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Community Engagement in Democracy Building Term Paper

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Updated: Sep 17th, 2020


Engaging communities in social, political, economic, and cultural processes have been recognized as a major element in building well-functioning democratic societies. The important role of a community is explained by the understanding that “community-based organizations strongly predict collective efficacy and collective civic action” (Sampson 209). It is noteworthy that communities are not just units of social interaction but rather more complex entities; indeed, they should be regarded as environments where internal interactions constantly occur, thus generating narratives, establishing agendas, and raising issues. However, there are also interactions between these environments, and they influence both society and public administration. Active communities, or those that are willing to participate in social processes beyond themselves and affect regulations and policy-making, make a positive contribution to the development of democracy (Butin and Seider vii). The reason for this connection is that those communities that opt for active engagement adopt the attitudes and positions of civil society members instead of estranging themselves from public administration decision-making.

Within recent decades, a remarkable body of academic literature has been dedicated to community engagement. The primary focuses of these studies have been on the various forms of engaging communities in public life and social justice processes. These forms may differ in terms of organization, style, ethos, and policy approaches. Also, it is important to differentiate between two directions of community engagement. On the one hand, it can be encouraged and organized by public administrators who ask citizens, for example, to “help identify and prioritize neighborhood problems for action” (Skogan 101). On the other hand, communities may be willing to participate in public life without encouragement, as they “make decisions about what issues to address…build the networks of relationships through which [community] members are invited to…actions, and link these local efforts to broader citywide organizing projects” (Wood 23). These and other aspects of community engagement initiatives need to be addressed to explore what a “good city” (in the context of community engagement) may look like in the future.

Encouraging Communities to Engage

The first form of community engagement is the effort made by public administrators aimed at encouraging communities to participate in social and political processes. A distinct feature of this form is that engagement is initiated from above by administrative bodies seeking support from communities. First of all, it should be noted that bureaucracies in their classical form are often unwilling to carry out such engagement efforts. When a bureaucratic system is established, it assumes control over policy-making, and it is inherently focused on itself and its internal operations and procedures instead of involving members of the general public in decision-making. This characteristic of bureaucracies has been repeatedly discussed in classical political science literature—for instance, by Weber, who explored bureaucratic power relations (15). In this work, it is concluded that “a ‘societal action,’ which is methodically ordered and led, is superior to every resistance of ‘mass’ or even of ‘communal action.’ And where the bureaucratization of administration has been completely carried through, a form of power relation is established that is practically unshatterable” (Weber 15-16). This shows that bureaucracies tend to resist community engagement because they strive to control societal actions and do want to not share their privilege of performing those actions with anyone beyond their system of operation.

Public administrators generally prefer to act according to the rules of the bureaucratic systems of which they are apart. There is also the issue of lack of trust in the public, which contributes to bureaucrats’ unwillingness to involve communities in policy-making. However, there have been examples of authorities striving to encourage communities to participate, thus overcoming the predisposition to resist such participation. One of these examples is an initiative established in Chicago, Illinois, called Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS). The program was announced by the city police department to encourage residents to help the police deal with crime in particular neighborhoods across the city. The rationale for this program was law enforcement’s recognition that “the police alone cannot solve the City’s crime problems. It takes a combined effort of police, community, and City government working together” (Skogan 104). Under CAPS, people were asked to attend meetings where they could discuss topical issues and challenges and communicate them to the authorities.

Moreover, it was especially stressed that the meetings were not designed for residents to come and complain; instead, people were asked to do something to help the police. Since the program was funded from the city budget with taxpayers’ money, it was especially important for the authorities to convey to the public the idea that they were being allowed to act, which is exactly what they were paying taxes for. CAPS was not the only form of civic engagement in Chicago, and observations over several years showed that people who attended CAPS meetings were more likely to participate in other public organizations, activities, and initiatives, indicating a higher level of civic engagement among attendees than non-attendees (Skogan 120). At the meetings, residents mostly discussed social disorder, public drinking in their areas, drugs, and gang activity. A particularly important discovery made in the CAPS program was that the highest attendance rates were seen in the most underprivileged, violent, and drug-filled neighborhoods and the areas with the lowest rates of health care and lowest-quality education. Skogan notes that “residents of many of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods had a place to go to get help” (137), a place where they could be heard by public administrators. This is a valuable finding because it shows that community engagement may be driven by people’s utter discontent with the social situation in which they live and with the authorities’ efforts to address the situation.

