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Key Elements of a Robust Community Engagement Process


Key Elements of a Robust Community Engagement Process

  There are three key elements for a robust community engagement process. These three elements create a foundation for mutual trust, accountability, and they help ensure the community engagement process includes, and benefits, all residents. The elements are: inclusive & intentional engagement, transparency, and empowerment.

Inclusive & Intentional Engagement

  • Partner with community leaders in the design of your engagement efforts from the very beginning. Include authentic community leaders with deep relationships with diverse communities often not engaged in civic efforts and those likely to be most impacted. 
  • Provide resources for community leaders to support engagement design, acknowledging and valuing the time and expertise they bring, similar to consultants. Identify philanthropic partners who may also have resources for supporting community capacity[i].  
  • For community engagement leadership, hire diverse staff with diverse lived experiences, especially experiences that align with your communities’ most vulnerable or least engaged populations.
  • Work through existing networks of community-based and faith-based organizations that serve and organize in diverse cultural communities to identify the leaders to work with.
  • Host a “meet and greet” with community organizations and advocacy groups to build connections across sectors, develop partnerships, and continue to foster the relationships across time and issues.
  • Attend community meetings and cultural events as a participant. Listen to what issues they discuss and how they talk about them. Enter with a sense of humility and awareness of potential power dynamics due to race, ethnicity, citizenship, socioeconomic status, or gender differences.
  • Develop awareness of the racial and economic inequities in your community, city, or county, and why those inequities exist (informed by experienced community leaders and organizations).
  • Seek out relationships with leaders from non-English speaking communities. Work with them to identify the barriers to engagement and ways to bridge the divide into their community. Translate materials and provide interpretation at community meetings.
  • Reduce barriers to participate by scheduling meetings at times and places that are convenient and accessible to the public, including low-income residents. Meetings should be transit accessible and held during evenings and weekends to accommodate various work and family schedules, and at familiar locations in close proximity to where residents live[ii].  Neighborhood/community-based organizations and schools may let you use their meeting space or add to a meeting agenda where residents are already available, such as school site meetings. 
  • Build incentives for engagement and access by providing childcare, meals, and free transit passes whenever possible.  
  • Utilize a range of effective outreach methods such as radio announcements, text messages, social media, mailers, posting flyers in high foot traffic areas, and distributing notices through local schools and community events.
  • Ensure multiple mechanisms for engagement recognizing that people will feel comfortable sharing feedback and learning in different ways. For example, in writing, by phone, in person, and more.
  • Establish an Equity Working Group as a way of creating an effective forum for bringing together the best thinking on equity issues through ongoing dialogue. At the same time, cities and agencies should ensure that the recommendations of equity stakeholders do not live in a silo but are brought to other key decision-makers and advisory groups, throughout the process. Cities should also include equity representation on technical advisory committees.[iii]
  • Foster inclusive spaces to ensure all people in the room are encouraged and feel safe to speak up, including limited-English proficient communities, youth, low-income residents, people of color, queer or gender non-conforming community members, elders, women, formerly incarcerated people,  etc. by: 1) acknowledging power dynamics and institutional racism embedded in government systems that have been historically designed to exclude marginalized populations, 2) sharing pronouns during introductions, 3) utilizing popular education tools that recognize and reinforce the wisdom, experience, and expertise of community members, 4) leading with cultural humility; and 5) limiting the use of technical jargon.
  • Simultaneous translation should be available. If the meeting focuses primarily with a non-English group, consider conducting the meeting in the majority’s native language and offer translation for English speakers.
  • Use interactive formats that support active participation and learning such as small-group discussion/focus groups, interactive visuals (infographics, videos, art, etc.) to communicate data, planning, or policy information, and other hands-on activities.
  • Structure your engagement and planning process to include substantive representation of people of color or organizations that represent low-income communities in various decision-making capacities (i.e. in decision-making boards, advisory groups, task forces, committees, sub-committees, stakeholder meetings, focus groups, and town hall meetings).


