How to effectively engage with a community

Are you working on a project that requires support from a community of people? Do you find it challenging to get them interested in your initiative?

Engaging with a community is often difficult. People are busy, over-committed, and overloaded with information and offers. So how can you rise above the noise to get their attention and involve them in your project? For advice on this question, I turned to an expert in the art of community engagement.

Since 2014, Laura Cuthbert has worked as an Experience Curator for Kudoz, a small start-up charity in Vancouver. Kudoz is a learning exchange: they find people from the community, called hosts, who provide learning experiences for adults with cognitive disabilities. Laura’s job is to recruit these volunteer hosts, and to work with them to develop interactive learning sessions based on their interests and passions. As she told me, “I talk, mostly to strangers, about the awesome stuff they like. Then I help them build the most exciting, most immersive, most jam-packed hour long learning experiences they can.”

Above all else, Laura is a community mobilizer — and so the perfect person to ask for advice on how to effectively engage with a community. Here are her top tips:

Community is reciprocal: what are you offering? – You’ll be more successful engaging with your community if you give back. If everyone has something to share, know what you and your experiences bring to the table. Ask yourself, what value can I provide? Share it freely. Be aware that one thing you do might be transferable to people in lots of different ways.

Know your ask, and make it clear – When reaching out to your community, be clear about what you’re asking for. What do you really need? And make sure you have back up questions. If someone can’t help you with one part, they might have insight to help with other parts of your needs. Know the other things you need, and ask for them too.

You don’t need to reinvent the wheel – Find your tribe. Connect with other people doing similar work — and if you want to be a part of the movement, work together!

Know where people stand – Don’t push people, if they aren’t interested, there’s no point in trying to convince them. The best way to sway people is through action.

Keep the feel good moments going – Be sure to spread word about the positive impact that your project is making. This could be through mail outs, blogs, videos, or letting people know in person. People want to know that their actions helped to make a difference. Be sure to tell them about the results you achieve. Show them that their contribution really matters.

Fearlessly meet people, and follow up – This can be scary, even downright daunting. But you’ve got this! Be sure to follow up. Meeting 100 people who like your project is completely worthless unless you give them a way to get involved.

How to strengthen connections within your community

You might be able to accomplish some of your goals by yourself, but you certainly don’t need to go it alone, nor should you want to. You can usually achieve a lot more by involving other people in your endeavours. Getting their help, however, is not always easy.

People in your networks can provide the information, skills, support, connections, or other resources that you need to succeed. It goes without saying that you’ll be better able to tap into these resources if your networks are big and your relationships are strong. Building these bonds does not happen overnight, however. You have to invest time and energy into strengthening these connections — both in your immediate networks and in the broader community.

Broadly, your connections with the people in your communities can be categorized as strong and weak ties. Strong ties are all the close connections within your networks: family, friends, neighbours, co-workers, etc. Strengthening these bonds helps to improve the personal relationships with the people you interact with most regularly. Like the roots of a tree, strong ties provide your base of support in life. And just like the roots of a tree, strong ties need to be consistently nourished to provide a solid foundation.

Don’t feel you need to do epic acts or commit substantial time out of your day to build up your strong ties. Some examples of small things you can do include: making a conscious effort to praise others as you go about your day; asking your professional colleagues about their lives; or making a point to have meaningful conversations with your neighbours. Even simple gestures, done regularly, can make a big difference to you and other people in your life. The key is to make these acts a regular part of your routine.

Not all connections need to be close ones. Weak ties are all the broader connections within your communities — some of these connections are with people you may know in passing (a local shopkeeper, librarian, or even a homeless person) while others may be with people you don’t know yet (a local artist, politician, or a stranger you pass on the street). Strengthening these weak ties is important because it expands the overall size of your network and makes it more robust and resilient.

Here’s a quick story to illustrate the importance of weak ties. In 2011, Mark Carras was working as a barista at the café near my apartment, which I frequented a few times a week for my morning cappuccino. At the time, I only knew Mark in passing. Then, one day, I noticed he had shaved his beard into a classic 1970s style handlebar moustache. After complimenting him on his new look, we ended up chatting a little longer than usual. That conversation was the springboard to an eventual friendship. Over time, we slowly got to know each other — at first, during my regular visits to the café, then, later on, over coffee meetings of our own. During one of our chats, I learned that Mark had done community economic development work overseas, and so I told him about an opportunity I knew about through my networks: a six-month contract to do similar work in South Africa. It was a perfect fit, bringing together Mark’s training in economics and his interests in the environment. He applied for the position, and landed the job!

