The Problem of “Engagement”

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.)



Photo: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by Ben Terrett
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  2. Doug, I think this is the perfect follow-up to your posts on what if any labels we need to come up with for our arts institutions. You are now neck deep in the issues of how language gets used, and that is precisely where we need to be to make proper sense of things.

    My take is something you also allude to: The word ‘engagement’ has a variety of acceptable uses that on their own fail to capture, or mislead, in the case we are discussing. There is nothing wrong with the word, it’s simply that by itself it CANNOT do all the work we need from it. “Engagement’ alone is insufficient to paint the correct picture of what we are talking about, if only because the history of its use points people legitimately along other paths……

    Words are tools for particular purposes and crafting an idea requires the right words, or else it fails. In our case it is something like intending to build a house with just a hammer. Perhaps doing plumbing and electric cannot be so easily accomplished. And when you give the hammer to your ‘builders’ and they normally smash things with hammers, maybe there is less ‘construction’ than ‘destruction’….

    The hammer has *good* uses, but it is neither necessarily sufficient nor is it always appropriately used. No fault of the hammer. It is simply a tool that either exceeds our intentions in some cases, or fails to live up to them. The key is always finding the *right* tools for every job. Is our tool the right one?

    In other words, if we can’t change the meaning of the word itself to an exclusively more narrow use, we need to either find new words or modify what we have. Your essay already proposed one such modification. You suggested “effective engagement’, and that adds some further dimension to what sort of engagement we are talking about. Another aspect that interests you is what I might call ‘sustainable engagement’. I also thought of ‘comprehensive engagement’. What else are we talking about? What further words do we *need*?

    Our problem is that ‘engagement’ itself is not just one thing. And so we have to avoid treating it as though the word alone communicated exactly-what-we-intend. The idea you want to convey is something fairly specific, but you have been stuck with an *idealization* of the word. The uses that normal people have for it unavoidably challenge your use. Perhaps it is time to be more nuanced about what sort of ‘engagement’ we are talking about, and speak in words that normal people already use the way we intend.

    ‘Engagement’ has been almost a slogan. And a slogan that people chronically misunderstand is not a good use of our resources or a productive path.

    If we have arrived at the place where ‘engagement’ alone is no longer feasible, we must either give it up for a better alternative (I can’t think of any), or somehow turn its limitations into a more nuanced and advantageous resource.

    If words are tools, we cannot afford to get hung up on tools that don’t do the job we need to get done. There is a difference between the *right* tool, and simply the tool we have already chosen. Only if we are very lucky will they be a close match. We often need the humility to set a familiar tool aside and pick up something less well known but more fitted to the task…….