Grassroots Community outreach and engagement

Grassroots Community Leadership & Development: Community Outreach & Engagement (Part Two).

Grassroots community development is led by community members who have a passion for providing programs and projects to restore, revitalize or redevelopment their communities. Some grassroots community leaders have a passion for maintaining the stability of their community or the historical character of their community. Community outreach and engagement is very important in the decision making process for grassroots community leaders and their boards.

Penn State University Center for Community Development has a definition for community engagement that is also very applicable for community engagement at the grassroots level. Penn State’s definition states:  

"In its simplest terms, community engagement seeks to better engage the community to achieve long-term and sustainable outcomes, processes, relationships, discourse, decision-making, or implementation. To be successful, it must encompass strategies and processes that are sensitive to the community-context in which it occurs."

Using this definition of community engagement, a best practice for grassroots community leaders would be to design a community engagement process that will achieve long-term and sustainable outcomes, processes, relationships, discourse, decision-making and/or implementation at the neighborhood level. It is always a best practice to look outside of your neighborhood or community boundaries and connect your programming or neighborhood plans to other neighborhood or municipal plans. Economic development and sustainability occur at the regional level, therefore your neighborhood plan should support and connect to your local municipal plan, which should connect to the regional prosperity plan/initiatives.

When developing programs and projects, MSUE encourages its staff to use a logic model. MSUE states:

The logic model is a graphic illustration of a program or project, and the depiction shows what the program will do and what it is to accomplish. Logic models are at the core of programming and project planning and evaluation. 

The next article in the series titled: Grassroots Program and Planning Using the Logic Models (Part 3) will provide more details regarding how grassroots community leaders can use the logic model to develop programs.

Penn State’s definition of community engagement also states the community engagement process, and the resulting decisions by community member is “sensitive to the specific neighborhood or community for which the planning occurs”. Therefore, it’s very important for grassroots community leaders to use data such as census tract information and other location specific data to inform the planning and vision development process at the neighborhood level.

Needs assessments are an important part of the planning process. Municipalities conduct needs assessment to find out the needs of their communities in the planning and vision development process. Needs assessments are very useful at the neighborhood level as well. Communities can start by examining and inventorying the current conditions in their neighborhood.  Neighborhood level windshield surveys can be used to inventory the current condition in your community. A SWOT analysis can be used to preliminarily identify your neighborhood’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunity and threats. These are a few techniques that can be used by grassroots community leaders to begin the planning process at the neighborhood level.

An important step in the grassroots neighborhood planning process is for community leaders to determine how they will engage community members and stakeholders at the grassroots level in the planning decision making process. As grassroots community leaders design the community engagement process, Michigan State University National Charrette Institute core values can be used as a template to incorporated core values for community engagement at the neighborhood level.  Michigan State University National Charrette Institute has five core values used to capture the core of community engagement. The five core values are:

  • Sustainable Community Planning – The holistic planning solutions that support socially, economically and environmentally sustainable communities.
  • Collaboration – Each individual’s unique contribution in the planning process supports the best outcome of the project, program or plan.
  • Transparency – Clarity in rules, process and roles is essential to collaboration.
  • Shared Learning – Cross-disciplinary design teams assures reduced programming or project rework and facilitates implementation.
  • Direct, Honest, Communication – Respectful communication fosters an environment of trust and reduces programming or project rework (Lennertz, 2018).

Grassroots community leadership and development is not an easy task, but it can be very rewarding and supports the rehabilitation and redevelopment of communities locally and nationally.

Those in Michigan State University Extension that focus on land use provide various training programs on planning and zoning, which are available to be presented in your county.  Contact your local land use educator for more information.

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