collective internal and external relationships that have a possible connection to a variety of potential resources.
- Communities and neighborhoods have been exporting and importing a variety of people over the years, and they all have contacts somewhere else. How to take advantage of these contacts becomes the critical question for communities to ask and answer.