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Getting Engaged... at the Outreach and Engagement Conference

By Karen Shirer, Associate Dean

Last week, the University of Minnesota sponsored a two-day conference for faculty, staff, and community partners on addressing grand challenges through community engagement. Extension was well represented at the Outreach and Engagement Conference in staff attendance and presentations at various concurrent sessions. It filled me with great pride to see not only the interest of you, our staff, in addressing the state's grand challenges through community engagement, but also your interest in sharing our work.

My own participation in the conference led me to reflect on the meaning of community engagement and its centrality to our work in Minnesota communities. First and foremost, I was reminded that no single person, organization, or community has the capacity to address even one grand challenge. These intractable problems are without simple solutions and require holistic, systemic responses that involve both those impacted by and contributing to the problem. Each of us has a stake in solving the problem and in contributing to different aspects of the solution.

Second, I was reminded that sometimes we become so focused on using community engagement to meet our professional or organizational needs that empowering the community become a secondary concern. Both as an organization and as individual agents, we need first to be aware of when our community work is being driven by self-interest and when it’s being driven by the interest of the community, and second to strive toward placing the interest of the community above all else.
As I meet with local partners, I hear how University staff, educators, and students, including people from Extension, have come into a community to complete their research project, but never contact members of that community after they have collected their data and written their papers. Many of these efforts are well-intentioned, but without true community engagement, those good intentions will fall short.

If you’re looking for ideas on how to empower communities and nudge people toward behavior change, I suggest reading a blog post by Crispin Butteriss, co-founder of Bang the Table, a group of community engagement specialists who advise public and private sector clients worldwide. In the blog post, Four Ways ‘Behavioural Insights’ Can Improve ‘Citizen Engagement’ Practice, described four ways to apply behavioral economics, i.e., nudging techniques, to engaging community members and changing behavior. In brief, those four ways are:
  • Make it easy.
  • Make it attractive.
  • Make it social.
  • Make it timely.
Read the blog post for details, and remember these principles as guideposts to avoiding unnecessarily complicating our efforts to engage communities and keep empowering people as our primary focus.

April is a busy month of programming for many of you, and for me it involves travel to conferences. This week is the National Health Outreach Conference (formerly Priester Health Extension Conference) and the third week of April is a regional conference in Chicago for state-level faculty and staff in Family Development. I plan to use my newfound insights on community engagement to guide my participation in these conferences, as well as guide Family Development’s work in 2016 and beyond.

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