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Lately I’ve been engaging in conversations and reading about racism, community engagement and the idea of self-betrayal. All involve examining the quality of our relationships with each other. There is a model for discussing community engagement that helps to illustrate a key point I’m finding in all of these topics. It’s called the “Ladder of Citizen Participation.” The term “community engagement” is often kicked around in community-based work, grant-making and other worthy endeavors. And yet, the definition and expectations of community engagement varies widely, and less often means listening to, learning from and giving residents true decision-making power regarding programs focused on “helping” them (anti-poverty, urban renewal, anti-crime, health promotion) or issues around economic development (what jobs should we bring in and where will they be located), transportation, etc. This ladder illustrates that efforts fall into categories of non-participation, tokenism or true citizen power. Holding a public meeting meant simply to “inform” or to “collect ideas” in locations which are hard for low-income folks to attend without providing childcare, for example, would fall into the lower rungs of this ladder. Meeting people where they are, providing for their challenges in participating, giving them the tools and resources they need to be fully engaged falls in the upper rungs.

As part of a recent training I was asked to consider whether I treat people as people or objects. When I see their burdens and struggles and respond to them humanly even when their actions make me uncomfortable, I am seeing them as people. If I see them as either obstacles or vehicles to something I want or as simply insignificant, they are objects (in that moment at least) to me. It’s easy to underestimate the number of times I may treat people as objects. Something as simple as being irritated that the person in line in front of me is unorganized and holding me up is an example of seeing someone as an object. I am not my truest self when I have this mindset. This happens with strangers, friends and family, and can damage relationships.
In thinking about strengthening relationships, which I believe is a key to happiness, these ideas are powerful. When we believe someone doesn’t really need to voice their opinion (again) or that their stubbornness around an issue is simply based in ignorance (because of course, we’re right!) or that it simply takes to long to be inclusive of others, we are working from the bottom rungs of the ladder, seeing them as objects. From my work with communities, I’m learning that yes it does take longer to be inclusive, hear people’s fears and concerns, seek to understand those concerns and work together on solutions that make sense to everyone (or most). But these are the projects that are most sustainable in the end. The same is true with our relationships. When we seek first to understand and then to communicate through that lens, we are more apt to build trust and deeper bonds that last.