Sure, he won the post based on the strength of his application — but he discovered the opportunity through his networks. When I asked Mark about the importance of weak ties to his professional development, this is what he told me: “My weak ties and my broader network have been fundamental to my success, and it all comes from a willingness to be open and make that connection and nurture that relationship. You never know where these connections will lead.” You might spend more time with the people in your immediate networks, but do not overlook the value of your weak ties. As Mark’s story shows, you never know where a casual conversation may lead — even one that begins with a friendly comment on someone’s moustache.

Every day you interact with a wide range of people from different circles – family, friends, neighbours, coworkers, acquaintances, and even strangers. These people can be a tremendous source of support and resources as you work towards your goals. Getting their help, however, can be challenging. You have to find a way to engage them, and give them an appealing reason to get involved.

No matter how you make your pitch, your chances of success will be greater if you have established strong connections within the communities you belong to. When social ties are strong, people feel more connected and are more inclined to help and support one another. The good news is that anyone can strengthen their community connections. All it takes is deliberate and consistent practice, and a mindset of giving back.

The best part: strengthening your connections is good for you. Getting more connected within your community helps to give you a sense that you belong, reduces social isolation, improves your health and well-being, and can lead to more personal and professional opportunities. And you might just find that a stranger becomes a trusted friend.

Jump in: A guide to changing the world

Margaret Stacey has a long history in the arts and theatre community in Nelson. For seventeen years, she managed the historic Capitol Theatre, a beautifully restored 426-seat gem that has hosted a veritable catalogue of theatrical productions over the years, from Annie to Oliver! to Sweeney Todd.

Her work at the Capitol Theatre, and later as a two-term City Councillor, has had an immeasurable impact on the town’s budding arts scene. However, I wasn’t in Nelson to talk with Margaret about her past day job. I was there to ask her about what she does in her downtime.

For the thirty-plus years that Margaret has lived in Nelson, she has been creating large art installations in her free time. What’s remarkable is she has given almost all of her artwork back to the community. Her self-described “big canvas” pieces – ranging from wall-sized murals to theatrical set pieces to eight-foot-tall poster art – have all been donated over the years to local churches, theatres, schools, and to other good causes. “I have none around the house and a scant photo record,” Margaret told me. “I tend to give it all away.”

It’s this spirit of giving that brought me to Nelson. I was there to interview Margaret as part of The Better World Tour, a coast-to-coast journey from Vancouver to Halifax in search of Canadians who are endeavouring to make their world a better place for everyone.

The four-week road trip took me to eleven different cities across our vast country. On each stop, I met with ordinary people who are doing something remarkable to make a positive change in their community – from a school teacher in Vancouver who cycled around the globe to raise awareness around the inhumanity of mental illness stigma, to a community activist in Winnipeg who created an “anti-gang” to encourage Aboriginal youth to embrace their unique gifts and culture, to a social innovator in Toronto who is transforming under-utilized spaces in her community to encourage positive behaviour.

I wanted to know what drives these community-champions, what they’ve learned from their endeavours, and what advice they have for others who wish to make a positive change in their own communities.

Just Jump In, The Water’s Fine

Back in Nelson, Margaret took me on an impromptu trip around town to show me some of her artwork. We stopped in the alleyway behind the Capitol Theatre to view the murals that cover its back wall. Standing in front of the large painted images that depict some of the shows that have played at the theatre, I asked Margaret what’s the biggest lesson she has gleaned from all her years of giving back. “If a person has skills of any kind, there’s always a way to use them, wake them up, try them out, hone them in some way to animate their surrounding sphere of influence,” she explained. “The water is fine – jump in.”

Her advice to “jump in” was echoed by all of the people I talked with on my trip. “Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will,” as Michael Schratter put it. He is the Vancouver teacher who took a leave of absence from his job to ride his Norco Cabot, loaded down with 105-pounds of gear and water, the equatorial distance of the globe. Cycling 40,000 kilometres in all, the Homeric odyssey took him through 33 countries and six continents, before returning home to Vancouver a year and a half later.

His round-the-world solo bike ride was much more than a super-sized adventure, however. Fueling the trip was a highly personal cause. Driven by his experiences with bi-polar disorder, and the shame associated with it, Michael used his global tour to draw attention to the stigma surrounding mental illness. He called his journey Ride Don’t Hide.

After completing his trip, Ride Don’t Hide became an annual community bike ride in support of the Canadian Mental Health Association. This year, rides were hosted in 27 communities across Canada, and raised over one million dollars for youth and family mental health initiatives.

“The key is not to let the long exciting road ahead loom so large and daunting as to prevent the first little step forward, a first step that can be any small task that progresses your vision along,” Michael told me. “As Nike says, just do it!”

So if you want to make a difference in your own community – whether that means starting a new social movement or simply practicing the art of giving more regularly – take a page from the book of these change-makers. Just jump in.

