Last year, I spent a delightful summer working my way into my MA dissertation. As academic writing goes, it was a short exercise ; – only 10,000 words – in systematic reflection on activism in one London borough, Southwark. During that journey, I came across a raft of amazing people challenging the System on behalf of us all. I also discovered a range of new resources and ideas, some of which stuck with me. One has surfaced again recently and become very relevant to my work as a community organiser at the moment: The Engagement Path.
How to ‘Get’ Organising
Deriving from the work of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation, The Engagement Path seeks to describe how people actually engage. In The Organization-First Approach, Richard Harwood and John A. Creighton take their analysis from The Engagement Path a step further and contrast the way we know people engage with the way organisations engage. The distinctions are instructive for our work as organisers and underline how difficult it is for organisations of all types to ‘get’ organising as an institution. (Both these insightful publications and many other valuable articles and reports were unearthed for me at the Kettering Foundation, a website with many riches to be mined. I recommend more than a glance at many parts of their work.)
The Engagement Path
In summary, the Engagement Path moves through five types of engagement:
1. Personal Realm – people are, so to speak, living their daily private lives. Conversations tend to focus on concerns that have a direct impact on their own lives or on the lives of those close to them. The people whom they talk to are those whom they know and with whom they feel comfortable.
2. Nascent Talk – people begin to more explicitly connect personal and public lives. This step looks and sounds a lot like discussions we have with people every day, a mixture of gossip and conversation about an issue like health care or education. Conversations tend to be random and unstructured. People start a conversation one day only to pick it up a number of days later, but are not usually motivated to solve problems or make decisions.
3. Discovery – people cross over form thinking about issues in a private sense to thinking in public terms. They gain a sense of possibility that did not exist previously and begin to see that common ground for action might be found on complex issues. They become vested in the process of finding a solution while working with others.
4. Deliberation – engagement goes much deeper. People make choices and decisions, wrestle with values and trade-offs, and figure out what to do in the context of their aspirations. This step is a prerequisite to taking purposeful public action.
5. Complementary action – a wide range of individuals and organisations take action, informed by deliberation. The actions are not necessarily coordinated – typically they are not – but are carried out with a shared sense of purpose.
Most of organising is about moving people from the domestic to the public realm. Such a schema as this above inevitably simplifies what is complex and often unconscious about human social behaviour. Nonetheless, it seems useful to consider how the messy and uncertain process of community participation progresses for individuals and groups, what stages it passes through. I like the way this model emphasises the human messy quality of engagement – that it is a shambolic affair when ; judged from the Elysian Fields of civic managers, politicians and academics.
From organising on the Aylesbury estate, we are finding that engagement is not a steady and predictable process. The citizens with whom we are working do not hold a clear understanding of their journey before they travel the road. Indeed, both the starting point and the goal remain unsure and ambivalent. What is this public realm? Is it the world of politics, intrigue and dishonesty? Or can it be a different way of relating, something more authentic and consistent? And how does it differ from the familiar domestic settings with family and friends? Sometimes, individuals ‘get’ the distinction and grasp the journey but often only for a time and in respect of one instance. When their attention wains, so the old vacillation returns.
Yet at the same time, the group as a whole does move forward. Dealing with encounters with local councillors, warding off stinging criticism, succeeding in projects or tackling direct opposition from other residents helps the members – one by one and as a collective – to confirm their direction of travel. The speed of getting organised is slow and steady with spurts of energy and progress and times of quiet pausing. Such is the way with human relationships. But if we are to build a solid foundation for the long-term, then allowing people to work it through at their different speeds is vital.
If we were working as an organisation, then the dynamic would be utterly different. Harwood and Creighton found that – in The Organization-First Approach – organisations start with research and assessment to identify the need that might fit the funding opportunity or the existing expertise of the organisation. The second phase is to educate the community about the organisation’s findings – information about a specific topic, helping the community understand what the organisation knows and to help prepare for the organisation’s conclusions. Thirdly, the organisation brings together stakeholders to make decisions and agree action plans, allocating responsibility for implementation. And lastly, the organisation enters into collaboration with other groups working on the issue to reduce duplication and help attract new resources.
It is hardly a surprise that this trajectory is so completely alien to the community following a more grounded but equally valid path. Dialogue between these two paradigms is impossible. To take a chemical analogy, two such different compounds have no way of reacting together without the presence of a catalyst. In each other’s company they remain inert and unresponsive. The magic occurs when organisation and community meet in that liminal space that allows shared ways of building a new reality. But to get there, the community has to bring as much power to the reaction as the organisation and that is what organising is all about.
Richard Harwood (n.d.) Critical Junctures Along the Path of Engagement at The Kettering Foundation at http://www.kettering.org/ketterings_research/citizens/engagement_path
Richard Harwood and John C. Creighton (2009) The Organization-First Approach: How Programs Crowd out Community Available to download from http://www.kettering .org There is also a Discussion Guide available from http://www.theharwoodinstitute.org/organization-first/
The Engagement Path: The Realities of How People Engage over Time – and the Possibilities for Re-engaging Americans (2003) The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation and the Kettering Foundation. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to pre-order a hardcopy
Gideon Rosenblatt (2010) The Engagement Pyramid: Six Levels of Connecting People and Social Change Available at http://groundwire.org/blog/groundwire-engagement-pyramid
Eileen Conn (2011) Community Engagement and the Social Eco-system Dance Third Sector Research Centre