Justice and Engagement

In March I participated in the Intersections Summit hosted by Milwaukee Repertory Theater. It was a gathering of community engagement practitioners from theaters (mostly) across the U.S. As frequently happens, the conference sparked a number of thoughts. Last week I began by reflecting on the meanings of the word engagement. (The Problem of “Engagement”)

In the opening keynote Carmen Morgan, a gifted diversity/equity/inclusion speaker and trainer, discussed the relationship between community justice and community engagement. She suggested that we should be focusing on community justice rather than community engagement. Part of her reasoning was rooted in the poor execution of community engagement that characterizes many arts organizations’ CE efforts. Her more important point was that the only way systemically privileged arts organizations (my term, not hers) can build relationships with non-privileged communities is by working toward justice for them.

That is absolutely true. However, one concern I have is that community engagement, as I use the term, refers to connecting with any community, not just those which have historically been excluded from access to cultural resources and social power. For the purpose of planning for engagement, I define community as any group of people with something in common. As an extreme example, thirty-year-old accountants can be a “community” in this sense. With some communities, then, issues of justice are not primary; but let me be clear, for many, many they are.

My other concern in abandoning community engagement for community justice is that some organizations might see that as being so counter to their mission they would avoid all relationship building. If effective community engagement demands awareness of and work toward justice (and it does), it should be possible to continue supporting community engagement without giving up the important need to work for equity.

In attempting to engage many communities, working for justice is critical. I know that I have a professional investment in “community engagement,” but I truly don’t believe that continuing to advocate for it in any way diminishes the need to work for justice as well.



Photo: Wikipedia By ChvhLR10 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4707069

  1. I couldn’t agree more. Engagement is about ALL communities, rich/poor, have/have not, in-group/out-group. Community justice is about marginal or disenfranchised communities.

    Community engagement must focus on communities that can reasonably be expected to become participants and supporters. Trying to solve political problems for people who are not likely to sustain the organization financially is impractical, if not fiscally irresponsible.

    Some arts organizations include community justice in their missions and raise funds to support community justice initiatives, which is great..

    But arts organizations that were not designed as pass-through charities must stay focused on responsible business practices, which means they must focus their engagement resources on communities that offer a reasonable return on the investment.

    Arts organizations that devote scarce resources to charitable enterprises while allowing their sustaining audiences and donors to disappear are of no long-term use to anyone.