An Engagement Continuum

[Note to new readers: This is a very old and widely read post. In the interest of providing up-to-date information about thinking on this topic, you can find updated definitions of terminology related to community engagement and related arts management tools on the ArtsEngaged website here.]

I’m on a roll talking about types of engagement (New Thought on Audience and Community Engagement). So I thought I’d take a crack at one I’ve not addressed before: Civic Engagement. Early last month I spoke with a friend and colleague–Barbara Schaffer Bacon–who, along with Pam Korza (another buddy), is co-director of Americans for the Arts’ Animating Democracy program. One purpose of the conversation was to see how we might best coordinate the different kinds of work we do. A result was reacquainting myself with civic engagement, the core focus of Animating Democracy.

Animating Democracy’s materials define civic engagement as the “ways in which people participate in civic, community, and political life.” This includes volunteering, voting, organizing, and advocacy as demonstrations of “commitment to participate and contribute to the improvement of one’s neighborhood, community, and nation.” AD defines community engagement as the “ways arts organizations engage constituents and publics in order to align organizational goals, programs, and services with community interests and needs.”

When these definitions are put side by side with my earlier discussions of audience engagement, a continuum of engagement emerges. At the risk of ham-fisted oversimplification, civic engagement is “all about the community,” specifically community improvement. The arts’ role here is as a tool in the service of that improvement. Audience engagement is “all about the art (and arts organization)”: relationships are developed for the purpose of improving prospects for the arts and the community is primarily a source of “targets” where individuals may be found. Community engagement lies in between, splitting the difference in a sense. The community and the arts are equal partners in improving the prospects of each.

A further way to think about these three categories is that civic engagement is an attribute (or state of being) that communities seek–citizens actively involved with community life. The impetus for encouraging civic engagement could come from community leaders, grassroots advocates, or anyone (including artists and arts organizations) concerned with collective well-being.

Audience engagement and community engagement, at least in the context discussed here, use the word engagement differently. They are things that arts organizations seek to accomplish; they are not traits. Audience engagement is arts-centric and is designed to increase an arts organization’s reach in the community.

Community engagement is focused on enhancing community well-being through a mutually beneficial arts/community relationship. Its intent is to make the arts matter to the community by doing things the community recognizes as being meaningful. (The way to begin this is to have the community lead the way in identifying those things which are meaningful.) It seeks a broad perception of high value by doing things that are highly valued. Increased reach and public support derive from that awareness of value. Cynics might call this Machiavellian: serving self-interest under cover of a benevolent façade. I prefer to frame it as doing well by doing good.

I mistrust hard and fast lines between related concepts, and a search for precise labels quickly becomes unnecessarily academic. Strict lines of demarcation are generally meaningless anyway; there are too many shades of gray. However, understanding that 1) civic engagement is a trait and that audience engagement and community engagement are arts goals and 2) that audience engagement is an arts-centric path to expanded reach and that community engagement is a process of seeking community relevance for much the same end is a valuable addition to the discourse.

One of the things I love about writing, especially writing this blog, is that it provides a path to greater understanding. The fact is that as I finish this piece, I understand these issues far better than I did when I began. I hope that proves true for you as well.



Town Hall Meeting Photo: AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by CSLP

  1. Good thinking here- another factor to add in the mix: Animating Democracy began as a program to support and innovate “arts-based civic dialogue”. And for a few years, before civic engagement became a ubiquitous and at times muddled term in cross sector conversations, it was a frame used for many of us artists taking on projects that lived strongly in the ‘community engagement’ end of the spectrum you define above. I offer it to your ongoing thinking not to monkey wrench your work on articulating useful language, but to continue to highlight the relationship between art, dialogue and engagement amidst the very needed focus on intentionality. There is why, and there is how. Lots of artists and arts organizations take on work for ‘the betterment of community’, but actually don’t have the tools to work with their community partners in ways that take advantage of what fields of community development and organizing have learned from generations of practice. You have to listen, you have to learn about the needs of others, and you have to have a practice of exchange, not just ‘service’. Doing well by doing doing good needs to be preceded by doing with in addition to doing for. You have written about this idea, I know. I just want to place it in this particular moment of your sharing the language you are exploring. Thanks!

  2. Doug: thanks for this blog and this good thinking about terms, meaning and goals. From our observations at Animating Democracy (and I think Michael Rohd will share this view) INTENT is an important word and concept to add to the mix. On the continuum from community to civic engagement, clarity about intent is key to successful partnerships and meaningful outcomes.

  3. Pingback: #CivicEngagement | Audience Engagement