Legitimate engagement - Reggie Lewis

My recent participation in a two-day discussion in Nevada on a unique opportunity to convene a community to deliberate on the use of charitable dollars led to some unexpected soul-searching. Just how does one have authentic conversations in a given community? How do you invite a representative group to a table with the premise that all will have equal say and enjoy the ability to act as equals?  The Community Conference, co-sponsored by The Harwood Institute and the Nevada Community Foundation, in March provides a useful framework to consider for any community faced with similar questions. In responding to these questions, I offer my insights gained from the experience.

First, one must be prepared to have a real conversation in a community, particularly with those most affected by challenges and issues of concern. A conversation is “real” or authentic when the sponsors of the discussion want to listen and hear the views represented in a community, even if such thinking does not coincide with one’s own. Moreover, a real conversation is one that is “legitimate” in that the sponsor/facilitator does not come to the table having already reached a conclusion on the issue at hand. Such conversations require parties to thoroughly listen and engage in mutually-beneficial ways, leading to new and more relevant levels of understanding.

Legitimate (authentic) engagement must be truly representative of community. Beyond the all too often “scan” of sectors and leaders, full representation necessitates bringing folk together within and across boundaries who otherwise would never meet. As such, the roster of participants must delve deep to identify the traditional and non-traditional “players” to bring to a table. Hence – some of my soul-searching: Just how often do I bring in the head of the chamber of commerce along with the local tenant association leader? 

Yet, failing to ensure that a broad, cross-section of individuals are present can often lead to missed opportunities to gain a critical understanding from those outside of one’s comfort zone – perhaps the very perspective needed to leverage meaningful support to change a condition or circumstance.

Finally, legitimate (authentic) engagement must ultimately lead to a form of give and take that culminates in the sharing of power and authority. So, more germane to the second question above – it becomes a table among equals when each individual can equally weigh in on the direction of resources and dollars usually left to a small, select (often well-intentioned) group of individuals who profess to know what is best.

Well, sometimes I do think I know what’s best. After all, I must have built-in legitimacy since I am a trained professional who hails from the very community I serve, right? Prior to the Nevada experience, I would have never raised a question so profound. As I continue to reflect on the experience of the conference, I move forward knowing that perhaps legitimacy must always be earned (if not demonstrated) when attempting the kind of community engagement that inspires folk to want to talk and create change in the first place.

Reginald Lewis, guest blogger, is the executive vice president for community impact at the United Way of Essex and West Hudson, Newark, NJ.