The foundation of successful community engagement is deep understanding of the communities with which an organization is engaging. This body of information–key players, concerns, identity, etc.–is not necessarily common knowledge among an arts organization’s staff and board. Indeed, it is often far off the radar. As a result, community learning is an essential component in preparing for and implementing community engagement efforts.
Understanding Who's Who
Who are the people and organizations to know in your area? This list is an outline of the categories that can stimulate thinking about this question.
- Business Community
- Not-for-Profit Community
- Grassroots Communities
- Rural: as applicable
- Cross-Sectoral Agencies
For detailed questions to dig deeper into each category, see Understanding Your Community.
Some of the Who's Who questions can be answered through research that does not involve conversations with members of the community. However, at some point it will be necessary to meet with individuals to begin the relationship building process. (That is, after all, how relationships are built.) Here are two categories of questions that can aid the process.
When you think of our [city, state, region] what are the most important things that come to mind about:
- Regional History and Historic Events
- Cultural Expression and Heritage
- Creative Legacy (e.g., artists and inventors)
- Food and Drink
- Character of the people
- Athletic Teams
While some of these can be generic and non-threatening, others may be sources of deep pride and passion. On a more personal or individual level, the following can be good conversation starters. They also demonstrate that you are truly attempting to get to know them.
- What about your community makes you proud?
- What is important to you about your community?
- What about your community do you wish were different?
- What do you wish others knew about your community?
- What are particular creative or cultural resources (people, organizations, or activities) that might help others better understand it? Or Who are the cultural workers/arts makers in your community?
The questions outlined here are simply jumping off places for establishing relationships. They also suggest the range of information that is needed to be effective in engaging with new communities.
Effective engagement demands understanding of community partners and the ability to think, plan, and work with them. The path to that end is community learning.