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Community Engagement: Nine Dos and a Don’t

HandsUpThere is power in voices coming together to protest a broken system or to heal communally after a system has hurt them, whether through hashtags on social media or through US Representatives raising their hands in protest on the floor of the House.

But there is greater power in listening to those who stand to be the most impacted to repair a broken system.

Without the perspective of those who stand to be most impacted, even well-meaning policies often do not have their intended effect because they fail to take into account the lived experience of the members of the community they are trying to affect.

Engaging these perspectives is not easy, but it is the only way to create sustainable and equitable change.

There is no one magic checklist for this work, no quick “how to” guide. If one existed, I would share it with you. However, Spark’s work engaging communities has generated some important lessons learned:

DO pre-work. Engaging marginalized persons is something that needs so much more than good intentions. Before you come in to a community, do your homework. Engage with key leaders who can be a partner and ensure the way you work with the community is respectful and appropriate. Learn about cultural norms and traditions. Learn about the history of the community, including other initiatives that were unsuccessful. What made them unsuccessful? What can you learn from and do differently? Additionally, do some internal work regarding your own potential biases. For example, do you hold preconceived notions about this community that may be a barrier to genuine interactions?

DO take your time. For people to share their stories, advice, and perspective with you, they need to know it’s worth their time. They need to know that you will really hear them rather than tokenize their participation by checking them off your to-do list. Put in the time to build relationships and set the foundation of mutual respect and joint action before diving into the specifics of your project.

DO listen. You learn more by listening than speaking, and isn’t learning what you’re there to do? Learn about what the community needs and what it’s going to take for the initiative to be successful and sustainable. You might hear unique and creative solutions that would have not occurred to you or seemed unrealistic without that community perspective.

DO build trust by making sure the work yields something actionable. Honor the relationships you’ve built by making sure you don’t just gather data and leave while some report collects dust on a shelf.

DO be flexible. The process of engaging nontraditional partners sometimes means holding meetings outside of normal business hours so that people who work or go to school can attend, or taking care not to use jargon and acronyms that may be unfamiliar. Adjust what you know and be open to unique aspects of a new situation – don’t assume what worked in one place will work in another!

DO invest in human capital. If possible, build your partners’ capacity to advocate for themselves and their community. It might be providing training on how to navigate a system, creating a space to practice skill-building, or sharing tools to facilitate a process. Just make sure that whatever you do acknowledges the community’s existing strengths.

DO practice humility. Arrogance is the death of progress. Recognize that you do not have all the answers and that your facts may be correct without your point being important. It’s not about coming into a community and telling its members what they need. It’s about checking your ego at the door and soliciting honest opinions that will help the partnership grow to make a meaningful and sustainable difference.

DO share the spotlight. When the hard work pays off, make sure you don’t claim credit solely for yourself and the agency you represent. Recognize the work the community has put in and celebrate the successes together. Highlighting the community’s achievement strengthens its voice and ensures it is seen as a valued part of the next project or initiative that comes along.

DO be accountable. The nature of this work means you’re likely to hit some bumps along the way. Address these bumps with accountability and humility, and work to make sure they don’t happen again.

And, finally,

DON’T ever stop growing. Meaningfully partnering with marginalized people to catalyze change can be challenging, but don’t give up! When time is limited, you may be tempted to just take the easier route and do your work without partnering with marginalized groups and it can get discouraging when results aren’t immediate. Be patient, with yourself and with the process. The payoff is worth it!


Interested in learning more about engaging nontraditional voices? Check out our toolkit!

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Reflections of a change agent: Sometimes you need to shut up and listen

Last summer, the Spark team was in one of our monthly all day team retreats. We use these conversations to ground ourselves in what matters about our work and stay true to our values.

To begin the day, we watched parts of two Ted talks:

  • The first talk helped us explore the concept of excellence, including how to define and understand excellence as something that is owned by everyone at every level: excellence cannot be imposed from the top nor independently generated from those on the ground.
  • The second talk reminded us to shut up and listen, which used a wonderful example about hippos and agriculture that will stick with you! It was a potent reminder that no matter how much you think you know, you don’t know all of the things that are critical to causing meaningful change.

The dialogue that followed has become part of the fabric of Spark, so much so that we keep a copy of the word cloud below at our desks as a daily reminder!


We explored the many ways that catalyzing change is different from implementing projects, preparing deliverables, facilitating meetings, doing the day-to-day work of a consultant. Here are some of our primary take-aways from that day:

  • Catalyzing change is about the process and the relationships, but it’s also about understanding that people need to have joy in that process, excitement, and opportunities to act on their passions. It’s about knowing that creating meaningful change is outside of our control as partners in many efforts, which means our best role is to lend our support to our partners, helping them be the leaders.
  • We explored how our own biases and assumptions get in the way, while also recognizing that they are a very human reality and we all have them.
  • We thought about the voices who most need to be part of a process and the reality of engaging them – listening, taking time to hear what they are saying, and the need to realize we are not the experts in the room, the community is.
  • We faced our egos head on and agreed that we need to not assume we know the answer, to know that even when our facts are right, they may not be important, and to listen more than speak. Arrogance is the death of progress.

These insights are not revolutionary, but together they reminded us what it takes to be catalytic without owning the change. They continue to remind me, day to day, and keep me grounded in what matters.

We hope they can also remind you of what it looks like when you are your best, creating an environment where meaningful change flourishes and your partners thrive amid the exciting uncertainties of making the world a better place.