“Community Engagement” has become a significant buzzword not just in library circles, but across all kinds of social service-oriented entities. Here in our little town of Shaker Heights (pop. <30,000), I work with no less than 5 folks from other agencies with “Community Engagement” in their job titles–at our schools, the recreation department, churches, and early childhood centers. As the digital environment grows and encompasses us all, service organizations are learning that in order to remain essential to our communities, we must go meet our residents where they are, and we must engage our neighbors more deeply in order to meet their needs.
From my perspective, the most important element and driving force of CE is simply the practice of building relationships. Whether the relationship you are developing is with another organization, with leaders in your community, or with a resident of your service district, every relationship matters. Local organizations might be potential partners, with whom you can share resources in order to provide stronger and more accessible services to your community. Local leaders set the tone for the issues your neighborhood will focus on and care about, and they can help you access new resources or lend you much-needed support for a new project. Your residents are the beating heart of your community, wherever you are, and strong relationships with residents will help you achieve deeper engagement within your neighborhoods. Taking the time to nurture relationships on all levels yields significant opportunities to work together to improve the lives of everyone we serve.
A lot of the goal-setting we do in our CE work at SHPL is based on research we are borrowing from social science literature on social capital and asset-based community development. Ultimately, we see ourselves as community builders who seek to facilitate connections among our community in order to strengthen it and grow the social capital our residents have available to them. These connections don’t have to just be between the library and community members–if we know two of our contacts at different orgs share similar goals, and we facilitate a connection so they can work together, we know we’ve done our part to help our community grow.
There’s so much more to explore in how libraries fit into this puzzle as unique community assets. Over time at the ELC, we’ll be discussing how relationships have led to wonderful collaborations in our own communities. How has a connection or relationship enriched your life lately? Tell us in the comments!