Forcing a circle into a square: 12 common misconceptions about community engagement

Community & consumer engagement

According to Victor Murray, Senior Director of Community Engagement and Capacity Building, the goal of community engagement at the Camden Coalition is simply “to amplify the voice of the community in our work so that people are represented. The goal is that the concerns, needs, priorities, and aspirations of the Camden community are what drive our organizational and program decisions.” 

Victor Murray started working at the Camden Coalition 12 years ago as an intervention specialist. He helped shape our care management model and principles, and led our Care Management Initiatives department before working with our National Center team to teach our model of care to organizations across the country. In his current role, he focuses on partnering with communities locally and across the country, leading our community-level COVID response as well as our work partnering across sectors to improve system-level coordination and increase access to behavioral health, housing, and social services in Camden.

Victor was born and grew up in Camden, where, he notes, decades of government mismanagement and inequitable resource distribution have always been challenged by individuals willing to show up and advocate for their community. Throughout his years living and working in Camden, he’s heard a lot of misconceptions about the Camden community, as well as about the practice of community engagement.

Right now community engagement is ‘the thing to do,’ it’s very en vogue right now,” he says. “And not that that’s the worst thing in the world, but there’s not a lot of conversation about how it should be done effectively.”

In the spirit of sharing best practices for effective community engagement, here are 12 misconceptions that Victor has seen in the course of his work, and advice for how organizations (including the Camden Coalition) can become more community-driven.

Misconception #1: Community engagement only happens at the program or organizational level. “Community engagement is often talked about in the context of a single program or a single organization but not often in the context of an entire ecosystem or an entire region. So one shortcoming in terms of how people are talking about it is that it tends to be very, very narrow, and that’s how voices get missed.”

Misconception #2: Engaging the community starts with a blank slate. “Just because an organization is starting to do more formal community engagement doesn’t mean that this is the first time the community is interacting with the organization. Some of those past interactions — including poor service delivery and cutting participants off from programs — could have been bad and may have even caused trauma. Not addressing and reckoning with these past interactions is like a train showing up at terminal C, yelling ‘Everyone hop on! We have this great destination to get to!’ without talking about what happened at terminals A and B, where people were kicked off or not let on the train at all.”

Misconception #3: Community engagement has to be difficult. “I was at one of our vaccine events recently, thinking about how, yes, this is community engagement, but also it felt like I was just out in the neighborhood, you know? I think when it does become complex or difficult it’s because we’re trying to force a circle into a square, or force a conversation to fit a certain narrative or organizational vision or goal. So sometimes those misalignments become complex, but I don’t know that the work itself is as difficult as some would make it out to be.”

Misconception #4: Community feedback is a stamp of approval at the end of a process. “Often organizations can be hesitant about when to incorporate the community voice or perspective. It should be before we define a problem, before we set the agenda. Sometimes organizations want to set the table before inviting the community in. It should be, ‘come help us set the table, come help us figure out the menu.’ Sometimes we just want to invite folks in for the meal just to get their approval. Like, ‘It was great, right?’ By then it’s too late for meaningful conversation or feedback.”

Misconception #5: Community engagement is like public relations: community members should see the most polished versions of our organizations. “It’s always a challenge as organizations to let community members come in and experience the messiness inherent in planning programs or changing our processes. But the thing is — they’re already experiencing the messiness of our organizations from the outside, when they’re accessing or trying to navigate through our services. Being transparent about that messiness takes a level of vulnerability on the organization’s part that we don’t often talk about. Community engagement isn’t, ‘We’re doing so great, rah rah,’ it’s about having challenging conversations where we name and address the stuff that needs to change.”

Misconception #6: Community members should be treated as volunteers. “The feedback and partnership you’re getting from community members is valuable for your organization, so compensate them. Pay them. Show them that you value their time. Keep in mind though, that for community members on public benefits, too much income can affect their eligibility for benefits, so you may need to be creative.”

Misconception #7: Community engagement is a separate beast from patient/client engagement. “Ultimately, community engagement and partnership building in general is about the same things we emphasize in our patient/client-level work: being authentic, being consistent, setting clear boundaries. We tend to do much better at the patient/client level at understanding why people don’t do what we want, what their reservations might be, empathizing with challenges while still pushing for change. That’s a balance that needs to be found at the community level as well.”

Misconception #8: Our organization should be the protagonist in our community members’ stories.Promoting empathetic and empowering storytelling means that rather than centering our organization as the protagonist, how can we ensure the consumer themself is cast in the central role? When it comes to storysharing, how do we center consumers and honor their stories? A few ways: by not having them change their narrative to fit ours. By not forcing their story to align with our mission, initiatives, and outcomes. And by talking about people as whole people, not just a disease or set of challenges.”

Misconception #9: We can jump right into a community engagement project, then move on to the next thing once it’s done. “It’s hugely helpful to set clear expectations going into projects. What is the vision for this partnership? What is everyone’s capacity, what are people’s concerns, what are they most anxious about? It goes back to that vulnerability. A lot of times organizations aren’t willing to go there. And then, once the work is done it’s done. There’s no debrief where we say what we have learned, what we’re taking away from this work, how we want to build upon the work.” 

Misconception #10: Community engagement is the answer to our DEI issues. “There’s a lot of energy around advancing health equity and DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] right now, and community engagement is an important part of that conversation. However, community engagement should not be the only lever your organization is pulling to advance those goals. Organizations should also be thinking about internal work, including workforce engagement, development, and recruitment. How do the demographics of your staff and leadership mirror or not mirror the community that you serve?”

Misconception #11: We might do something wrong, so it’s better to do nothing. “Conversations about community engagement can be similar to DEI conversations. Sometimes organizations get paralyzed with the fear that they will do something wrong or do something to offend. We just need to get past that. That’s your own individual or organizational baggage. To really make change, we have to push ourselves in ways that are sometimes uncomfortable. Sometimes we will trip up, but what’s more important is the rebound. How did you use that as a moment to think differently moving forward?”

Misconception #12: We have it all figured out! “At the Camden Coalition, we’ve gotten a lot right, but the way we talk about community engagement is still very narrow. It’s a slice of a slice which doesn’t necessarily represent the Camden or South Jersey population as a whole. Something I’m always thinking about is, what does our community engagement ladder up to? As we build this ecosystem of care in Camden, what would this community engagement look like on a more broad level, outside of just this very specific sub-population of people with complex health and social needs? There’s still work to do on our end.”

Victor stresses that the most important element for effective community engagement is just to start. “I think a lot of people get stuck at ‘where do I start,’” he says. “It’s not rocket science — you have a conversation with someone.”