A series of masterclasses were held in conjunction with the LCSA Connecting Communities Conference in September 2018. WESTIR Limited attended the masterclass Communities Leading Change, hosted by Collaboration for Impact and run by US speaker Paul Schmitz, CEO of the not-for-profit Leading Inside Out and former social innovation adviser to the Obama White House. The workshop focused on the importance of community engagement as a vehicle for instigating change. Community engagement is about ensuring that those most impacted by social change are involved in making decisions about their lives, and evidence shows that participation of intended beneficiaries and their networks can be critical to collaborations achieving impact.

It was a highly engaging and stimulating workshop with thoughtful activities encouraging participants to reflects on effective community engagement, (and not-so effective community engagement!). With his years of experience Paul Schmitz provided plenty of practical guidance around community engagement, leadership and pertinent case studies illustrating the effectiveness of community development at the grassroots level.

It is important for workers, and organisations as a whole, to reflect on their level of engagement with the community, which can be identified through a simple continuum: from Informing (lowest level of engagement) to Consultation, Collaboration through to Empowerment (highest level of engagement). Although Empowerment involves the greatest degree of community engagement, community organisations need to remain authentic wherever they sit. To ensure integrity organisations must focus on fulfilling promises, never over-promise and to constantly ask “How does our work tie in with our desired outcomes?”

He outlined four important elements of community engagement:

  • That everyone has the potential to lead
  • It is action that anyone can take
  • It is an act of responsibility to take
  • It involves practising values that engage commitment from others

The workshop explored four types of leaders – the Visionaries, The Mobilisers, The Analysts and The Nurturers. This was an insightful, fresh approach to leadership, providing scope for anyone to adopt a leadership role or style that brings out their unique skills, expertise and attributes. It is a model that broadens the conception of leadership beyond the predominant archetype of the assertive, charismatic and forceful individual. To illustrate this approach to leadership he presented a fascinating tale about the Montgomery Bus Boycotts in the US in the 1950s, a social and political movement against segregation on public transport in Alabama. The story succinctly illustrated that there is never just one leader in a social or political movement and it takes several types of leaders to drive social change.

He presented the Water of Systems Change model, an instructive framework for community sector organisations looking to enact change at various levels, whether that be in policy, power dynamics or shifting prevailing narratives in society.

Community sector workers were encouraged to shift away from a pure deficit model focusing on client needs and limitation, by adopting a more asset-based approach focusing on client strengths and value.

Paul highlighted the importance of diversity in community engagement among entities such as boards, committees, and organisations, where key decisions are made that shape community engagement and have direct impact on the community. The “Ladder of Inference”, a model outlining the steps we typically take when making assumptions about people or groups was used to highlight that people with similar experiences tend to make similar inferences and, as a result, make similar decisions. He provided a simple and practical tool to assess “who is at your table”, allowing groups to gauge the level of diversity, equity and inclusion of community members in their decision-making process. However, while diversity is valued appropriate, capacity building initiatives should be implemented when needed.

The workshop concluded with some important tips to take away with us: to be purposeful, to be asset-based, to put equity at the centre of our work, and strive towards building local capacity. Just as important to keep in mind when community engagement efforts do not succeed is to revisit your core purpose; that people will resist change, so it is important to persevere; and to focus on the positives even when actions do no go to plan. Whatever approach community sector workers take it is vital that they engage with community members. Without this engagement with the community it simply will not work.

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