For those involved in community development, we know that community engagement is the heart of change. We assist groups to organize to respond to shared issues. Engagement is how people connect and act together. Sometimes these interactions can lead to shared agreement, unified investment, and sustained commitment to a solution. Sometimes the interactions can be selfish, dysfunctional, divisive, and lead to distrust and resentment. How the interactions are structured can have significant impact on the outcomes of the situation.
The Socio-ecological model of health (Bronfenbrenner, 1977) recognizes that individual health is affected not only by individual knowledge and actions, but also by the people we are surrounded with, and the habits, norms, culture, and patterns of interaction that support behavior (healthy or unhealthy). These lifestyles are, in turn, affected by the organizational and community policies, systems, and physical environments in which people live.
This isn’t just an observation. The implications are not only that we live in a place with other people. How we live in community also seems to matter. How we connect with others can have very significant implications. It can change our lives. In research on health and happiness, Robert Waldenger (November 2015 Ted Talk) notes a 75-year longevity study indicated that social networks are a key influencing factor contributing to wellbeing. In a positive correlation, more social connection and support relate to increased health and happiness. Susan Pinker (April 2017 Ted Talk) emphasizes that social integration and close relationships are the top factors contributing to living longer.
The wonderful thing about this information from the perspective of a community development practitioner, is that we can facilitate the development of these healthy interactions. In a recent CDS Fellows meeting Mary Emery summarized, “Community is centered around a sense of belonging. Belonging is being part of a structure. We can control structure.”
Designing structure for meaningful engagement is the core of what a community development practitioner does. Whether the focus is on addressing hunger, housing, poverty, business development, or a new community swimming pool, the framework of involvement can invite participation, involve people meaningfully, and support engagement. Is it important? The stakes of meaningful community engagement can impact our health, how long we live, and happiness. I would say that’s pretty important.
Bronfenbrenner, U. (1977). Toward an experimental ecology of human development. American psychologist, 32(7), 513.
Pinker, Susan (2017). The Secret to Living Longer May Be Your Social Life. Ted Talk. https://www.ted.com/talks/susan_pinker_the_secret_to_living_longer_may_be_your_social_life
Waldenger, Robert. (2015) What Makes a Good Life; Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness. Ted Talk. https://www.ted.com/talks/robert_waldinger_what_makes_a_good_life_lessons_from_the_longest_study_on_happiness
*Daniel Kahl is an Assistant Professor of community and leadership development at the University of Kentucky and Associate Director of CEDIK. He co-coordinates the 2017 Community Development Society Fellows project with Dr. Kris Hains.