Walking with the Community to Improve Policy

A recent project of mine was to incorporate community voice into a set of recommendations to the MN Department of Education. As it winds down, I am reflective on the process of community engagement to strengthen not only our recommendations, but this process overall.


My work has been driven by the importance of community engagement and why it matters. While it may be easier and faster to rely on experts and research to develop and push forward a new policy or plan, those directly affected and impacted rarely understand the rationale. For example, in my project, it was important to explain what the education services were to families who were skeptical they did not serve their children. I learned about the perception problem and the lack of communication between schools and families.

I have come to value the practice of “patient urgency”: the patience to present knowledge of the problem and the potential solutions, while maintaining urgency to keep the process moving. Community engagement, sometimes called stakeholder engagement, can easily drag on without consensus. But shared ownership creates a sense of empowerment and pride. Communities feel heard, their needs are addressed, and true compromise is reached.

How does it work?

The spectrum of community engagement offers several options. Informing and consulting are most typical since institutions want some level of transparency. Involving and collaborating goes a step further, often in the form of committees or task forces. The institution leads behind the scenes, but communities are brought in to answer some questions and figure out a solution. Empowering is where true engagement happens. By swapping the role of consultant, communities take the lead and decide the course of action and reach out for expert assistance.

I’ve experienced this in my role as the professional facilitating a stakeholder meeting to decide what we will recommend to the MN Department of Education. I presented my research on the topic, but after a lengthy and robust discussion, the community argued for a recommendation based on their own data and experience.

An important piece in community engagement is crafting the community. This is first done with landscape and power mapping to understand who would be (most) affected and therefore offer valuable insight. Crafting a community ought to include the lived experiences of those directly affected or impacted. Without them, it is just another room full of  professionals with hypothetical expertise but who lack first hand knowledge of the issue.

Practicing Patient Urgency

Carefully considering who is involved in community engagement is important, but just a first step. Continuing the engagement is essential to reach the empowerment side of the spectrum. Patiently ensuring meetings and the types of engagement maintain a sense of commitment and ownership. Patiently moving through informing and consulting builds a foundation of knowledge and recognition of the problem. Patiently consulting with the community that has now become empowered decision makers strengthens the solution or recommendation proposed. Urging the community along the way to stay focused and engaged keeps everyone on track.

Without the patient urgency to authentically engage the community, policy ideas and proposals continue to chip at the problem but never fully break it down for actual transformation. Take a deep breath, bring some food to entice the community, don't overthink it, and get to work! 

Please Note: Each blog is written by the individual author, and the views expressed may not be shared by all YNPN members.

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