Community Engagement

Community Engagement

Community Engagement (sometimes referred to as Youth-Led Participatory Action, or YLPA) is an approach that can empower students by engaging them directly with the socio-environmental issues that concern them personally, as well as their families and the communities in which they reside. Through Community Engagement, young people engage directly with organizations and members of their community to generate positive transformations and feel empowered by adding their own voices. Community Engagement is a cyclical process of learning and action in which students work in small groups or individually to conduct their own research, brainstorm ideas, survey community members, and develop designs that respond to problems they care about. Community Engagement can be used in a curricular or extracurricular form (or both), and is an especially powerful approach for young people who are experiencing marginalization due to racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, ableism, or other forms of oppression. Community Engagement can help young people understand the root causes of problems that directly impact them, and develop a sense of meaning and purpose in their learning.  It can influence a student’s identity as a learner, as well as their potential career interests. 

Strategies for Community Engagement

A range of strategies have been used by teachers and scholars to engage students in personally meaningful community engagement.  In Civic Planning and Youth Design, students work with city planners or other stakeholders to offer their own design ideas to problems that directly concern them. This strategy involves engaging youth in thinking about design, and partnering with some “authentic client” (in the real world) that listens to their designs and potentially gives input. For example, in the Y-PLAN project (see Examples below), teachers engage their students with city planners to address real problems.  Working in small design groups, students advance possible solutions, which are ultimately presented to the city planning partners, with the prospects of potentially influencing specific planning projects.  In Service Learning, students join an existing community project or program or engage in their own research that serves their community.  This strategy combines learning and community action to enhance students’ growth, learning experience and civic responsibility while strengthening and meeting the needs of communities. Service-learning provides an opportunity for the students to apply their learning to real issues.  In Community Mapping, students create or annotate maps of their local community – adding their own lived experience, values and issues – in order to inform community action, local or regional policy decisions.  This approach allows communities to build capacity, autonomy, and exercise greater power in representing themselves. For example, a project called “Mapeamento Afetivo” (Affective Mapping) used drawings produced by students from public schools in Rio de Janeiro about their journey between home and school. This resulted in a mapping of students’ daily life, affections, conflicts, vulnerabilities and their own experience in territories that face systemic problems such as economic inequality, racism, violence, and food and housing insecurity.  While such projects can require substantial curricular time, and even extracurricular activities (e.g., field trips, community surveys), they aim to make  student voices heard, in regard to problems in their own communities such as access to food shopping, parks and recreation, transportation, services for elderly, or other issues. 

How Does Community Engagement Fosters Critical Action?

Community Engagement serves to democratize the learning experience, giving students ownership of expertise by recognizing that young people are capable of producing knowledge that leads to transformative action. This approach acknowledges that youth have a stake in their community, and that their voice can matter.  In the Y-PLAN project mentioned above, youth participants have exposed important perspectives about city infrastructure (e.g., where local bus stops are located; street lighting; food availability, etc).  At the individual level, Community Engagement provides students with important 21st century skills in inquiry, collaboration and communication, and supports their critical thinking, to help them form a better understanding of the roots of problems facing their communities.  Perhaps most importantly, Community Engagement methods empower youth, infusing their learning with a deeper sense of meaning and purpose, and helping them acquire the skills and motivation to take action. In addition, students become aware of, and critically evaluate programs or policies.  They learn about the resources, professional practices and policy aspects that are required for addressing community problems, and they reflect on their own engagement in those practices while enacting positive change in their communities. Community Engagement offers students a genuine pathway for participation in their wider community, allowing them to add their voice into community planning or discussions.  An important element of most Community Engagement approaches is that there should be some audience or client that will engage with students and receive their final products.

What is Required from Teachers in Adopting Community Engagement?

Community Engagement curricular projects typically begin with an assessment, which allows teachers to bettter understand the ideas that their students are bringingt to the project (e.g., about community engagement, civic design, or the particular issues that will be investigated in their research or addressed in their designs. By asking the students what they think at the outset, we can also help them become aware of their own progression, through engagement in Community Engagement. Teachers may also include their students in helping determine what elements will be used in their assessment, and what rubrics will guide their evaluations (e.g., of student action plans, portfolios, journals, checklists, or exit slips).  Remaining steps will depend on the specific project and strategy.   Community mapping will require a different set of specific stages than service learning.  However, most projects have in common that early in the process students should familiarize themselves with the challenge, and with their community, as well as any partners, and develop a strong personal understanding about why they are engaging in this activity.  All Community Engagement projects ultimately include the planning and enactment of some form of critical action.  For example, the Y-PLAN project (detailed in the Examples below) describes the “critical action stage” as one of (1) creating awareness: what is needed, and what is an effective way to spreading awareness in your school or community; (2) creating a vision – what kinds of action can be done by the students, including any examples of how students have worked together to create awareness or have taken action; and (3) planning for change – What can those who agree with you do to help? What is something they can do right now to create change and become a part of the community?  After this action plan is framed, Y-PLAN includes further steps for “going public” in some form of action (public service announcements, skits, videos, posters or ads designed to raise awareness, murals, podcasts, or personal essays, spoken word performances, songs, websites or social media campaigns, poetry, logos for t-shirts or water bottles, and more!)  as well as a presentation that demonstrates any new understandings achieved by students.  A final stage for Y-PLAN, which would be included in any other form of Community Engagement project, is to help students reflect on their experience (“looking forward and looking back”).

For those CALE teachers who are interested in using this approach for their lesson designs, we will further explore the approaches in our later meetings, including video interviews with experts and classroom enactments, as well as many resources to help teachers design.  Meanwhile, here are a couple examples that may help you better understand what Community Engagement looks like in practice.

Some Examples of Community Engagement 

Student-led Case on Civil and Human Rights


In these student-led civics projects, students identified human rights issues from the Civil Rights Movement that mattered to them, and implement them. Working in small groups, they created a plan for action and implemented various activism projects to address their group’s issue such as a public awareness and fundraising campaign for a Syrian refugee organization; a podcast and PSA video about mass incarceration; videos showing examples of LGBTQ+ harassment and discrimination that occur in schools and how to correct them; a movie about police violence and its impact on male teenagers. The project allowed students to engage people with different perspectives and think about how to create more systemic and policy-based changes. The use of the Ten Questions framework, helped the students to reflect and recognize their power to make a difference in the community. 

New Perspectives on Heritage in Brazil


In this project, youths from Brazil created and distributed video narratives online that mapped varied socio-cultural aspects of their community, highlighted contemporary artistic research as well as showcased art and heritage linkages. These narratives draw attention to numerous challenges and complexities present in the country. This project enabled students to use the video narratives as tools to express local identities, access citizenship, and democratize heritage. The youth’s projects also spotlight the voices of vulnerable social groups and the inventiveness of Brazilian artists and artisans. 

Youth-led Projects in Oregon


In this project, youths in Oregon researched solutions on equity and justice issues to understand the impact of school dress code on lived experiences and priorities of their peers. