As part of Engaging Matters’ 10th Anniversary, we are highlighting important and/or popular posts from the past. In reviewing such posts it became clear that many were grouped thematically. As a result, this Anniversary series will, for the most part, present the theme with links to relevant posts rather than simply re-posting individual items.
One of the most important elements of effective community engagement is understanding that any programming must wait until the relationship with a new community has progressed far enough that the community can participate in its design and implementation. Trust must be built and mutual understanding developed. This does not happen quickly.
We in the arts have an understandable desire to rush to action. Ours is an event production business. We exist to do. In community engagement work, though, this instinct is almost inevitably counter-productive. We cannot present–or even suggest–meaningful work until we have a reasonable understanding of the interests of the community with which we want to engage. Careening into production prematurely is usually at best off-putting and at worst offensive. Give the relationship time to reveal how best to partner with a new community. (Essential Gradualism)
Fortunately, this has the benefit of ensuring that any changes will develop gradually, not putting too much strain on any stakeholder’s capacity to adjust.
In addition, early efforts should be simple (read “relatively inexpensive”), adjusting habits of mind to understand the engagement potential of work already part of an organization’s repertoire/collection.
[Early on, best practice is to] focus on the simple: the realization that West Side Story is about (among other things) immigration and gang violence; that Vivaldi’s Spring can be an expression of environmental awareness; that Renaissance music inspired by the Plague is about a deadly public health crisis; and that virtually every work of art we would be programming anyway in some way or other reflects issues of importance to people today.(Keep It Simple)
Initial steps in engagement should be, must be, small. This applies to programming, marketing and sales, fundraising, governance, evaluation . . . all aspects of organizational function. . . . The essential transition is to stop seeing our work as delivering a product that should be consumed by a nameless, faceless public and to view it instead as a valuable resource for specific individuals and communities whom we know (or are getting to know). When the board and staff of arts organizations makes this switch and apply it to how they go about their existing tasks, the results will begin to support the work of deep engagement with communities. (Baby Steps)
The long-term viability of our industry demands that we expand our reach vastly beyond what exists now. There are no more “inclined to participate” populations to tap. We must build relationships with new communities that currently do not see how our offerings can be meaningful to them. Demonstrating the value of an unfamiliar product is far more difficult than selling the benefits of something everyone understands–bread and milk, for instance. And it takes more time.
Engaging new communities is an existential imperative. We don’t get a choice about the fact that it takes time. Certainly there are interim steps and things to do in the meantime, but if we want to be around for generations to come, we must fully commit to the process while we wait for it to bear fruit. (Planting Vineyards)
Jerry Yoshitomi says
Wow! So much wisdom contained in your past & present writing.
It seems that you/we might consider creating a checklist of five/ten things to consider before embarking on community engagement work. Not unlike the checklist pilots use before flying the airplane.
I’m facilitating a zoom conversation later today with a group of Engagement Directors. I intend to share your words: “We cannot present–or even suggest–meaningful work until we have a reasonable understanding of the interests of the community with which we want to engage.”
And the question of ‘why’ is so important before we decide how.