30th May 12
Authentic engagement - there cannot be a topic that is more central to the life of community based organisations than this.
Community engagement is the perennial activity of neighbourhood and community centres. It is the way of being, the modus operandi, on which our sector is built and which lies at the heart of our greatest achievements.
We are nothing if we are not engaged with our community.
There are many stories, examples, evidence, experiences, histories and accounts of the impact, power and practice of our sector in LCSA members’ engagement with their local communities. Yet for all our achievements, authentic engagement is something that can never be taken for granted. It is a facet of our purpose and work which requires continual refreshment and rethinking, renewal, imagination and practice.
One reason for this is our community contexts never remain static.
The demographics of communities are always changing, sometimes slowly, sometimes with breathtaking, confusing speed. Our perceptions of these changes, however, sometimes lag behind the changes themselves so that we fail to see them when they are happening and only respond after they are well established. I have lost count of the number of times organisations embedded in communities which were experiencing an influx of new families with young children have told me ‘we are an aging community”. Sometimes that phrase is accurate but sometimes it simply means “my friends and I, the people I relate to most, are aging”.
As demographics change, neighbourhood and community centres have to be flexible and agile to engage with newcomers in their area and with those who are isolated or experiencing economic and social disadvantage. When those newcomers bring experiences, understandings and practices to a centre or organisation which differ from those which currently predominate, that centre may well find its previously tried and tested means of engagement are inadequate. It then needs to break out of its established comfort zone to establish new connections.
That brings us to a second reason.
It is human nature to gather with those who are most like us and to spend our time with those with whom we feel most comfortable. However, if we are to be continually effective and true to the principles that have served our sector well over 40 years, we have to work hard not to allow this tendency to shape our organisations.
When a neighbourhood or community centre has been established for some time it needs to be wary of drifting into a comfortable pattern of doing the same thing in the same way with the same people year after year. The establishment of such comfort zones can affect staff, volunteers and even clients alike, resulting in a centre which is a friendly oasis for a self-selecting few but which gradually disengages from the rest of the community.
Such comfort zones can also affect Boards and Management Committees which is why LCSA encourages community governed organisations to engage their communities by building strong, engaged membership in their incorporated associations that is broadly based in their communities and represents their demographics as fully as possible. This enables new and enthusiastic board members to emerge from the wider association membership.
By choosing authentic engagement as our conference theme in 2012, we are giving the board members, mangers, staff and volunteers of LCSA member organisations opportunity to stop, reflect on and refresh their community engagement practices.
We shall be drawing on the wisdom, experience and insights of people who have excelled in the practice of community engagement and thought deeply about it.
We are also aiming to use our technological to draw insights from across the world and to enable all participants to share their own insights and practice.
It’s going to be an exciting and stimulating time – don’t miss out.