8 Apr 2015
Mike Thomas on Community Engagement
To open our in depth exploration of Community Engagement, one of the elements of our Support Offer, Transition Network’s Transition Initiative Support Coordinator Mike Thomas sets the scene:
We are all part of a community in one way or another. Often it is our commitment to improving the community we live in that leads to us starting up a Transition group. Involving your community should not be seen as a chore, it is part of the fun of Transition, as you personally get to meet lots of new people, run some great events, empower people to do things for themselves and build a stronger community feeling where you live.
If Transition was a train then Community Engagement would be the engine and the people in your community would be the passengers and drivers, because ultimately Transition is a community led process. Without support from your local community, it will be very difficult to develop Transition. People in your community will support your projects, provide you with volunteers, come to your events, campaign for you and much, much more. On the other hand an unengaged hostile community can be a major barrier to Transition by criticising what you do, refusing to support you and sometimes actually actively campaign against you. So it is important to have a really meaningful relationship with your community.
It is crucial to involve the community as early on as possible when developing Transition. Transition should feel owned by the community, but don’t expect this to happen instantly as it can take a long time for Transition to be accepted. Also community engagement should not be seen as a process that you do just at the beginning; it’s a constant ongoing part of Transition.
When thinking about your community it’s useful to realise that the wider geographical community is often made up of smaller diverse communities. This provides opportunities and challenges for Transition as you will have communities based around geographical areas as well as communities based around identity such as religion and interests, as well as age and disability.
Each of these communities may need to be engaged in different ways and have different needs, or you may need to think about how you make your engagement activities as accessible as possible. It can be useful to do the big list exercise in the Networking and Partnerships support element to list all the different communities in your area in order to think about some of these issues.
From our experience there are four main reasons for engaging your community in the Transition process:
To raise awareness about Transition and why you are doing it.
To help people to understand the larger issues that Transition attempts to address, such as climate change, poverty, health
It provides a practical example of people making a difference in their community, showing that you can make a difference.
It inspires people to get involved in Transition
The aim of Community Engagement is not to get everyone in the community actively involved in your Transition group, if this happens then great, but it is unlikely [replace with “that’s just never going to happen”]. It is much more about including the community in the Transition journey, so they feel part of it and not outside of it. Many people will not have time or the interest to be fully involved, but they may have time to come to an event or to provide some support to what you are doing. This is much more likely to happen if people are included in what you are doing in your community.
It is very important to be open about what you are doing and to provide opportunities for people to input and to also feedback. You can involve the community in shaping the Transition vision for your community. There are many ways of doing this such as running an Open Space session, putting on a World Cafe event to get people to actually feed into the Transition vision of the community as well as fun events like swap shops, music events, street parties and picnics. Running small practical projects can be a great way to engage people in a hands on way, things like tree planting, or getting together to clean up a dirty part of the community.
We have put together a list of potential events you could put on, but really you will know best what your community likes so use that knowledge to your advantage when planning events. Sometimes people don’t have to engage at all, but the fact that you are giving them an opportunity to engage is in itself a powerful thing. People will remember that there was an opportunity to.
Some people in your community will want to be more involved in Transition and as more people come into the project you will need to integrate them. This needs to be thought about in advance, so that people have a good experience of getting involved in Transition. Having an induction process for people is a great way of doing this, someone can meet up with the new person and explain how the groups works, tell them what is going on and what they could get involved. Your group can support them to form their own self-sustaining projects, or involve them in your existing theme groups that work with particular focus such as food, energy, communication or well being (if you have them established).
If you succeed in getting the community to support you then you will find it much easier to achieve your aims, as they will support you, help you and most importantly persuade others to. Don’t forget that community engagement should be fun and bring rewards for both you and your community. So get out there and make some new friends, throw a party, build a great vision for your community together and don’t forget to have very good cake available at all times.
We have focused on the principles behind community engagement here, to give an overview of why community engagement is important. We have a further set of resources in our Community Engagement element that includes:
A guide to running open space events which are really good for community engagement
It is also worth looking at the Network and Partnership Element as well, as this includes The Big List exercise, that you can use to think about the different communities that are in the wider community.