[A necessity for authentic civic engagement]

Tracey Greene-Washington

In all of its beauty and complexity, civic engagement at its core is a nuanced dance that is designed to compel whole communities, out of a deep desire for change, to strategically wrestle with a set of natural questions: who, what, when, why and how to deploy engagement. This is a type of engagement that honors the context of place, readiness of communities, and facilitates necessary discourse towards galvanizing community-wide voice, solutions, and impactful support for thriving communities.

Engagement and discourse are two critical elements of civic engagement. When intentionally bound together through a shared vision and healthy, trusting, and equitable relationships, the result is accelerated action that tackles complex social issues.  This requires us to work concurrently to build the capacity, bandwidth, and analysis to support collective social change during an uncertain climate fueled by distracting and disorienting divisiveness.

However, as more communities across the state embrace this vehicle as a tool to facilitate social change, it has become increasingly apparent that it is critical for us all to push the envelope and evolve our definition of community engagement amidst a shifting social, economic, and political backdrop. We must ask ourselves if the current models are right-sized in a way that will allow us to tackle and create the necessary momentum required to address the complexity of social issues faced by communities today. This right-sizing conversation has the ability to ready the space for us all to examine existing models and push for new innovative models for civic engagement that are anchored in a posture of being proximal as a means to ground strategic approaches and decision-making.

Proximal is defined as getting situated close to the center, median of line, or port of origin. Proximity is anchored in authentic and clear questions that begin with an examination of what we can ”amplify” and what we need to “interrupt” before asking what we can and need to innovate to support a healthy and equitable ecosystem for change in each of our respective communities. This insight is being informed by a framework developed by Marisol Jimenez, the principal of Tepeyac Consulting. This framework challenges communities and institutions to wrestle with the concepts of amplification, interruption, and innovation to ground and guide community dialogue – all necessary components to establish a deeper level to community conversation-while examining power dynamics and forcing a set of next steps that are grounded in doing something that is different and countercultural. Consequently, innovations in civic engagement must be grounded in an on-going challenge to explore proximity at two levels, getting proximal to the issues themselves and getting proximal to the people that are leading and creating the momentum, sustaining, and mining the work over time.

“We cannot solve our problems, by using the thinking we used when we created them” -Albert Einstein

Getting proximal to an issue embraces and leans into the type of heavy lifting required for a clear, deep analysis about the issue, history, and understanding of its impact across communities, sectors, and systems before any solutions are offered. This work is the first step in being strategic and shifting important mental models and narratives about issues and who is most impacted, which is some of the most transformative work that we can undertake in community. The shifting of these mental models forms the basis for allocation of resources, behaviors, language, and the ways we influence our respective networks. Consequently, it sets the foundation for the next level of proximity.

“Courage is not the absence of fear-it is about inspiring others to move beyond it.” -Nelson Mandela

Getting proximal to people requires the courage to go even deeper and get closer to the individuals, communities, and networks that are  leading the work and most impacted. This begins by first honoring a process that begins with meeting people where they are, examining their understanding, analysis, behavior, values, and actions about these complex issues. At  the same time, it requires pushing everyone to embrace discomfort and do the necessary work that is required to engage in reflective processes that support hard conversations about equity, cross-sector collaboration, complicity, healthy relationship building, invisible and diverse voices, shared power and systems change. This work tracks with the deep belief and understanding that the facilitation of sustained change in community is predicated upon individuals and people. The tighter, aligned, equitable and more transparent these interactions and relationships, the better and more significant the impact. The people are the weavers that knit these efforts together and sustain them long-term through ongoing conversations, relationships, and the creation of intentional spaces that are integrated into the fabric of  community. The result is creating an ecosystem of change through multiple entry points of civil engagement and dialogue. The innovation that we all desire for supporting our communities to thrive in an equitable way is possible if we wrestle with the following questions.

  • In what ways are you getting proximal to issues and people?  What mental barriers or points of discomfort do you need to lean into to show up in a proximal way?

  • What mental models and narratives do you need to shift in order to create authentic partnerships that can yield the impact you seek in community.

  • In what ways are you using this self-awareness to shift mental models and transform whole ecosystems for change?
Tracey Greene-Washington is the founder of CoThinkk and Indigo Innovation Group. She serves on the board of Education NC, North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research & NC Early Childhood Foundation, and former board chair of the Center for Leadership Innovation. She has over 18 years experience in the philanthropic and nonprofit sector working on initiatives focused on equity, systems change, leadership development, community economic development, rural community transformation, health and wellbeing, and education.