Equity & expertise: reflections on pandemic-era community engagement
Sheetal Mistry, one of our Learning Experience Managers, reflects on the evolution of community engagement in response to the pandemic, and the potential for longer-term shifts in how we approach it going forward.
The pandemic and its successive lockdowns radically affected the ways in which organisations had been ‘doing’ and approaching community engagement for so long — predominantly because communities weren’t as easily accessible any more, and their priorities were to naturally look inward. Institutions and organisations needing to ‘do’ community engagement during this period have needed to shift their mindsets, approaches and mechanisms for engagement in response.
At Koreo, we’ve been working with the Greater London Authority, Migrants in Culture and the International Futures Forum on developing the London Engagement Collaborative (LEC) — a cross-sector, pan-London group aiming to collate learning around engagement practice, and developing areas of potential innovation based on pandemic-era learning. Across June we ran a series of workshops to collate learnings from the past two years and understand the engagement landscape as it stands today. We used conversational prompts and a dilemmas framework to understand the biggest hopes and challenges in engagement work right now, and how we might ‘resolve’ these to build a practice more reflective of our current and changing times.
One thing of note that emerged from our recent series of workshops is the breadth of understanding as to what ‘engagement’ really means. For some, it’s as simple as putting an idea out into a community and keeping all fingers crossed for some sort of feedback or reaction. For others, there is an understanding that ‘engagement’ is not a reactive, one-way form of communication, but rather a mutual and developmental relationship between those carrying out the work, and those who they are looking to hear from or involve.
This shift in perspective we’re seeing in some pockets of society with regards to how to view engagement centres around power and equity. For years, communities have been labelled as ‘hard to reach’ to justify a lack of community involvement, as if it’s them who’ve turned their backs on institutions who want to connect rather than systemic barriers preventing them from doing so. Additionally, the notion of ‘saviourism’ — very much a historical foundation for philanthropic activity — persists even to this day in some community-facing work, assuming that communities should be grateful that institutions are even paying them any attention. The systemically extractive nature of community engagement was flagged in our recent LEC workshops a number of times, with many recognising the lack of respect and trust between institutions and communities as a key symptom of this.
But what it seems the pandemic did, in some cases, is remind institutions about the humanity and value of the communities they have been endlessly trying to involve. In the recent workshops we held, one of the biggest hope-giving factors identified was the ‘humanisation’ of engagement — of the need for empathy and care and compassion in this work, and seeing communities as made up of individuals with unique experiences and challenges rather than homogenous entities ‘to be engaged’. Local authorities, for example, recognised that due to the ongoing crisis of the pandemic, community groups were struggling to stay afloat and support their own — and so considered how they could mobilise around this whilst also encouraging them to participate in their own initiatives, building a more mutual relationship in the process. There is also a growing recognition of the expertise that lies in communities and the ways in which this should be valued — that we should frame input from communities as expertise is in itself a big shift with regards to what is feeding into decision-making. This coincides with the growth in focus on ‘lived experience’ across the charity sector; the understanding that those who themselves have experienced a certain challenge or barrier are best placed to inform the solutions to it. There is greater value being placed on experience-based expertise as opposed to purely academic or skills-based knowledge, and we’re starting to see organisations recognise this financially too. Power, in some areas, is being handed back to communities when they’re able to shape their own narratives and feed into responsive design and problem-solving.
There is still a lot of diversity in approach and mindset across the engagement landscape though, so whilst these pockets of hope exist in terms of the shift towards community value and the human-centred nature of this work, systemic and institutional barriers are still at play. In the post-lockdown, hybrid world we’re currently operating within, some individuals are seeing their institutions slowly shift back to pre-pandemic approaches to engagement, or no longer prioritising the more inclusive methods that felt so vital to this work during the crisis period. What can be done to eradicate these persisting barriers? How and where can we experiment within these pockets of hope in engagement, in order to create a sustainable roadmap for more equitable ways of working with communities?
You can find a summary of what we heard from our June workshops here. If you’re interested in working with others to build on our initial insights and answer the above questions, join the London Engagement Collaborative Network — kicking off in September 2022, we’re convening a group of engagement practitioners from across London to build on our initial learnings and test out different ways and approaches to ‘doing’ engagement. To find out more about the Network and get involved, drop us an email firstname.lastname@example.org