Forward Wayne County is focusing on Government in March and invited Beth Fields, Director of Strategic Initiatives for the City of Richmond, to share her thoughts on community engagement:
I’m sure you’ve heard the term “community engagement” many times. What does it mean to you?
Is there a vision that comes along with it, an image of togetherness, a kumbaya moment, or an image of celebration?
Successful communities have at their core, strong, inclusive engagement efforts that benefit from the ideas and talents of the members of the community to ensure we discover lasting solutions that represent the values, desires and aspirations of our community.
What is community engagement?
There are probably as many definitions out there as there are people trying to define it. Merriam-Webster defines community as “a unified body of individuals” and engaged/engagement as “involved in activity” and “greatly interested.”
For me, community engagement is people working collaboratively, through action and learning, to create and realize aspirations for their common future.
The linking of the term “community” to “engagement” helps broaden the scope, shifting the focus from the individual to the collective, and with that comes the responsibility to ensure that efforts are inclusive of the diversity that exists within our community.
Why should I care?
You will rarely, if ever, hear City Council, County Council, or other public officials claim that they can solve any problem or realize any community aspirations by themselves.
American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead reminds us to “never depend upon institutions or government to solve any problem. All social movements are founded by, guided by, motivated by and seen through by the passion of individuals.“
That’s a true statement. Government and local organizations cannot solve and address community issues on their own.
It takes residents working collaboratively with each other and leveraging the strength of their own communities to be successful. Community building is a joint effort.
Community building takes trust and trust is vital to community success. We want our residents to trust that we are focused on maintaining and growing the community’s quality of life.
The best way for us to do that is to know the community’s wants and needs. The Richmond Rising movement was used to garner the input, ideas, concerns, and suggestions of Richmond residents, business owners, and stakeholders.
The result was Richmond Rising: Community Action Plan which identified priority action steps that ranged from marketing efforts to long range planning and development projects.
The plan is written. Now what?
The more you get involved, the better informed our decision making process will be. The community knows things public officials don’t know. You have ideas, issues, and concerns that we may not be aware of. You provide another level of understanding for us as we evaluate available data and best practices to make critical decisions.
Engagement is a win/win for all of us. We get the opportunity to learn from you and you’ll learn from us.
We’re never going to have consensus throughout the community on issues, projects or programs. We won’t always agree on a plan of action to address an issue or concern and that’s ok.
What do we need to agree on? That we will respectfully engage in conversations intended to enhance our understanding of all points of view and that we will listen to understand first and respond second. These exchanges must consist of open, honest, constructive dialogue with the goal of reaching a conclusion that puts the well-being of the entire community first.
Sometimes a decision will be made that some community members like and others don’t.
Ultimately, public officials are charged with making decisions that are in the best interest of the collective. Would we prefer to make everyone happy in the process? Absolutely.
But we all know that’s unrealistic. What we do know is that the plans guiding us forward are based on available data, best practices, and the input, ideas, concerns, and suggestions of Richmond residents, business owners, and stakeholders.
Your continued community engagement will ensure we keep collaborating, building trust, gathering and distributing information so our community is prepared to rise to any occasion.