In March I had the privilege of participating in the Intersections Summit hosted by Milwaukee Repertory Theater. It was a heady gathering of community engagement practitioners from theaters (mostly) across the U.S. As frequently happens, the conference sparked a number of thoughts. One has to do with the essence of the convening, the word “engagement.”
Engagement is a problematic word; the way it gets used frequently prevents people from appreciating the potential it offers. Simply put, when we use–or see/hear–it we need to be aware of what meaning is implied. Simply put, “Who is doing what with whom to what end?”
As I have mentioned before in this blog (Artcentric Engagement), I have seen “engagement” used to mean providing members of the community the opportunity to engage with an arts organization. In other words, in that use, the obligation is upon people outside the arts organization to come to it. That may not technically be an incorrect use of the word, but this meaning does little (or nothing) to expand the reach of arts organizations. Only the “already convinced” would respond.
Similarly, uses of the word where the arts organization is “engaging” with communities primarily for its own benefit–to increase ticket sales or donations–do nothing to make the organization more important to the life of the community. Indeed, many communities, observing such efforts, will conclude that the organization has no real interest in them. While both of these uses of the word are valid in a grammatical sense, I have long argued that the value of engagement lies in a deeper commitment to communities. What I’ve been advocating is effective engagement, engagement that serves to make an arts organization’s future more viable. The essence of such engagement rests in relationship building with new communities (since the “already convinced” do not represent a huge new pool of prospects) and the non-negotiable foundation for this is pursuit of mutual benefit and inclusion of those communities in the design and implementation of projects. (And, once again, not giving them what we think they want, but knowing them well enough to make suggestions of programs that might serve their interests.)