Inspiring Communities is celebrating its 10 year anniversary this year. So it’s time for us to reflect and celebrate!
Having worked alongside communities for the last decade, we’d like to talk about what it takes to achieve community transformation and about the big changes we’ve noticed over this time. And, as we look forward, what key aspects need our attention?
This blog is part two of a series of three blogs. Part one can be found here.
Authentic Engagement and Adaptive Leadership
In this blog, we’d like to talk about how authentic engagement needs the involvement of both community groups and local people; and about how leadership needs to be adaptive.
In our original framing of CLD, we were concerned that the place of community within the ecosystem was increasingly taken by community groups and organisations instead of local people. While there is frequent overlapping of the hats we wear, interests and perspectives at street/neighbourhood and organisational level are clearly different. Authentic engagement and participation of both voices is essential in locally-led change processes.
Engaging with community groups and agencies is relatively easy; there are structures and email addresses through which to make contact. At a resident level, engagement is much, much harder. More tailored and relationally-based processes are generally required to invite and encourage connection and participation. We have come to understand that authentic community engagement also requires a commitment to solving inbuilt community-agency power imbalances. Ways to do this include:
- only asking if a community needs support if you are committed to doing something with what people tell you
- meeting people in their place, in their time and in their way
- being prepared to listen more than talk, using simple language and powerful questions to open up hearts and minds
- enabling conversations that bring together diverse perspectives – moving people to new understandings and out of siloed thinking
- being straight up about any challenges and constraints
- understanding that everyone has a contribution to make. This means structuring engagement processes so that they generate ideas and actions that different parts of the local eco-system can lead to support change. Finding ways to resource and support these at grassroots level is also key
- feeding back engagement results in a timely way so the community can tap into its own narrative and ideas.
More and more, we see that processes to build community are often required before agencies can authentically engage and partner locally. Sadly, the communities facing the greatest socio-economic challenges tend to be those where trust and confidence in agencies/government is the lowest, with little faith that things can or will be different. Turning this around takes time. It also takes committed relationship building and resourcing to support engagement and collective actioning of tangible, visible projects: projects that demonstrate that a different future is possible.
In a nutshell, we now understand that community-led change needs an intentional pairing of community engagement and activation planning. If you only focus on community engagement there is a risk of creating a wish and want list of things that ‘others’ should do. So, transformational community engagement must also pay attention to building ‘agency’ and creating and supporting solution taking at both individual citizen and wider community levels.
We also put an early stake in the ground by defining leadership as intentional action by any individual or group that seeks to sustain and/or change the way things are.
But the deeper we dug into CLD, the more clearly we saw just how contextual leadership is. In the early phases of community change, having individual leaders out front is essential – without them, it’s often too hard to generate the momentum and resources required to get and sustain lift-off. Longer term success also relies on leaders who are able to nurture and empower ownership and the active involvement of others.
So how does one stay sane while navigating the messy, complex reality of CLD? By noticing and naming what we’re seeing and taking time to make meaning together, the cues for ‘what next’ for us and for others become more obvious. Sometimes that means stepping forward, stepping back or even stepping right out.
For a resource on how to grow everyone’s leadership skills, see this page.
For a discussion about the complexity of CLD and how to embrace it, see this article.
In the next blog in the series, we talk about social innovation and community change over the next decade.
This blog series is adapted from a longer piece, jointly written with the Tamarack institute in Canada. Tamarack celebrates its 15 year anniversary this year.
The paper and a co-hosted webinar will explore the following four themes:
- The frameworks each organisation deploys to drive forward change
- The importance the authentic engagement of citizens has played in each organisation
- The need for adaptive and flexible leadership in community change
- The emergence of community-based innovation
The paper concludes with a shared vision for the future.