Random thoughts on engaging people

In the run up to our Engage 2014 conference, we are exploring the conference themes of 'Captivating places; Captivating ideas; Captivating people: Unlocking the potential of curiosity-driven engagement'. Here, Budd Hall, UNESCO Chair in Community-Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education, shares his thoughts on engaging people.

Friends at NCCPE have invited me to write a blog about one of the themes of the up-coming conference on Engagement in December (which I am looking forward to attending). Blogs are the most fun to write, aside from poetry, as they are the freest forms of expression these days. Say what you want! Tell anyone who cares to read what you are thinking about! They presume an invisible audience and long for some interaction. So I thought it might be interesting to write about engaging people.

The venerable Oxford Dictionary is often a good place to start. The first definition of engagement that is found there is a promise to get married. The second refers to an event of some kind, an engagement with the Director of the NCCPE at 4 pm for example. Finally to the nub of the issue with definition number three, engagement is “The action of engaging or being engaged”. Hmm. Not as helpful as I had hoped. Engagement appears to be a concept that is relatively devoid of any precise meaning. Aside from the relationship to the marital process, arguably the most precise meaning, engagement as a group noun is up for grabs. It can mean anything whatsoever. We can engage with the enemy, engage with the political world, engage with the market, and engage with social movements. This quality of flexible, open, contradictory, or vague meaning lends our word engagement wonderfully to a world of organisational discourse where keeping all sides happy or all options open counts far more than clarity towards a given social purpose.

But when people ask me what my work is about, I often say it is about community-university engagement. This stops most people cold, so I don’t need to get more precise. But if we are going to continue to meet together in conferences or in offices that use these terms, we need to talk about what we mean…at least amongst each other…a bit more. The place to start for me begins even before we figure out what we mean by engagement. The first question for me is ‘engagement for what?’ The reason that I am involved in working on bringing community assets and higher education assets together is because our communities, our nations and our globe are in serious trouble. Inequality within and between countries continues to grow unabated. 800 million people including many in places like Canada and England have not had a chance to learn to read. 1500 men and women in my hometown of Victoria, Canada do not have an assured place to sleep at night. Indigenous Peoples in Canada are still overcoming decades of genocidal government policies and reconciliation. Older people live lonely isolated lives and older men are at a high risk of suicide. At the global level we are living in a destructive era where the very fabric of life is at risk as the earth warms. Water and its governance and use are at the heart of many regional conflicts. And the list goes on. Greed is celebrated as multimillionaires are now some kind of celebrities. The global market utopia continues unabated even while creating the seeds of its own destruction perhaps.

Well, you see how awkward I can become when not constrained!

I have chosen to work in this knowledge and action space between institutions of higher education and community sectors…including social movement, social economy and local governments with the hope that we might collectively find new and innovative ways for people to work together to take action on the deep issues that confront us all. I believe that a democratic process of co-creation of knowledge for social change is an important contribution to the deep transformations that have to happen.

What could engaging people mean in the context of making a real difference? First of all for me engagement is the process of building respectful relationships. It is a way to contribute to social capital. Engagement means being clear on issues of power, control, race, ethnicity, gender, ability and the like. Engagement for me is about learning to listen. Engagement for me as someone located within a university is about having a sense of humility of the limits of what we know. It is about believing profoundly that knowledge to change the world is located in special ways with those who are at the coalface of action. My work engaging with people involves working with policy makers and the leadership of higher education bodies, with academics like myself, with intellectuals in our community groups and movements. In my particular case as a person of Settler heritage in Canada, it is also with developing new relationships with Indigenous scholars and traditional community leaders. The most challenging persons in my experience to engage with are my fellow members of the academic community. The centuries of tradition, the sheer power of our institutions, the way that we make truth claims and the very nature often of the political economy of the way we earn our livings or advance our careers mean that we have so very much to unlearn. When one adds social locational issues of race, gender, ability, types of institutions we work in and so forth, one can see how challenging it is for us to change.

Thank you for the courtesy of reading this far in my blog. I would love to hear from you before, during and after the conference in December.

  1. What does engagement mean in your work?
  2. What does engaging people mean to you?
  3. Who are the people that are the most difficult for you to engage with?
  4. What has been a positive experience for you in engaging with people?

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