Across a great many socially-conscious and welfare-orientated sectors, working with people and communities – towards social, cultural and economic betterment – is an integral element of the work; for example, the cultural sector, with Libraries, Archives and Museums; the Health Sector, whether in regards to sexual health or addressing causes of disease; working with young people, through youth facilities and various other methods of engagement.
Importantly, there is recognition that in order to make a difference, to improve lives, in an individual or collective/group context, work engaging the people who might benefit intervention or help – or who might simply enjoy participating or being involved – must be proactive rather than passive. What we mean is that we readily understand that the people who need the most help are the one’s usually least likely to engage directly with services, cultural organisation, health sectors, etc. And that respective sectors and organisation in the work of helping and supporting people and communities must be proactive in the engagement of respective groups rather than passive.
This area of work has grown substantially in recent years (though its beginnings would be hard to trace without concerted effort). The work is often described in terms ‘Outreach’ activities, widening ‘Participation’ programmes, and ‘Cultural Engagement’ (to name a few). In tandem, there has been a steady development of the practice involved – its professionalization, with significant expertise involved drawing upon a range of disciplines and skill sets. However, this has not always been acknowledged, including the value of these skills and the professionals that have developed them to their areas of interest.
Finally, in attempting to engage with community groups and people of all descriptions, there are perhaps two important things to think about:
- What does it take to engage people (knowing that, for example, many of the groups ‘engagement practitioners’ seek to support or work with are often marginalised or disadvantaged, so called ‘hard-to-reach’)?
- What do we do when we have engaged or reached people? How effective are we in our transmission of ideas and messages; in our activities. How transformational is our work?
The above two points are crucially related but are also distinct. Not all practitioners do both; some do one or the other, depending on the context, and on other occasions do both; there are practitioners, too, who might do both frequently. At all times, effective engagement, participation and outreach must be context driven; who are we seeking to engage and why? What are the techniques we are using? How effective are these likely to be?
We also need to be. The work isn’t easy and often requires stepping beyond comfort zones and accepting that we will make mistakes – but, as it is frequently said, it is when things don’t work out that we learn the most.
For those that are involved in Cultural Engagement, Broadening/Widening Participation and Outreach work, we need to develop the language to support our field and continue to make the case; we need to establish communities of practice; and we need to better research and document what we do; we need to accord fellow practitioners with respect, and respect and fundamentally believe in the work we all do.
Our work can only be transformative if we believe in it, work to our best ability and continue to engage people and communities directly.
It is because the Library of Birmingham is so passionate about this field of work that we have organised the Cultural Engagement Conference (Saturday 26th April), at the Library of Birmingham. This we expect to be an annual event, enabling this area of work to be developed further by colleagues and interested parties together and by acknowledging the change this work has already engendered.
For more information, please contact Izzy Mohammed on 0121 303 6691 / email firstname.lastname@example.org or see the following link: