square bulletWhat Do You Mean by “Community Engagement”?

From Psy.M., MA, IMH-E, Professor of Practice, Trauma Informed Oregon

As projects arrive, advance, and blossom I find myself asking this question at one point or another. Community participation is one of those concepts that begins with an intention but can be hard to define or explain, let alone transform into action. Oftentimes one can find different interpretations of the role ‘it’ will play, within the same meeting and the same project. This is when I find it useful to ask, What do you mean by community engagement?

Participatory approaches have a long, albeit not always successful, history of use around the world in various roles such as citizen decision-making, research, policy, city planning, and international development. They are important because they have the potential to transform learning, build capacity and empowerment, reduce inequalities, and elevate important and specific concerns among the local context that would not be apparent without the voices of those with lived experience. A well known model was developed by Sherry Arnstein in 1969 while working at the U.S. department of Housing, Education and Welfare. Arnstein’s Ladder identifies several roles of public participation in decision making, from manipulation (non-participation) to citizen control. An adapted version of the ladder was created by the New Economics Foundation in the UK. The adaptation, called the Ladder of Co-Production, helps bring attention to a continuum where power is shared more equally upon upward advancement on the ladder (See image). While models are oversimplifications of the world, they can help us visualize an abstract problem, and find a shared language.

Ladder of Coproduction

Climate change is an example of a field where community participation can transform an idea into a successful and impactful project. In its nature it’s a global problem, but one that requires commitments and voices across all levels of society, from multi-country coalitions to individual behavior change. We know, thanks to the recently released report on Climate Change and Youth Mental Health, that concerns over climate change are negatively impacting the mental wellbeing of young Oregonians, and that opportunities to engage and come together are part of what could bring hope and resilience; but, how is meaningful engagement garnished when we talk about large groups and entire communities? Here are just two examples: In the first one, over 28,000 Chilean millennials engaged in a country-wide brainstorming to generate sustainable development concepts for the country (INJUV, Ideas para mi comunidad). The project started slowly in 2019, and closed a year later with over 600 ideas and 327 youth trained and supported to become change-agents. On a different continent, after 15-year-old Greta Thunberg started protesting against the Swedish government’s lack of action on climate change, and groups supporting the idea began forming, a massive local interest grew in the streets of Belgium. Where some saw danger as protests started, others saw the opportunity to gather fresh ideas from the street; this is when Youth4Climate was created, and thousands of comments and concepts were posted on its dedicated website. The part I find most exciting about this project is the recognition that it’s important to not only collect ideas, but to analyze them and transform them into action: Youth4Climate used artificial intelligence (and a lot of human intelligence of course) to generate 15 citizen priorities that are driving strategies for change today.

How will you define and implement community engagement in your next project?


Arnstein, S.R. (1969). A ladder of citizen participation. Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 35(4), 216-224.