  • Communicate all key decision points in planning or policy process early in the engagement process. Key decision-making points include available committee membership opportunities, timelines, plan draft dates, hearing and votes by legislative bodies, zoning changes, etc.[iv]
  • Communicate all final decision-makers at each decision-point honestly and share multiple-layers of decision-makers if relevant.
  • Communicate unknowns or areas where changes may occur in the process. The more you are transparent about the areas that are still being decided and who are the ultimate decision-makers, the more transparent you are about the limitations of your capacity and process.
  • Demonstrate explicit consideration of input by describing how public input from outreach strategies will be used in the development, evaluation and selection of projects or plan alternatives at each key decision point.
  • Share all input received back to the community in some format and communicate how the input was utilized where possible and why it may not have been utilized.
  • Establish regular communication mechanisms and communicate early and often to gauge progress, gain feedback on the process, share information and gain new ideas for cultivating connections and maintaining relevance to community concerns.
  • Make yourself accessible showing openness and mutual respect in the relationships. Share your contact information, phone and email, where possible to allow people to reach out if questions arise at any point or the community has new information to share.

 Empowerment: Sharing Power & Capacity

  • Partner with community leaders to co-design local planning efforts where appropriate and solicit their feedback early on to implement meaningful and effective approaches, including trauma-informed strategies.  Trauma-informed planning is an important tool for addressing community-level trauma caused by longstanding systemic neglect, disinvestment, and poverty in low-income communities of color.  By utilizing a trauma-informed lens, the focus is to build the capacity and power of community residents to meaningfully engage in decision-making and advocate on behalf of themselves.
  • Empower community members to take an active role early in the planning and policymaking process. This means:
    • Creating a participatory process for developing a shared vision for community change.
    • Engaging residents in documenting not only the inequities and conditions that merit change but also community assets to preserve and build from. [v],[vi],[vii]
  • Share governance and decision-making by, for example, setting aside resources to be shaped and decided on by community members. Resources can include: grants for community engagement, land acquisition funds, the hiring of consultants, project selection, or participatory budgeting.
  • Structure the planning, implementation, and evaluation process so community organizations and leaders can: 1) Shape agendas and issues, 2) Organize and lead convenings, and 3) identify concrete and measurable benchmarks for success and responsible parties, for both procedural (community engagement) and substantive (program/policy) outcomes.
  • Establish a system of neighborhood-level resident representation to empower and engage local neighborhoods in their own revitalization process; Create a City Neighborhood Coordinator position, the responsibility of which is to act as a liaison between neighborhoods and the City.[viii] (For an example, see San Jose’s Strong Neighborhood Initiative described under Model Practices).
  • Build capacity within disadvantaged, vulnerable, and historically underserved communities to understand, navigate, and participate in planning and policy processes. This can be achieved by:
    • Contracting with local, community-based organizations and individual community leaders in low-income communities and communities of color to conduct engagement processes, serve as local technical assistance providers, help communities apply for grants, etc.
    • Partnering with and funding equity-focused community-based organizations to train participating residents from low-income communities and communities of color in the content and skills they will need to exercise informed leaderships.[ix], [x]
    • Promoting Community Based Participatory Research (CBPR) principles in the collection of data and in the mapping of neighborhood existing conditions. [xi], [xii]

Key Resources:


Model Practices

San José, CA: Strong Neighborhood Initiative
The Strong Neighborhoods Initiative is a neighborhood-based civic engagement initiative, first established in 2000 by the City of San José. From the beginning, much of the Strong Neighborhoods initiative’s identity and purpose was tied to an $80 million redevelopment fund.[xiii] With the local redevelopment agency as a partner, the city developed a program that empowered residents from 19 low-income and ethnically diverse neighborhoods to propose and prioritize improvement projects in their neighborhoods. San José invested $104 million to implement more than 75 percent of the resident-proposed projects.[xiv] Even with the economic downturn and the dissolution of redevelopment agencies, the city has been able to sustain a level of community engagement through a Neighborhood Council. The city council has now made the Neighborhood Council a permanent part of its decision-making process. To learn more:


Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN: Building Local Capacity Through Regranting

