“Nothing about us without us is for us.” I heard this saying within the first 30 minutes of the Nexus' Community Engagement Institute (NCEI) I attended with fellow Community Building team member Laura Columbus in Minneapolis, MN. I knew then this conference would be critical to deepening our understanding of what authentic "community engagement" truly means and the critical role it places in building equity.
How does community engagement lead to equity? One example includes the age-old proverb, “Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day; teach a man to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime.” This may be true in some cases, but we need to ask, “Do people want to learn to fish?”, “Will teaching people to fish really solve the problem?”, and “Do people already know how to fish, and there’s another problem we can’t see?”
By asking these questions, we might learn people of the community won’t eat fish, or fish isn’t enough to sustain them, or the fish are not edible. If we don’t live there, we don’t know until we ask.
NCEI took place in November and December. As we made each four-hour drive to and from Minneapolis, Laura and I discussed how our learning could influence our relationships with corporate and nonprofit partners, as well as community members and volunteers. We talked about what discussion and decision-making conversations we attend and who we invite from the community to our conversations. Are we inviting the people whom these decisions will affect? Once we invite them, how do we convey the importance of their participation and ensure we truly listen and respond to their needs?
As we moved from one learning session to the next, we explored the core of what community engagement means and how it translates to our community in East Central Iowa. Looking at initiatives we are involved in through a community engagement lens provides critical knowledge to inform future conversations.
With our takeaways from NCEI and willing community partners, we continue to strengthen our understanding of what community members identify as critical needs, and we look at data that supports those needs. Only by turning a listening ear to community members can we learn if we are on the right track for the greatest impact to equity.
Ana Clymer is UWECI's Manager of Health. For more on equity within our community, read our Condition of Equity & Well-Being report.