Community members are at the heart of healthy communities. They include all who live, learn, work, play, and pray in communities. Community members may have a formal leadership role in a community organization, or friends and neighbors may recognize them as the person who gets things done. Residents or students who may not yet be leaders are often waiting for an invitation to get involved.
Why should community members be involved in building healthy communities?
Simply put, lasting change cannot happen without active community involvement.
Community members have important lived experience. They are context experts, and can provide critical insights into the dynamics at play in local communities.1
- Bring a breadth and depth of local knowledge. They know what solutions will work.
- Are community historians. They know what has and hasn’t worked in the past.
- Can help identify and connect with community leaders -- both formal and informal.
- Bring their own constituencies, knowledge, and clout.
- Can identify and access resources within the community.2
If the problems are in the community, the solutions are in the community.Gil Friedell
What can community members do to build healthy communities?
Community members who embrace their power can make significant impacts in their communities.
In his book, You Are More Powerful Than You Think, Eric Liu defines power simply. He writes: “Power is the capacity to ensure that others do as you would want them to do.”
So how do community members harness their power? Begin with curiosity. Community members can begin to understand the power structures around them by exploring the question: Who decides?
Knowing who decides any given issue begins the process of unpacking how power works.
- Who decides? Who’s in the room? Who isn’t in the room?
- What issues are decided? What gets on the agenda? For everything that makes it on the agenda, there are other things that are left behind.
- How are they decided? What rules apply?3
When community members can identify what is decided, how, and by whom, they can begin to map out how they can influence decisions and decision-makers on issues that matter to them.
Civic actions give community members power to improve their community and a say in the policies that impact their lives and their health.4
Civic actions can include:
- Voting -- VoteSmart.org provides unbiased information on candidates and elected officials. Search using an elected official’s name or zip code.
- Community organizing -- The process of individuals coming together to promote a common interest or cause. Building relationships and giving people a sense of their own power are key parts of community organizing.
- Participating in the political process -- Attending and testifying at public meetings or engaging in participatory budgeting.
Government is both a partner and lever in the process of civic engagement. Learn more about the Government’s role in building healthy communities in our Government guide.
Communities in Baltimore rallied their power around an unprecedented $1.1 billion plan to rebuild and renovate the city’s crumbling schools. Learn more about their efforts.
There is power in numbers. One of the easiest ways community members can make an impact is to connect with groups already working in the community.
Community members can start with the places where they are already engaged. This could be a:
- Place of worship
- School or child care center
- Neighborhood Association
There are many grassroots organizations rooted in the community. See the breakout below for a few examples of national networks.
More and more, organizations are interested in working with community members to identify and solve issues. Organizations that often lead health improvement efforts include your local public health department, hospital, United Way, Federally Qualified Health Clinic, county or municipal planning departments, or community foundations.
Community members can also take the lead by connecting with others and starting improvement efforts. They begin with conversations between friends, family, and neighbors about their experiences.
Not sure where to start?
These national organizations assist community members to organize their efforts. They can help you find and connect with ongoing efforts in your community.
- 100 Million Healthier Lives is committed to building healthier communities. Check out their Map of the Movement to find efforts near you.
- Industrial Areas Foundation is a network of local faith and community-based groups working on a variety of issues ranging from voter engagement to community building to financial reform. Find affiliates near you.
- Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) works with local leaders to invest in housing, health, education, public safety, and employment. They bring together key local players to take on pressing challenges and incubate new solutions. They offer a useful toolkit including loans, grants, equity investments, and on-the-ground experience in some of the most vulnerable communities. Check out the network map.
- National PTA can help you find and connect with your local PTA.
- PICO is a national network of faith-based community organizations working to create innovative solutions to problems facing urban, suburban, and rural communities. PICO helps engage ordinary people in public life, building a strong legacy of leadership in thousands of local communities across America. Find PICO in your community.
How can you connect with community members?
Lead with people, not solutions. Connecting with community members is first about building relationships. It is the most important part of creating change.
Here are some ways you can do that:
- Identify the groups that are already working with community members. The community is already organized. Places of worship, neighborhood associations, and parent groups may be good places to start.
- Meet people where they are. Go to neighborhood meetings. Door knocking is also a very effective way to engage people in your efforts.
- Talk to people and with people, not at people. Find out what is important to them. What do they care about? What is their interest in your issue? Understanding Resident Perspectives: A Guide for One-on-One Conversations from M+R can help.
Community members are context experts -- they can provide insights into the history and culture of a community. They are organizers and networkers. It’s critical to value their expertise.
Here are some ways to demonstrate value:
- Provide compensation. Consider ways to give something to community members for their time. This could be in the form of money, gift cards, or food.
- Create a community or resident advisory board or create some designated slots for community members on existing coalitions.
- Include youth.
- Invest in leadership development.
- Make it easy for community members to participate. Here are some tips:
- Schedule your events at times and in places that are easily accessible.
- Provide food, childcare, and transportation if needed.
- Arrange for translation for those who don't speak English.
What’s in it for them?
People get involved when they see value in the work for themselves or the people they care about. As you build relationships, you can get a sense of what those interests might be.
More generally, community members:
- Benefit from a healthy community.
- Have ownership and pride in their communities and want to make an impact.
- Can exercise their power through civic engagement.
- Boyea-Robinson T. Just Change: How to Collaborate for Lasting Impact. Charleston, SC: Advantage Media Group; 2016.
- Wolff T. The Power of Collaborative Solutions. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass; 2010.
- Citizen University. (2016). Citizen University TV Ep3: Who Decides. https://youtu.be/NUnlaiUD2J8
- Chandra A, Miller CE, Acosta JD, Weilant S, Trujillo M, Plough A. Drivers Of Health As A Shared Value: Mindset, Expectations, Sense Of Community, And Civic Engagement. Health Aff (Millwood). 2016;35(11):1959-1963. doi:10.1377/hlthaff.2016.0603.