Community engagement begins by listening.

Jennifer Evans - Engagement & Development Strategist

Jennifer Evans

Engagement & Development Strategist

IDEABOARD Guest Contributor

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Not A One Size Fits All

"The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts…Connectors, Mavens, or Influencers,” Gladwell, Malcom. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference; 2000.

In 2013, I found myself amid Evansville, Indiana’s new renaissance with that of Franklin Street, Downtown Evansville, University of Evansville, Haynie’s Arts District, and my new gig to develop a quality of life plan with the North Main Street and Jacobsville neighborhood. These five urban areas within the city were bestowed the title of “cultural districts,” each for its unique character and work being accomplished to bring new life to these areas.  

With the hype of exciting events, new business, new trails and roadways, green space, added ambiance and charm came the sensation to implement initiatives, known as community engagement.  

“So, what is community engagement?”  

The phrase community engagement has been around for a decade or more and has no absolute or agreed upon definition. However, I believe it to be a process of learning what people want or need; and then coordinating, developing, and implementing actions to make valuable and sustainable community change. I have found those steps, especially the learning phase, to be vital because there is not a one size fits all approach to truly engaging a community.  

At the beginning of the Jacobsville quality of life process, I initiated conversations for residents and stakeholders through hosting weekly dinners at my office on North Main Street. Along with community-minded volunteers, we asked dinner guests what they believed to be Jacobsville strengths, opportunities, weaknesses, and threats.  

During those conversations, I found myself stunned by the feeling of helplessness and hopelessness among them.  People believed pride for the neighborhood was lost.  

In a sense, residents and stakeholders themselves felt lost, not knowing where to begin or what resources existed that could help them to improve neighborhood issues. They felt isolated and overwhelmed by the things that needed to happen first.  

One of those “things” was getting to know and develop relationships with their neighbors, businesses, and stakeholders. A difficult task in an area comprised of 336 city blocks, the largest and most densely populated neighborhood in the city, with nearly 7,000 residents and an estimated 8,000 jobs.  

To further community engagement and build upon the momentum of the quality of life process taking place, I worked with a few residents and stakeholders to create neighborhood gatherings, offering opportunities for resident involvement at every level of the process. The gatherings varied from inviting community members to attend our weekly crockpot dinners to weekly neighborhood walks, or special events like neighborhood Christmas caroling to painting a 128-foot community mural. 

The goal was to inspire residents by helping them to develop the self-confidence to try new things. The engagement activities opened gateways for community collaboration by encouraging neighborhood bonds. Empowering individuals to speak for themselves and serve as the neighborhood’s public voice, but more importantly to be their own community engagers. They soon discovered they had a role through their own knowledge and experiences in the neighborhood, including their passion by working to improve the quality of life. Engaged residents and stakeholders became the connectors, mavens, and influencers for Jacobsville.  

“For the first time I felt like I have been heard and what I had to say was important. That I can make a difference.”

With their newfound sense of empowerment and team spirit, pride among the neighborhood began to grow, and so did hope. One of the most outspoken Jacobsville residents said it best, “For the first time I felt like I have been heard and what I had to say was important. That I can make a difference.”