Health & Community Engagement
The single biggest indicator of a thriving community is residents who take an active role in the process of cultivating positive change. From voting to volunteering, engaging in the community allows individuals to both develop and use knowledge, skills, and voice to shape the environment in which they choose to live, work, and raise their families.
Meaningful community engagement — in its truest form — requires not only working collaboratively with but also through those with shared situations, concerns, and/or challenges. In doing so, community members’ collective engagement becomes, “a powerful vehicle for bringing about environmental and behavioral changes that will improve the health of the community and its members.”
While myriad modes of civic participation stand to help improve the conditions influencing health and well-being for all, one of the most beneficial (and by extension longest lasting) hinges on creating connection by making space for all community members to have a seat at the proverbial table when it comes to discussing and implementing change.
In many communities, decisions are made by a select few. Despite the best of intentions, when policies and programs designed to improve outcomes are not driven by community members and their needs, a disconnect arises between these efforts and those individuals they intend to serve — one that ultimately limits the influence and effectiveness of said interventions.
Conventional power structures, like those that either exist or are perceived to exist in many communities, ultimately inhibit effective community engagement, the most powerful examples of which involve, “partnerships and coalitions that help mobilize resources and influence systems, change relationships among partners, and serve as catalysts for changing policies, programs, and practices.”
Moving toward meaningful community engagement requires a pair of critical components: community members must be willing to connect to the issues at hand, and decision-makers must embrace power-sharing and equitable transformation— “necessary elements to ensure sustainable change that improves health and well-being.” Shifting power to the community eradicates barriers, diminishes systemic inequities, and builds trust.
The first step toward dismantling unjust systems, and improving conditions of health for all, is recognizing that the lived experience of the very community members most impacted by health and social disparities is invaluable.
This process, most notably adopted by municipalities (as evidenced by annual Town Meetings, for instance), allows community members to weigh in on how public funds are spent. The original model, which began in Brazil, “prioritizes participation by all community members in direct democracy and aims to promote high-quality deliberation, and ultimately to direct more resources toward individuals living in poverty and to reduce inequality.” When individuals feel connected to the issues and outcomes in their communities, they are more likely to participate in the decision-making process.
This urban planning technique — designed to diffuse traditional confrontation among residents, developers, and local government officials by consulting with all stakeholders in a given project — seeks to resolve conflicts and map solutions for moving forward as a means of promoting joint ownership of solutions to perceived problems. Especially in communities with significant numbers of individuals structurally prevented from voting (including those who have been incarcerated, are experiencing homelessness and/or are undocumented, and youth under age 18), planning charrettes are an inclusive means of discussing important issues.
One of seventeen community art projects that were created to support dialogue about affordable housing in Norfolk, Connecticut. The series was the result of a partnership between the Foundation for Norfolk Living, the Norfolk Foundation, and the Yale Norfolk School of Art.
Interested in learning more about this project and others? Hear directly from communities engaged in this work, in LC-CHO’s Community Engagement to Build Housing Support webinar.
According to Director Jocelyn Ayer of Litchfield County Center for Housing Opportunity, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy when it comes to community engagement.
“To help people feel connected to the work and understand their stake in it,” becomes the common denominator, regardless of the approach — as evidenced by the Community Engagement Mini-Grant Program, a joint effort between LC-CHO and FCH to support efforts to promote affordable housing community engagement.
“It’s about meeting people, and communities, where they are,” said Ayer in a nod to the overarching goal: to strengthen ties between affordable housing decision-makers and those most impacted by those decisions.
In Norfolk, residents were engaged around producing art as a means of generating dialogue surrounding next steps to meet the Town’s housing goals; in Salisbury, residents were engaged via print and social media as part of a very specific communications plan.
“You can’t engage people once — or communicate once — and expect it to make a difference,” says Ayer of community engagement efforts which, in order to elicit meaningful change, must be ongoing and intentional.
The nonprofit — launched in January 2022 to facilitate a coordinated, regional response to address housing affordability across Litchfield County — has played a crucial role in assisting municipalities and non-profit housing organizations with implementing municipal housing plans across the Northwest Corner.
Built on the belief that housing is an investment in our communities that will pay dividends now and into the future, LC-CHO seeks to foster connection.
“Once people [feel connected] to the outcomes, they show up and make it work.”
In our next issue, we’ll look at health and third places — physical spaces designed for gathering, connecting, and sharing resources — and examine how these spaces that promote social interaction and build community trust can help support health and well-being for all.