Increasingly, art is becoming an important means to engaging community. (But that's not Art speaking, that's Tommy. Art is on the wall behind him, backing him up.)
The county where my Extension office is located has recently been going through the process of updating its comprehensive, strategic action plan for the future.
As one of the local county agents, I have been pressed into service to assist with the public engagement portions of the creation of this new plan, to add to the capacity of the county planning department's staff and the independent consultant firm that was hired to guide and create the plan. This county plan, once officially adopted by county leaders, is a document that is meant to guide decisions, policy, codes, and public investments for the next 10-15 years.
As has been learned over time, engaging the people affected by all of these actions is pretty important. And its not just county planning processes that can benefit from "engagement." Many believe that engagement holds potential for solving or resolving many vexing community challenges. The evidence is strong.
So strong, in fact, that the folks at Penn State's Center for Economic and Community Development have invested a substantial amount of time and resources into creating an Engagement Toolbox, complete with a guide to planning engagement. It's worth your time to check these resources out, and to study the depth of complexity and possibility that has been uncovered.
Of course much of this knowledge, and the acknowledgement of its merit, is not really anything new. As long ago as the late 1980's, when I was a college student studying public relations, management theory of that time came to similar conclusions about the merit of flattening the pyramid and empowering more to take individual action in any endeavor.
From anecdotal observation and experience since, I've found engagement and then subsequent individual empowerment to be invaluable. Whether in community planning, park and recreation development, main street revitalization, or county-level planning, engaging those you are planning for is a whole lot easier and more productive when plan developers plan with community members rather than for them. In the end, after the plan is complete (and is a plan ever really complete?), it is the community itself and its citizens that will have to actually implement the plan with their own individual assets and leveraged, collective investments.
Have you heard of community plans or other action plans that just sit on a shelf gathering dust? That outcome is a whole lot less likely when those who have the ability and the necessary skills and resources to implement adopted plans are engaged early and understand and believe in their role or roles in completing any action steps.
"Two heads are better than one." Well if that is true, what about 10 heads? 100? What about an entire community of individuals' ideas and collective knowledge (and their resources)? The concept inherent to this thought is just one more reason to believe in or acknowledge the power of engagement to create solid foundations for future actions.
How many heads and hands have contributed to plans for the community where you reside (whether your community of place, or your community of interest)?
Are plans that have been adopted effective? Have they been implemented?
Why or why not?
Example of how one organization uses art to engage members in organizational planning: The Facebook page of Smart Growth Partnership of Westmoreland County
Photo location credit: New Kensington Arts Center