Follow Your Passion

“Do you like mosquitoes?” Dr. Frog asked me in an over-the-top French accent. “Not really, why?” I replied. “We are having a mosquito barbecue later,” Frog deadpanned.

The quip is just one of many dished out by Dr. Frog, who roamed the corridors of St. Justine’s Children’s Hospital in Montreal along with a second clown-doctor named Dr. Oups. Dressed in a long white coat, accessorized with cowboy hat and boots, and wearing a bright red clown nose, Dr. Frog shuffled down the hallway looking to inject a lighthearted moment of humour into the day of the next person he met.

Dr. Frog, aka Alexis Roy, is one of 26 clown-doctors who work with The Jovia Foundation, a non-profit organization that runs therapeutic clown programs in hospitals and healthcare facilities in Montreal and Quebec City. I was in Montreal to interview Jovia’s co-founder, Melissa Holland, about their work to spread joy and laughter amongst patients and their families.

As Melissa guided me through St. Juntine’s hallways, I asked her how Jovia came to be. Reflecting on her indoctrination into the art of clowning, Melissa beamed, “While studying acting, I had studied clown and loved it. It was the most fun, creative, imaginative work I had ever done.”

As serendipity would have it, Melissa landed a six-month contract working as a clown-doctor while she was living in Scotland in the summer of 1999. Melissa knew she had found her calling. “I could be silly, stupid, vulnerable, and make sick children laugh, and get paid for it,” she told me. “I had indeed found my vocation.”

In 2000, when her visa was up in Scotland, Melissa moved back home with the idea to start a new therapeutic clown program in Montreal. It did not take long for that glint of an idea to become reality. Melissa connected with a few others who shared her passion and, within a year, they had written a business plan that won a start-up grant, secured funds to pay for them to work two days a week at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, and got their charitable status. Jovia was born.

After spending the day with Melissa, it was easy to see why she’s been so successful in realizing her vision. Her love for her craft is palpable. Like many of the other change-makers I interviewed on my trip, Melissa chose to follow the road less travelled in life, one that’s guided by a genuine passion for what she does.

The importance of following your passion cannot be overstated – it is the fuel that powers you forward. Whether your interests are in high fashion or high-tech doesn’t really matter. By focusing your efforts on something you care deeply about, you will naturally strive to go higher and further in taking action. In the words of German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, “Nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion.” Don’t lose sight of what lights you up.

Assess Your Skills And Put Them To Use

Matt Carter sat across the table from me in a small, bustling cafe in downtown Fredericton. Like many Maritimers, Matt has an affable demeanour that makes breaking the ice a breeze. Within minutes, we were musing about our shared interest for the now-defunct CBC radio program Brave New Waves, before I segued into my interview. I was there to speak with him about his efforts to unite his community through music.

Matt has a long history in the local arts and music scene in Fredericton. Back in the 90s, he orchestrated all-ages shows that featured some of the country’s best underground acts of the day. Then, life and career took him in other directions.

Fifteen years later, Matt decided he wanted to re-engage with the music and arts community in New Brunswick’s capital city. At the same time that Matt was pondering new ways to connect local artists with the broader public, Fredericton’s free events listings weekly, Here Magazine, stopped publication. Matt decided to step up and seize the occasion. So in October 2014, he launched Grid City Magazine, a free online zine that provides listings for events, interviews with local artists, photo essays, videos, and more.

Sipping our coffees, I asked Matt what’s the most important thing he has learned from his work in the community. “Embrace your individuality,” he said matter of factly. “Everyone has something unique they bring to the table. It could be an artistic skill, the ability to solve problems, or just the gift of looking beyond the immediate task at hand and seeing the greater picture. A strong community relies on the sum of its parts.”

His remarks underscore the importance of knowing your strengths. Identifying your particular skills and competencies, and then applying them to something you care about, is a sure-fire way to leave your mark on the world.

Matt leveraged his own skills in project management, communications, and the visual arts to make a positive contribution to his community. “I work well with a checklist and have always enjoyed crossing tasks off of my to-do list,” Matt told me, when I ask him about his strong suits, adding “I do a lot of writing and photography these days and I credit my formative years in the scene for helping me develop those skills.”

Fueled by a passion for music, and drawing on his organizational, communication and artistic skills, Matt Carter was able to convert his ideas into reality. To translate your own passion into a real-world contribution, first assess your strengths and then find a way to put them to use for your community. By applying your unique abilities to an issue you care about, you’ll have everything you need to change your own corner of the world.

Articulate Your Vision For A Better Future

I met Meredith Brown at her third-floor office off a busy street in the west end of Ottawa. After some small talk she handed me a business card. Glancing down at the card, I quickly found what I was looking for. There, below her name, stood a lone word set in blue italics… Riverkeeper. The unusual job title is the reason I was there.

