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Community Engagement Isn’t What It Used To Be

This blog post originally appeared on

“In nearly 20 years as a communications professional working for public institutions in Kansas, I can’t recall a time when my own Kansas community was more divided. And it doesn’t take much effort to see that the problem is widespread,” said Kristin Magette, Assistant Executive Director for Communications & Engagement with the Kansas Association of School Boards.

This era of raised voices, shaking fists and resistance to finding common ground has all of us struggling to find our way back to the essential function of community leadership in public schools — and our democracy as a state and nation.

What now?

How do schools connect with an angrily divided community? How do the people who govern create mutually beneficial relationships with the people they serve? How do we build a dialogue that’s grounded in common goals and driven by sharing instead of shouting?

Community engagement, according to David Mathews of the Kettering Foundation, is the answer — with one caveat. In With The People, Mathews asserts that most forms of civic engagement have never really been effective. Why else, he asks, would people served by public agencies feel more alienated from those agencies than ever before?

Abraham Lincoln famously described democracy as a government “of the people, by the people and for the people.” Mathews, who also authored Is There A Public for Public Schools, suggests a new element is needed — a government With the People.

Imagine, for a moment, a large tree that’s fallen across a road. And picture the old-fashioned two-person saw that’s needed to cut it in half. Let’s make this tree represent a challenge your community faces. And if the giant hand saw represents the solution to the problem, consider the school board members on one side of the saw, with the people the board serves on the other.

Working together to solve a problem—government with the people—is a powerful path to change. Shared work has lasting value because it requires listening, two-way communication, and meaningful contributions as the work happens. It also delivers satisfaction and reward to people on both sides of the fence.

School districts are fortunate to be among the most tangible, relatable government agencies most community members know. After all, the vast majority of Kansans attended school, and many of us have lives that revolve around our own children’s or grandchildren’s day-to-day school experiences.

How can school district leaders create a government with the people in the community they serve?

Lean in to understand.

The most critical first step is to listen and acknowledge the words and perspectives a community member shares. That’s never been harder than it is now. It’s easy to write off people who disagree with you, especially when the message is emotional, demanding or insulting. When someone attends your school board meeting or sends you an email, politely and sincerely thank them for being part of the process — no matter what they said (or shouted).

Get curious.

It’s a leader’s job to get curious, even when an interaction is far from polite. As the saying goes, “hurt people, hurt people.” Ask yourself, “Why might a reasonable person act unreasonably in this situation or feel this way?” Resist the urge to label anyone in your community “crazy,” “wacko” or “out of control.” This type of thinking will only further the divide.

“I think we want the same thing. We both care about making sure students are safe and healthy.”

Use empathy.

No matter how irrational a comment or message might be, show basic empathy for the stress that is involved. Seek to demonstrate a shared value or goal — any opportunity to speak the words, “I think we want the same thing.” The same thing could be as simple as “We both care about making sure students are safe and healthy.” Agreement is not required to acknowledge another person’s point of view and articulate a shared motivation of some kind.

Seek ways to share work.

The last 18 months have been full of the most complex decisions school boards must make. Not every decision is suited to public input or engagement — crisis response plans for an active shooter situation, for example, or other health and safety measures. And because old-fashioned two-way sawing isn’t always possible, it’s even more critical for leaders to seek opportunities where community members — including those who don’t always agree — can be invited to meet you at that log in the middle of the road.

Shared work depends on a real sense of ownership and responsibility for everyone involved. It’s not the same as asking for input or delegating to volunteers. A divide-and-conquer approach can help accomplish goals, but a government with the people values authentic engagement over achievement.

Share in the benefits when work is done.

Success is sweet, whether you are seeking safer routes to school, better school attendance, a new way to attract great teachers, or another shared concern. Take every opportunity to be more generous than necessary in praise and recognition of the community members who showed up and shared the work. Let this be the first step in the engagement your schools and community need most.

Published on: October 31, 2021