Between the COVID-19 pandemic and social unrest in the past year, many cities have either begun or expanded their outreach to marginalized communities. This is certainly a welcome development, as the combination of health, economic, and cultural challenges have severely affected groups already facing an uphill battle.
Cities are taking this one step further by increasing their understanding of what constitutes a “marginalized community,” extending the definition beyond traditionally disadvantaged groups in order to comprehensively grasp their community landscape.
However, these initiatives pose a challenge. Many localities struggle to identify which groups in particular are marginalized and why this is the case. Sometimes it may be obvious, with common examples of the homeless, impoverished, and new immigrants. But it can be more difficult in other cases, particularly with those who lack technological access, civic literacy, and mobility.
Developing an understanding of how certain groups are marginalized is a necessary condition for local leaders to successfully engage and assist them. Broad approaches to engagement, financial assistance, and other programs may fail to reach those who need help most desperately, meaning that the best intentions often fall short of producing results. In other words, for assistance programs to be successful, local governments must meet the targeted groups where they are.
Understanding Marginalized Communities
Marginalized communities include those who have been historically excluded from involvement in our cities, as well as those continuing to face other barriers to civic participation. This includes those marginalized by factors like race, wealth, immigration status, and sexual orientation. The specific groups that are disadvantaged will also vary from one place to another, as will the degree to which they face inequality. As such, local leaders are obligated to thoroughly understand the landscape of their particular community so that they can respond effectively. In practice, this means that cultural competence is crucial, as cities must be able to understand and resonate with those they serve. It also means that selecting the right team is crucial for success; the messenger plays a key role in the success of any programs or efforts.
While cities may strive to help marginalized residents, some fail to tailor their efforts to the needs of the marginalized. This can happen because the needs of those who face racial discrimination, for instance, differ significantly from those who are physically disabled. The same holds true for community members who are homeless compared to those who lack technological literacy. There may be—and often is—overlap between the needs of disparate marginalized communities, but the unique needs of different groups must also be recognized. Thus, a multidimensional approach is often required to effectively and comprehensively engage with disadvantaged community members.
Best Practices in Reaching Marginalized Communities
One of the first steps for local governments is to determine which groups are marginalized in their community and why this is the case. Racial discrimination may be salient in some cities, while poverty is the main concern in others—and the potential intersection is self-evident. To avoid leaving behind those who need to be engaged most, local leaders need to promote inclusion, listening, and diverse approaches to engagement. The first step in this process is developing an understanding of the community landscape and answering questions such as: Who is in my community? What are the challenges these groups are facing? What is their relationship with the local government/my department? How can I overcome any lingering hurdles from their previous interactions with local government? What do we have to offer to meet the specific needs of this group?
When stepping into an engagement process, it is important to recognize that communities may very well have preexisting relationships and prior experiences with your department or division. Those prior experiences will influence and frame any future interactions with said community. The first step in the process is to meet the community where they are and start listening to their experiences to best understand how you can proceed to bridge divides. This process can take the form of digital and in-person surveys, facilitated discussion groups, conversations following community gatherings, and hosting an open forum. In this stage, the messenger or designated engagement officer is crucial; that individual or team must have a keen, comprehensive understanding of the space they are about to enter, as well as an ability to connect with the community. Furthermore, the messenger should already have a relationship with a trusted community leader/figure. Building relationships is part of the initial step because of the role relationships play in building connections with the entire community.
The Role of Community Leaders and Input
Community leaders, faith-based or otherwise, can assist staff in making connections with marginalized communities. Trusted figures in the community can help establish and build relationships that can serve to reach those who have been excluded. This process often requires acknowledging ways that past engagement efforts have fallen short, while openly committing to overcoming those failures. These conversations may be uncomfortable at times, but are instrumental in building trust with marginalized groups. By identifying and communicating with underprivileged community members, local leaders can assess the root causes of their deprivation. Understanding the causes of marginalization is a precondition for crafting and implementing effective solutions that are well received by all.
Facilitating conversation with marginalized communities allows local government leaders to understand their challenges, as well as the underlying causes. Once this foundational knowledge is acquired, the engagement duties of local leaders remain, but take a new form. This transition in the public engagement process shifts the focus from identifying and understanding problems to pursuing meaningful solutions. Given the unique experience of underprivileged residents, their input for possible solutions is often extremely helpful, as they are uniquely positioned to propose solutions, otherwise unconsidered, to the problems they face.6
Community input can provide guidance on the best engagement modality for the community. For example, if the community gathers for an in-person weekly faith-based service, then engagement efforts should be tailored to factor in that commitment and location. Meeting locations and times should be tailored to best fit the audience. Likewise with the means of communication. For example, if there is a language barrier, then a translator can be used to identify where the community gets their news in that language and engagement efforts can be delivered through that medium.
Marginalized individuals also tend to share a resonance with the broader marginalized community they belong to, serving as a “spokesperson” to explain what they have experienced and what changes may help. This does not mean that city leaders must rely exclusively on disadvantaged individuals and groups for solutions, or that they must implement every policy suggested by them. It does mean that the marginalized should be included in the discussions that directly affect them. Giving these groups a “seat at the table” is a major step in overcoming historic marginalization, but genuinely listening to and considering their ideas is also necessary and even obligatory.
Follow Up or Fail
The engagement process doesn’t stop with creating space at the table for marginalized communities to share input. What follows the input collection and analysis is equally as important. Community members want to feel like they have been heard and that their input made a difference. This begs the age-old engagement question: Is this worth my time? While there is no guarantee that every community member who participates in the engagement process will answer that question in the affirmative, the way to make sure that community members feel heard is by following up.
In our trainings, we have come to adopt a phrase that circulates in the recruitment community—“follow up or fail”—and we believe that applies in the engagement process as well.8 It is essential to follow up with community members and communicate that their input was received and is being considered. If that input leads to action steps in line with feedback, then you should communicate those next steps, thereby exemplifying the impact of engagement. On the other hand, if the department takes another approach, then that should be communicated as well. That conversation can take the form of acknowledging the value of feedback and emphasizing that it was a part of the decision-making process.
For most local leaders, the responsibility to engage and assist marginalized communities may be obvious. Nonetheless, it’s still worth understanding why it is worthwhile to allocate time and resources to helping these groups. When segments of the local population are excluded—historically and/or contemporaneously—this creates a barrier between people who share the same community, disrupting the social fabric. Those barriers often lead to community divisions and can jeopardize local government efforts to assist. Furthermore, those barriers can serve as a deterrent from engagement and participation in local government on the part of the community.
“Community” is not simply an abstraction, as it embodies the shared environment, experiences, customs, ambitions, and hopes that bring neighbors together. The fabric of the community is alive and vibrant, requiring consistent care and understanding in weaving it together. The marginalization of some dilutes the beauty and centrality of the community as a whole, as it excludes those who may have much to offer if given the opportunity.
Comprehensive public engagement provides the communal sensibility and experience that creates affection between community members, understanding the challenges facing their neighbors as challenges that belong to the entire community.9 Engaging and including marginalized groups replaces barriers with bridges, building trust and attachment to go with a revitalized community spirit that binds the community fabric together.
POOJA BACHANI DI GIOVANNA is the assistant director at the Davenport Institute and works on program development and delivery, communications, and strategic relations. The Davenport Institute offers an in-depth, customized training, “Engaging Marginalized Communities.” More details can be found at https://publicpolicy.pepperdine.edu/davenport-institute/.