Which community are we on about?…with Sioux Campbell

1912 Sioux Campbell article tile

Call me old-fashioned but … one of my pet hates is the seemingly ubiquitous use of the term “the community” in any general reference to “all of them who are not us”, regardless of the organisation or context.  It’s as if it’s become a proper noun.

Absolutely fine if there is actually only one well defined community involved in the engagement. One well defined community that is also well understood and described and for which a meaningful engagement programme is therefore more likely to be effective. But who or what on earth is it – in an entire town, city, region, state or even suburb?

This might seem like going back to basics, but when I first ventured into engagement work years ago through social impact assessment, knowing who the communities (I emphasise the plural) involved were and having a clear understanding of their makeup was critically important. In my humble view, and surely that of many other practitioners, this has not changed.

In recent months I’ve been involved in developing new strategic plans for a couple of organisations. One of these engages what are ‘in my view’ multiple communities (interest and location) across an enormous geographic area. Yet, “the community” continues to appear in objectives and outcomes throughout the new strategy despite my attempts to re-phrase it. When I ask just who this community is, people struggle to tell me. “You know, Sioux. You’re just being difficult!” Perhaps so, but I have principles to uphold about this and the evidence of results achieved in carefully gaining understanding of a particular community. And no, I  honestly don’t know who we’re referring to!

In my day-to-day work in disaster resilience, there is a raft of guiding documents, frameworks and best practice material.  Much of this continues to refer to what I can only assume is “everyone else which is not us” as either “the community” or in terms of undertaking activities, “community led”. What does this mean? In applying this otherwise expert advice it turns out of course that individual groups, organisations, stakeholders etc are all members of different communities with often very different characteristics. I have tried to explain that even within a small geographic area such as a suburb there may still be differing communities. Census data will be of limited help in figuring this out! Further, exactly what does “community led” mean? This is a very popular term in disaster recovery literature and in my view, poorly defined. To me it implies voluntary activities undertaken by service groups, for example – not activities undertaken by state-wide organisations with paid staff, even though they may be not-for-profits. Many of these organisations have an already defined role in recovery, so of course they should be engaging. It’s when initiatives come from the residents themselves that the emphasis changes.

As mentioned earlier, there’s another strategy I’ve been writing – my own five year resilience strategy. This is the second, so evaluating the first was critical in providing clues for what should come next. No surprises in many ways – much of what has gone really well relates to being rigorous in getting to know the needs of specific communities throughout the region. In the beginning I had little practical knowledge of some of these communities – for example deaf residents – but with consistent, genuine interest we have a strong relationship which has led to highly effective engagement both ways – something to do with core value 4.

I look at this from a personal perspective. In asking writers of “the community” who that is, I’ll remind, it’s also us. We are all part of at least one community. Nothing irritates most folks more than not being asked to have a say about something which affects their lives, especially when the effect is adverse – core value 1. If we completely skip, or skimp, the step about defining and understanding who “those who affected by a decision” are, it’s unlikely to go well.

While this important aspect of our work relates to all the core values, it is fundamental to the way engagement practitioners operate for obvious reasons. I quote from our Pathways to Advanced Engagement guide: An effective community and stakeholder engagement process needs to identify and involve all the relevant people, whether they are members of the public, consumers, employees or key stakeholders. … after being identified, then the task is to build an understanding of their interests and concerns … community activities and focus. What is the local knowledge of the issue, what are the views of the consumers of the product, what values are held, what attributes exist?

Getting to know communities better in terms of the people, the context, the influences, drivers and all the other factors can take time, but it’s one of the most interesting and rewarding aspects of P2. So – which community are we actually on about??