By Leo Qin
Portland Enrichment’s mission is to facilitate thriving, sustainable, and diverse communities. We do this through the Community Enrichment Program, which:
—Provides clear and simple actions which help people take their next step in improving the quality of life and lessen the environmental impact of their community.
—Facilitates a transition towards more livable and sustainable communities.
—Engages and encourages the community to think, speak, and value sustainable solutions.
In the summer of 2012, Portland Enrichment, with the help of participants of the Portland Summer of Solutions, conducted a listening project and community challenge in the Mount Scott-Arleta and Lents neighborhoods of SE Portland. Portland Enrichment is a fiscally sponsored partner of Grand Aspirations, founding Catalyst Community with the Northwest Institute for Community Enrichment (NICE), and member of the NICE Galapagos Project.
What is Community Engagement?
Community Engagement is a new (or perhaps resurfacing) buzzword in the world of sustainable community development. Taken simply, it refers to the act of reaching out to the people who are already living in the area where one wants to develop a sustainable community. On a more abstract level, the engagement of communities in sustainable development is an integral part of the sustainable aspect of such activity.
Sustainable development cannot perpetuate itself without some degree of buy-in from some population. Simply put, development cannot be sustainable if it doesn’t serve some pre-existing population. The first question, then, is “which population is my sustainable development meant to serve?” Flubbing the answer to this question illustrates the difference between successful development projects that add value to and grow with a community and extractive, manipulative, and gentrifying projects that displace communities and replace them with meaningless enclaves of privilege and artifice.
People and firms who have business in community development, and sustainable development in particular, engage in a very peculiar power dynamic with the communities in which they work. As a rule, aggregations of people have more power than individuals, and individuals with lots of money have more power than individuals with less money. Therefore, it follows that aggregations of people that have lots of money enter into interactions with communities (which, especially in ungentrified areas, tend to be aggregations of people with less money, or even individuals) with a significant advantage in power. The particular peculiarity of the power interaction comes about when the developer seeks to understand and develop around the market forces that exist in an area. They may use a variety of sources to determine that, for example, there may be an unmet demand for a car dealership or grocery store in the area. However, this thought process inevitably leads to the imposition of a new resource (even if in demand) upon a community.
Thus, this poses an imbalance of power because aggregations of people with money have more power than people without money. Even if the net balance of benefit resulting from development is positive, the developer’s advertising campaign is intended to convince the community, after the fact and after the decision has been made, that this new resource adds value to the neighborhood.
Pragmatically, imposing a net benefit is probably preferable to imposing a net penalty. However, avoiding imposition is an even better approach to crafting a sustainable development project because it strikes at the heart of what a sustainable society ought to be: consensual, pluralistic, and equitable. All of this can be achieved through the simple act of curiosity. Instead of entering a community with an idea for a project and a goal of convincing the community that the project will bring net benefit (this is the old idea of community engagement, and is no different from advertising and marketing), the sustainable developer enters the community with no more agenda than to bring a net benefit.
All they have to do is ask: What sort of community do you want to live in, and how can I help you achieve that vision?
The great value of simply asking is that designing a project around community input stacks the deck in its favor. Instead of convincing a community to use a project, developing a project that the community has explicitly expressed a need for upends the disparity in power and provides an ethical framework for developers to bring their resources to bear.
In addition, the mere act of listening and gathering input has more abstract social justice benefits. Lents and Mt. Scott-Arleta, for example, have a history of abandonment (by the city and well-meaning students) and extractive development (by the city and developers). Part of the intent of authentic and meaningful community engagement is to attempt to make amends for these past injustices. It may have happened in the past, but it won’t happen again. And we won’t be the ones doing it.