What does it mean to build community? Community engagement versus outreach

By Sam Holte, Development Outreach SpecialistHACER

As someone who has stepped out of one community and into another with the transition of college to the “real world,” a large part of me feels like I have been released into the wild and been told to navigate through a forest path in the dark. I have been told where I am supposed to go, but I don’t yet have the map to get there. This goes for not only my life goals and aspirations, but also for making friends and setting down roots in my neighborhood, city and state.

A guiding light on the path that I have come back to again and again in this journey is thinking about how I am grounded in my work and how HACER is grounded in the community. Learning about community engagement and how it compares to outreach helped me find the questions and explore the answers, a process that I hope I will continue beyond my VISTA experience.

What is community?● What is the Latino community? ● How is HACER’s work connected to the community? ●How can I (as a shorter-term presence) meaningfully engage while I’m at HACER? ● How can I continue to engage after I’m gone?

An excellent resource I have consulted in order to better understand my role in the community through HACER is the “Building the Field of Community Engagement” initiative, a collaborative initiative that includes six community-based organizations, including Nexus Community Partners, one of the member organizations of our cohort. Several cohort members attended a training session put on by the initiative and brought back material from the session to our Lunch and Learn in early October. The material included a “Community Engagement Assessment Tool” and an “Impacts of Community Engagement Model,” both extremely useful tools to help evaluate our organizations’ work and to help us question our own motives in our work now and in the future. This tool, along with the book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Nonprofit Industrial Complex have forced me to question the work that I do nearly every single day in a constructive, positive way, keeping me grounded and giving me direction in the day-to-day and long-term aspects of my service.

As a VISTA who has both “outreach specialist” in their job title and “community empowerment” in their organization’s name, these tools have allowed me to evaluate the contradictions inherent in my work at a 501(c)3 nonprofit doing community based participatory research and is led by and serves people and communities of color. The assessment asked five important questions and offered a checklist of what answers may look like:

Q: What kind of relationship do you have with community members?
Is the relationship transactional, for the purpose of completing a project, or foundational, continually built in order to know your community?

Q: Why are you engaging people?
Is it for a specific goal or to seek approval or is to create space, connect, and build power?

Q: What are you getting people involved in? When?
Work like surveys, focus groups, workshops or one-to-one meetings, leadership development, and celebrations

Is it after a project is planned or from the beginning? 

Q: How do ideas get generated?
Is it from staff or from community members?

Q: Do your organizational structures and policies support engagement?
Does your board and staff represent the community?
Are racism and power discussed and dealt with only superficially or does your organization support discussions to understand and dismantle structural racism and build individual and community power?
Does your organization respond to community needs and ideas?
Does your organization create space for different cultural ways?

Community work, philanthropy and nonprofits have all shifted and adapted over the years. The initiative aims to shift the continuum from “outreach” to “engagement” because outreach doesn’t cut it anymore: an organizational culture of community engagement values long term solutions, self-reflection, and creating space for community needs from the very beginning. If done correctly, it is an authentic and dynamic process that acts as a catalyst for sustainable decision making.

I’m not sure that it is so clearly underlined as ‘this or that’ in the real world. Maybe a desire for genuine relationships and a personal or organizational ‘bottom line’ are so entangled that it is nearly impossible to isolate one from another. When we’re talking about structures, we’re talking about something so embedded in our organizations that our motives in our work may be difficult to see. Regardless, whatever criteria is used to evaluate our work, deep relationships based on listening and connecting don’t detract from completing daily tasks and projects—they help create a legacy for our organization. Because projects end. The money dries up. VISTAs leave. If we can help strengthen a foundation of engagement in our communities, we’ve already done a lot of our job, and that can last after we’re gone.

As “capacity builders” we need to understand that many of the resources we have available to us come from our community. If we are “serving” a community, we need to understand that it is a reciprocal relationship where a wide variety of people can share expertise, experiences, and ideas and that our knowledge (or our organizations’) might not be complete.

As we transition into other roles, being able to authentically engage with the people that surround us will be invaluable to our future relationships, hopefully making them deeper and creating a level of trust uncommon in a work environment. This serves our self-interest, not because it is a transaction, but because absorbing this tool will help us to embed community engagement as an entire philosophy of how we interact with other people.  I don’t have complete answers to my questions at the beginning of this post, but with the help of my very supportive community, I will be able to challenge myself and get there.