Members of the Corridors of Opportunity regional planning consortium in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region of Minnesota re-granted $750,000 from their $5 million dollar grant to community organizations along the light rail corridors to engage the low-income communities, communities of color, and immigrant communities that are most impacted by the proposed expansion of the light rail system. A team of three engagement and equity-focused local intermediaries managed the Request For Proposal and granting process. After the first round of grants, 10 community organizations were awarded an average of $30,000 to engage their constituencies in the region’s plan for development along these new transit corridors. With these grants, organizations with deep reach into low-income communities, communities of color, immigrant communities, and the disability community have been able to engage their constituencies in shaping future investments around transit stations. To learn more:


San Mateo County, CA: Community Collaboration Children’s Success (CCCS)
Using a place-based, trauma-informed approach, the CCCS team works with youth and families to identify barriers to success and address long-standing sources of risk. Through creative community building activities and data collection methods, community members share perspectives and solutions, identifying priority interventions to support youth success and creating neighborhood plans in four San Mateo County neighborhoods. To learn more:

The CCCS Neighborhood Action Plans are available here:


North Fair Oaks, CA: North Fair Oaks Community Plan
North Fair Oaks is an unincorporated area of San Mateo County located near Redwood City, Atherton, and Menlo Park. In 2011 San Mateo County adopted the North Fair Oaks Community Plan as a long-range planning tool for the area for the next 25 to 30 years. The plan update process was completed with broad community engagement that included multiple workshops and community forums and outreach through stakeholder interviews neighborhood groups, mailings, newspaper noticing, online noticing, and public hearings. The update process was overseen by a steering committee comprised of members active in the North Fair Oaks community and a Technical Advisory Committee representing government agencies. This robust planning process was able to bring together diverse groups and stakeholders to together create a long-range policy plan for the North Fair Oaks area.


San Mateo County, CA: Home For All Community Engagement Model

Home for All is a San Mateo County initiative to address the job-housing gap, with the goal of increasing affordable homes and the diversity of types of homes available. As part of this initiative, San Mateo County has utilized a robust community engagement process to connect with different communities across the County on their housing needs and concerns. The pilot program started with just four cities: Burlingame, Half Moon Bay, Portola Valley, and Redwood City. These cities each received support from a consultant to focus on community engagement around a housing issue impacting their city. The cities also received funding for the events and resources, as well as policy support. Additionally, the community engagement process built-out a Learning Network that was open to all cities, places, and partners who wanted to learn from the community engagement model. Here the County hosted meetings to showcase and share information on what worked, and what could be improved, as well as new areas on how to message housing issues, mobility (transportation), and funding. Overall, the model has been very successful for engaging residents with housing issues, and Home For All has been able to make progress closing the jobs-housing gap.

Community Engagement Resources for the four Pilot Cities:

East Palo Alto, CA: General Plan Health and Equity Element 
In 2016 East Palo Alto adopted their General Plan update, but the update began in 2012 with the desire to have inclusive community engagement with the process. A General Plan is a California legal requirement that is meant to serve as a long-term planning guide for future growth. There is flexibility in what can be included in a General Plan and how the update should be conducted, but California requires each General Plan contain seven elements: Land use, circulation, housing, conservation, open space, noise, and safety. East Palo Alto, like a few other California cities, chose to include additional elements (or chapters) in their plan, one of them being Health & Equity. East Palo Alto used community engagement processes to determine what would be included and how the element would serve their community. In creating this element, numerous stakeholders from the community and organizations were brought together, as the consultant hosted workshops and was responsive to community input. Ultimately the final product was community lead and a blueprint for improving health conditions for all East Palo Alto residents. 


