It can help to think about a continuum with one end being where the main focus is the interests of the organisation and the other end being where the main focus is the interests of the community.If community engagement is primarily about the interests of the organisation, then I think it is appropriate to question the ethics of its community engagement.
There is no doubt that the Liaison Committee was acting in the interests of some of the park residents, but at the expense of more marginalised residents (many of whom had children).
At one level, there was good community engagement, because residents were involved in the decision-making.
Vertical community engagement is when a formal organisation (often external to the community) engages the community.
An oval shape with various types of organisations written inside it (not-for-profits, government, local councils schools, NGOs, businesses) above another oval shape with “community members” writing inside.
Clearly there will often be debates about the best way to enhance community wellbeing, but this should be part of the process.
I find it helpful to think about vertical and horizontal aspects of community engagement.Closely related to the question of motivation, is a questions around whose interests are being served.As I’ve suggested, with ethical issues, there are many grey areas and there won’t always be clear-cut answers.Community engagement should serve the interests of the community.Of course this raises questions about whose voices we are hearing from the community.When we engage a community, we need to think about whose interests within the community are being served.I would argue that we generally have an ethical responsibility to protect the interests of marginalised sections of the community and to consider whose voices are being missed in our conversations.Communities are not homogeneous – there can be competing interests within a community.As community engagement practitioners we need to think about how we will ensure that a diverse range of experiences and interests are included.As an example, while it isn’t directly community engagement, I have real problems with psychologists who have work with the gambling industry to make pokies as addictive as they can or who help advertisers create ads that cash in on children’s vulnerabilities.Following are five questions I think we need to ask ourselves as community engagement practitioners about what we do.