Similar efforts were made in Seattle, Washington, where community engagement was pursued through the creation of neighborhood centers. These facilities often shared space with other municipal services, such as police departments or libraries, and served as a location for residents to come to deal with a wide range of administration-related issues. For example, in neighborhood centers, residents could pay their utility bills and parking or traffic tickets and receive business licenses and passport services. Further, residents could also sign up for educational and training programs. Most importantly, neighborhood centers held meetings where people could discuss their concerns and suggest actions (Sirianni 78). Because there were mechanisms in place for translating the results of discussion into actual policies, residents had an opportunity to participate in neighborhood planning. This shaped the paradigm of collaborative governance; investing in the initiative was regarded by the city’s public administrators as contributing to a more democratic form of city management.

Bureaucratic systems are designed in a way that makes them reluctant to share their responsibilities. When bureaucrats view public administration as a function of which they are in charge, they tend to estrange residents and members of the general public from participating in administrative processes. One of the factors of this estrangement is that authorities may consider residents incompetent or incapable of addressing administrative issues. However, the examples mentioned above demonstrate that sometimes public administrators do look to the help of residents and encourage them to participate by creating environments in which they can share experiences, discuss issues, and suggest actions. This form of community engagement can be beneficial in terms of providing authorities with feedback and support from communities.

Communities’ Self-Organizing for Engagement

A different form of community engagement is the grassroots movement. Such movements occur when a community organizes itself into a manageable structure that creates networks of cooperation and employs tools for interacting with public administrators. The purpose of such interactions is to influence various aspects of decision-making that affect members of the community. An example of this form of community engagement was demonstrated in San Antonio, Texas, where a local community initiated a job training program and managed to receive funding for it from the mayor. The achievement was carried out by a self-organized body called Communities Organized for Public Service (COPS). Acting as public speakers and community representatives, COPS members proposed an approach to job training that was different from the existing options provided by official administrators (Warren 187). The group’s main effort was aimed at persuading city authorities to fund the program and support it. After several years of implementation, monitoring, and evaluating, the job training program designed and introduced by the community was confirmed to be effective, as the employment rates among program graduates were higher than those among participants of different job training programs. This is an example of how a local community concerned about a particular social issue (in this case—unemployment and the ineffectiveness of job training) can demonstrate a coordinated effort in introducing a solution and influencing public administrators. Inspired by this case, Warren compared it to the biblical story about dry bones coming together and growing flesh as a symbol of community revival (3). However, uniting around daunting social problems is not the only possible way for communities to become engaged in public management.

Another group of examples comprises cases where existing self-organized structures become more empowered over time and more willing to participate in social and political processes. In the United States, such cases are often associated with church communities. The role of the church in the emergence of engaged communities and the creation of cooperative networks should not be underestimated. Churches not only bring together people who share the same faith, but they are also places where people know each other, see each other regularly, and work together for a common purpose (for example, managing charity projects). Therefore, congregations are often established organizations with organized inner operations that know how to cooperate and manage tasks. This is why church communities are more likely to succeed when dealing with public administrators.

Upon reviewing a case of a local organizing community at a Catholic church, Wood concludes that “the best faith-based organizing federations have matured organizationally to the point that they can sustain collaborative partnerships with elected officials while simultaneously using conflict constructively” (51). Church communities do not merely raise particular issues and appeal to public authorities regarding those issues (although they may do this, too); rather, they maintain contact with public administrators and commit to communicating with decision-makers. This continuous engagement requires communities to be organized and systematic. An important aspect of this form of organization is that it features a balance of forces among lay leaders, clergypersons, and staff organizers; under these circumstances, no single party unilaterally controls the structure, which facilitates higher flexibility and ensures a better quality of decisions. Community engagement in the given example is driven by committees built according to the democratic values and principles of the people in these communities, as opposed to engagement organized by authorities and public administrators. Similar conclusions were made by Sampson, who studied church communities in Chicago and stated that churches are the most promising environments in terms of organizing civil society structures and promoting community engagement (204). The very nature of a congregation facilitates its role as an engaged community.

Another example of grassroots community engagement comes from a group known as the DREAMers. This is a term used to describe a political group and a community of supporters that advocated for the adoption of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. The proposed legislation was designed to protect the rights of undocumented young people in the United States. A particularly interesting aspect of this case is that before engaging in a political and social discussion as DREAMers, these people were not a community per se. They were young people from immigrant families who grew up in the United States and considered themselves Americans. However, at a certain age (usually upon graduating from high school), they faced numerous complications associated with their legal status. Without a social security number, they could not apply for college or scholarships, receive a license, or complete several other legal acts. Many of these young women and men had not even known that they were undocumented, and this discovery was shocking for them. An awareness campaign brought these people together, as they learned that they were not alone and that there were people who were willing to help them (Nicholls 49). Moreover, there were political forces that supported them. Undocumented young people from all over the country combined their efforts and created a political group to advocate for the DREAM Act.

