Why bother with community engagement, anyway?

April 11, 2010 – 9:43 pm


In the past couple of weeks I have been confronted by many aspects of the community engagement debate. Angry residents questioning my integrity as I try to help them with a local environmental problem I’d say qualifies as a “wicked problem” in their neighbourhood.


Then I experience my own neighbours resisting the changes that dual occupancy (or accessory units) might bring to their subdivision of half-acre lots.


And then, finally, a wealthy developer with a large site asking why we needed to bother with community engagement at all – when there are (apparently) no activists or “greenies” in this (a large country town) community and there are no frogs or anything that could be considered endangered.


Or that anyone would get in a lather about or go to the press about”¦


In a (somewhat) small voice I was muttering to myself about an “engaged citizenry” being a value in its own right.


Who would do community engagement for a living?


I would.


I keep at it, trying to help where I can, accepting that to some I am a “mercenary”, or the hired gun of the developers who are paving over paradise.


And to others, I am a hopeless, naive optimist who does not understand the “bottom line”.


All these personae.


The same me.


The best part of this very challenging period was an unexpected phone call last night from an old friend – a prominent developer – encouraging me and bolstering my spirits. We’ve been friends for nearly thirty years. He had the same thing to say about his profession, recounting a conversation over lunch last week with a fellow developer: who could be a developer?


Vale Arne Naess



Last year we mourned the death of the great Norwegian environmental philosopher, Arne Naess, father of Deep Ecology and the first Chairman of Greenpeace Norway when it was founded in 1988.


See: https://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/jan/15/obituary-arne-naess


I was blessed to have heard him speak on two occasions: once in Melbourne and once in Killarney, Ireland.


The frontier is long


Naess, who was 96 when he died in January, 2009, reminded us that “the frontier is long”.


The community engagement frontier is long, too. There’s a place for all of us working for reform and seeking to empower communities.


Naess’s birthday was the day before mine. He was my hero.


I want to be working for reform when I am 96, too.


I may not have the wealth of the greedy developer with his cynical and opportunistic views of community engagement.


Hopefully, my ethical self will be alive.


And hopefully, I will still be having provocative weeks like the last few – to remind me what my life is for.


And why, like Arne, I am here on Earth!


Why bother with community engagement, anyway? Because it’s important!