Community Engagement & Mobolising Communities:
These are two very important but often distinctly different actions. Especially when addressing the issues of serious group and individual violence often manifested in gun & knife crime and increasing child exploitation as seen in the growing drug trade often referred to as county lines.
Many statutory agencies/services see it as routine/core business to have a community engagement strategy. However what does it really mean to engage?..
The Cambridge dictionary gives these descriptions:
engage verb (INTEREST)
C1 [ T ] formal to interest someone in something and keep them thinking about it:
The debate about food safety has engaged the wholenation.
If a book doesn't engage my interest in the first few pages, I don't usually continue reading it.
[ I ] formal to become involved, or have contact, with someone or something:
She's an intelligent child but in class she doesn't really engage.
Just stay out of his way as much as possible, and don't engage with him.
Thesaurus: synonyms and related words
engage verb (FIT TOGETHER)
[ I or T ] to make one part of a machine fitinto and move together with another partof a machine:
When the large gear wheel engages (with the smallerone), the mill stone will start to go round.
These definitions are often what is seen in everyday community engagement. There is a level of communication that involves some interaction at various stages of the problem, although generally after the horse has bolted. This may be because policy is rarely based on community intelligence unless academic research has first agreed that this should take place or is necessary.
The flaw however with this concept is that often those academics do not come from the communities who they have taken painstaking time to collate sufficient data to formulate a conclusion and generally come up with a solution the John & Mary on the local high road could have told them over a meal and at a cheaper cost and potentially saved lives during the time that research was taking place.
This has also left some voices in the community unwilling to continue to engage in any communication process as the community voice can be seen as an after thought. The person who only got invited to the prom because there was no one else to go with and then made to feel grateful that they even got an invite. It reminds me of the kid who always gets picked last to play on the team. Eventually they get fed up and either refuse to play or start their own team. So it's very important that statutory services and local authorities start an earlier engagement process with communities.
Like the current debate over universities and the potential social snobbery this creates against those equally or more skilled who don't have a degree, the same could be argued as to the insistence of researchers to justify community based knowledge when the truth is that the researchers will only be concluding with what the information that they have managed from those members of that community/cohort they have engaged with.
This in itself can also be potentially problematic as the information gathered is often the information told and depending upon the levels of trust that the researchers have with the researched, then the outcome is subjected to this and in some cases may not be sufficient and in some may even be flawed. It is therefore important that agencies and services invest in meaningful community relationships, based on seeing each other as equals and in some instances seeing the community as the "valued" experts.
However mobilising communities is a somewhat different matter. This requires investment in time, resources and money. This can and will only be done effectively when services and agencies believe that a community response is of value but the response at the given time is not as efficient as it could be. This could be for a number of reasons. To name a few, I will start with knowledge.
The community as with the issues of serious youth violence and the increasing drug trade amongst young children, may be crying out for something to be done and also be willing to do something but they have neither the skills, knowledge or resources to do anything substantive about it.
In this case it is incumbent that local authorities, central government and in some cases the corporate business world (CSR) to resource the training or interventions needed to move (mobilise) the community to a place where it can actively make a sustainable and constructive difference.
It may be that sections of communities have previously believed or perceived that they are not welcome at the decision making tables or don't have the sufficient knowledge/confidence to reasonably partake. Again it is here that "key holders" actively address this issue through the processes of invitations and up-skilling. All of these are simple solutions to often seemingly difficult situations.
I do believe that we are moving (although we could go at a greater pace) towards these positions as it's becoming increasingly clear that these problems will only be addressed successfully over a long term when we all work together.