The goal of the DREAMers was to convince the public that they deserved residency and equal rights; the challenge was that the DREAMers faced a highly xenophobic environment in which many people held negative attitudes toward immigrants. The community of undocumented youth conducted a comprehensive communication campaign to convey to the public that they were “good immigrants” (Nicholls 56) who respected the American lifestyle and traditions, which is why they should be treated as Americans at an institutional level. In the early 2000s, after September 11 and other terrorist attacks, immigrants were widely seen as a threat, and the purpose of the DREAMers’ campaign was to transform their negative image into “sources of economic, civic, and moral rejuvenation” (Nicholls 49). After growing into a separate immigrant rights movement by 2010, the DREAMers declared themselves to be a community and political group willing to act. The movement even published its manifesto: “We organized ourselves and created our strategy, used new tactics and we rejected the passivity of the nonprofit industrial complex. At a moment when hope seemed scarce, we forged new networks of solidarity. We declared ourselves undocumented and unafraid!” (Nicholls 75).

This movement exemplifies how people from different backgrounds who shared a common issue united into a structure that can be described as a community and publicly declared their goals. By becoming involved in an extensive social discussion, the community demonstrated its readiness to engage in decision-making and became an important consideration for legislators. The DREAMers made efforts to acquire social and legal status and benefits through an active public information campaign, thus contributing to the immigrant rights discussion on the national level. Even though the DREAM Act was not adopted, the DREAMers became a significant political force. In the context of community engagement, they showed that not only self-organized structures (e.g. congregations) and local groups (e.g. neighborhood councils) can become communities that are involved in social and political processes, but also that people who have similar social problems can form communities and participate in policy-making even though they live far from each other and have not previously had networks of cooperation.

Benefits of Community Engagement

For both forms of community engagement, there are recognized benefits for all involved parties, including both communities and public administrators. The most widely acknowledged benefit is that community engagement makes a positive contribution to the proper functioning of democratic institutions. Democracy needs engagement because, without the participation of citizens, public administration is deprived of feedback and support, which increases the risk of making poor decisions (Hughes 167). Communities are precisely the structures most capable of providing such feedback and support, especially when they are organized, have representatives and mechanisms of self-regulation, and are willing to be involved in public administration. For this reason, some researchers regard community-building as a way of revitalizing American democracy (Warren 10). Engaged communities act not only as sources of support and feedback for public administrators’ initiatives but also as critics and structures that control policy-making in a sense. This improves democratic procedures by creating a system of mutual control and division of power (Wood 50). Finally, engagement is beneficial for the communities themselves. In the context of self-organization, the “totality of the institutional infrastructure…seems to matter in producing healthy communities” (Sampson 209). When aiming for participating in public administration, communities adopt certain organizational tools and become united around common goals, which makes them stronger and more productive. An engaged community is an empowered community, which is beneficial both for its members and the quality of governance.


Upon comparing and contrasting different forms of community engagement, it becomes clear that there are two major types: engagement that is encouraged and facilitated by public administrators and engagement that is self-organized. The former occurs when authorities strive to collect feedback and gain support from communities despite the resistance of bureaucratic systems. The latter occurs when communities create networks of cooperation and appeal to authorities to address certain social and political issues. Both types of engagement have potential benefits for communities in the form of empowerment, as well as for public administrators in the form of building a more democratic system of control and division of power. In a “good city” as viewed by researchers and political scientists today, communities are engaged and more willing to participate in social and political processes, thus establishing an environment in which policy-making is more collaborative and more oriented toward the needs of citizens.

Works Cited

Butin, Dan, and Scott Seider, editors. The Engaged Campus: Certificates, Minors, and Majors as the New Community Engagement. Springer, 2012.

Hughes, Owen E. Public Management and Administration. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Nicholls, Walter. The DREAMers: How the Undocumented Youth Movement Transformed the Immigrant Rights Debate. Stanford University Press, 2013.

Sampson, Robert J. Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Sirianni, Carmen. Investing in Democracy: Engaging Citizens in Collaborative Governance. Brookings Institution Press, 2009.

Skogan, Wesley G. “Police and Community in Chicago: A Tale of Three Cities.” Studies in Crime and Public Policy, edited by Michael Tonry and Norval Morris, Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 100-137.

Warren, Mark R. Dry Bones Rattling: Community Building to Revitalize American Democracy. Princeton University Press, 2001.

Weber, Max. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Edited by H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, Oxford University Press, 1968.

Wood, Richard L. Faith in Action: Religion, Race, and Democratic Organizing in America. University of Chicago Press, 2002.

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