“That must serve as great conversation fodder at cocktail parties,” I joked, as I settled into the seat opposite her desk. “It is a bit of a daunting job title,” Meredith confessed, adding modestly, “but I am honoured to be the Riverkeeper.”

The waterway in question is the Ottawa River, which flows just a few blocks north of her office. Aided by a dedicated team of staff and volunteers, her role as Riverkeeper is to protect the river and its tributaries. “It’s my job to understand what is threatening the health of the river and who is ultimately responsible or accountable for fixing the problems,” Meredith explained to me. Easier said than done.

It’s a formidable task given the sheer size of the river system. The Algonquin people, who lived along its banks, called the river “Kitchissippi”, meaning “Great River”. The name certainly rings true. From its headwaters in the Laurentian Mountains of central Quebec, the river runs over 1200 kilometres before draining into the St. Lawrence River at Montreal. Its watershed is the size of Bangladesh – more than 140,000 square kilometres – and includes over 200 municipalities in Ontario and Quebec.

“When I was hired I was a one-person team,” Meredith told me, when I asked her about the early days of the Ottawa Riverkeeper organization. “So I got to work building a community of volunteers and supporters with a passion for freshwater protection. Fast-forward 12 years and I now have a team of eight staff and hundreds of volunteers who help us.”

After chatting at her office for a short while, we drove over to Victoria Island, which divides the river where it narrows between central Ottawa and Gatineau, Quebec. For centuries, the island was used by the Algonquin people as a sacred place for gatherings, trading, and celebrations. As we followed the path from the parking lot to the edge of the river, I asked Meredith what advice she would give others who want to make a positive contribution to their own communities. “Never lose sight of your goal and find a compelling way to articulate your vision,” she told me.

It’s good advice. A well-crafted vision is like a guiding light, which brings to life the change you wish to see in the world. Consider one of the most celebrated speeches of the 20th century: Addressing a crowd of over 250,000 people from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. shared his vision to end racial segregation and discrimination in the United States. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” he roared, using his unparalleled skills as an orator to paint a picture of a better future he saw possible.

As with King’s famous speech, a compelling vision is both accessible and aspirational. It communicates your goals in a way that resonates with people and inspires them to take action. To change the world – even if it’s just your small part of it – first visualize the better future you want to achieve, and then find a way to articulate your vision so it will connect authentically with the hearts and minds of others.

Enroll Others In Your Dream

Michael Redhead Champagne, aka the North End MC, was born and raised in the North End of Winnipeg, an inner-city neighbourhood with a history of poverty and violence. Growing up, Michael witnessed firsthand the drawing power of gangs on youth in his neighbourhood. So at the age of 23, he decided to do something about it.

In 2010, Michael created AYO! Aboriginal Youth Opportunities, an “anti-gang” that encourages Aboriginal youth to embrace their unique gifts in order to create new opportunities in the community. “Our beginnings as an anti-gang are rooted in the fact that gangs were highly effective at attracting teenagers in our community,” Michael explained to me, while we chatted at an eerily empty cafeteria located on campus at the University of Winnipeg. “We recognized that if we wanted to engage young people as successfully as street gangs we needed to replace the allure of crime with something more attractive. That something else was an opportunity to be a leader, a student, and to have a place to belong – a family.”

Early on, Michael realized the importance of enrolling others in his dream. But how do you get people involved in building your vision when it’s still a glimmer in your mind’s eye? For Champagne, this meant embracing traditional teachings he had learned about the Medicine Wheel, which have been part of Indigenous cultures for thousands of years. His approach is to use the four dimensions of the Medicine Wheel as guideposts for moving your idea forward:

  • Spirit: In the early stages, share your idea with those who will nurture, support, and care for it. This can include your family, friends, or anyone else who is supportive to your cause. These “safe” conversations will teach you how to express the true spirit of your idea with others.
  • Body: Proceed to share your idea with a wider range of people. This is a stage of constructive criticism, so be open to feedback from others. Write down your goals, intended outcomes, and potential helpers – this will give your idea a body.
  • Heart: Tap into the emotional reasons for realizing your vision, and share these authentically with others. Seek out people who, like you, believe the world needs the idea. Once you’ve engaged them on an emotional level, invite them to get involved.
  • Mind: Now that you’ve won their hearts, it’s time to connect with their minds. Make an action plan, and bring your helpers together to take your first steps. Give people tasks that leverage their gifts and abilities. Focus on those who show up, not on those who don’t.

Near the end of our interview, I asked Michael to reflect on the most valuable lesson he has learned through his work as a community builder. Taking a moment to contemplate, he eloquently observed, “A single strand of sweetgrass is weak, but many strands together in a braid is strong.” Never have truer words been spoken.