San Mateo County, CA: Youth Leadership Institute – Transportation Equity Allied Movement Coalition (TEAMC)

Led by Youth Leadership Institute, TEAMC is a Countywide coalition of youth leaders and community-based organizations (CBOs) working together to advance community-supported transportation solutions.  Since 2016, the coalition has engaged in capacity-building, community-centered data collection, civic engagement, and direct advocacy to bring youth voices, needs, and leadership into the transportation planning and policymaking processes.  In 2017, TEAMC helped youth leaders develop the skills to work with local government agencies including the local transit operator, SamTrans. Twenty-five youth participated in the second annual School for Public Transportation, which is a six-part training series that includes peer-led recruitment, public speaking, community-based research, and social media communication strategies. By playing a key role in the development of the County’s 2017 Youth Mobility Plan, youth leaders now have an opportunity to continue crafting strategies to ensure that policies are created with their input and needs accounted for. Similar to a “train-the-trainer” model, one of the strategies that was created in the Plan was the future creation of a Youth Ambassador Program, which provides support from SamTrans to youth leaders interested in being a local champion for their communities’ public transit needs.


Faith in Action: Protecting and Creating Vibrant, Healthy Communities
Utilizing a train-the-trainer and civic empowerment model, Faith in Action Bay Area’s project “Protecting and Creating Vibrant, Healthy Communities” engaged low-income people who are most marginalized from the public arena, in a process to identify the barriers to community stability, vitality and health. The project took place in Redwood City, San Mateo, San Bruno, South San Francisco, Daly City and Pacifica and trained hundreds of low-income residents of color to conduct community surveys and listening sessions to gather input from thousands of residents about their community health needs.  Participants gained skills and capacity to identify community health needs and developed their leadership in the advocacy process. Most of the participants had never been to a city council meeting before or had never spoken in public. They are now teaching and training other residents, meeting with public officials and getting the word out about challenges their communities face.




[i] Rosa González et al., Facilitating Power, and Movement Strategy Center, “The Spectrum of Community Engagement to Ownership”.

[ii] Six Wins for Social Equity Network, “Re: Public Participation Plan for Plan Bay Area 2017,” January 12, 2015.

[iii] Six Wins for Social Equity Network, “Re: Public Participation Plan for Plan Bay Area 2017,” January 12, 2015.

[iv] Danielle Bergstrom et al., “The Community Engagement Guide for Sustainable Communities” (PolicyLink & Kirwan Institute, 2012),

[v] PolicyLink, “Community Engagement & Participation Checklist: Addressing Disparities for Healthier Places,” accessed January 9, 2018,

[vi] City of Salinas, “Economic Development Element (EDE)” 2016,

[vii] PolicyLink, “Community Engagement & Participation Checklist: Addressing Disparities for Healthier Places,” accessed January 9, 2018,

[viii] City of Salinas, “Economic Development Element (EDE).”

[ix] City of Salinas.

[x] Bergstrom et al., “The Community Engagement Guide for Sustainable Communities.”

[xi] PolicyLink, “Community Engagement & Participation Checklist: Addressing Disparities for Healthier Places,” accessed January 9, 2018,

[xii] PolicyLink, “Community Engagement & Participation Checklist: Addressing Disparities for Healthier Places,” accessed January 9, 2018,

[xiii] Christopher Hoene, Christopher Kingsley, and Matthew Leighninger, “Bright Spots in Community Engagement: Case Studies of U.S. Communities Creating Greater Civic Participation from the Bottom Up.,” 2013,

[xiv] “San Jose’s Strong Neighborhoods Initiative Empowers Residents,” Institute for Local Government, accessed January 22, 2018,

[xv]  Pew Research Center. The Internet and Civic Engagement, 2009.

[xvi] Pew Research Center. Digital Divide Persists Even as Lower-Income Americans Make Gains in Tech Adoption, 2019.

[xvii] Pew Research Center. Disabled Americans are less likely to use technology, 2017.

[xviii] U.S. Department of Justice. Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section. ADA Requirements, Effective Communication, January 2014.

[xix] Pew Research Center. Digital divide persists even as lower-income Americans make gains in tech adoption, 2019.

[xx] Pew Research Center. Smartphones help blacks, Hispanics bridge some-but not all-digital gaps with whites, 2019.

[xxi] In J. Holmes, M. Meyerhoff, & S. Ehrlich (Eds.), Handbook of Language and Gender, 2nd edition. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2013.