The "So What" of Resident Engagement - Laying Claim to our Core Assumptions

Recently, the White House Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative issued a new report on promising neighborhood-based initiatives, citing five key elements of an effective local strategy:

  • Promoting resident engagement and community leadership;
  • Developing strategic and accountable partnerships;
  • Maintaining a results focus supported by data;
  • Investing in and building organizational capacity; and
  • Aligning resources to create a unified and targeted impact strategy.

Here at SCOPE, we agree.

And as a community engagement organization, we appreciate how challenging that first key element can be. 

What does it take for any of us to become genuinely engaged as residents, for the sake of not just ourselves, or our own families, but our entire neighborhood?

imag2987Every day there are glimmers of engagement "on the block" and out and about in the community.  I see it all the time in my home neighborhood of Central-Cocoanut in Sarasota.  Even folks who are just passing through seem to sense and respond to the spirit of neighborliness, such as two weeks ago when two women stopped as soon as they saw that my car was broken down on 13th Street.  Not only did they stop, they got out of their car and helped push. 

bradenton-neighborsI even caught a glimpse of resident engagement the other day at Starbucks, when I overheard two guys chatting over coffee.   One was telling the other about how much he loves his neighborhood - it's where he grew up, and it's where he chose to return as an adult.  Wow, I thought - that says a lot about a place, and what a great, unsolicited expression of resident engagement.  At the risk of coming across as nosy, I told them that I direct the Neighborhooods Initiative at SCOPE, and asked which neighborhood they were talking about.  As it turns out, Chris (on the left) was telling Jeff (on the right) about his neighborhood of Palma Sola Park in Bradenton.  He made it sound so good, it made me want to take a Sunday drive to check it out myself.

So why does "resident engagement" matter?  If we're emotionally connected to the place where we live, it's much more possible to pay attention on an ongoing basis.  And if we're paying attention, it's easier to notice and capitalize on those things that make a true difference in changing a place for the better.  And if we're noticing those things that are changing our own place for the better, this is so much better than if NOBODY is, or if somebody ELSE is.   Because regardless of education, training or expertise, nobody can know like we know what works best for us. 

That might seem trite, but actually it's a pretty bold proposition.  Others have said the same thing - Jane Jacobs comes to mind as one powerful example.  But most evidence suggests that few people, groups and organizations actually agree with this claim. 

Every neighborhood initiative and policy is rooted in core assumptions about the nature of community change.    

So what do you think?  Go ahead and lay claim to your assumptions here.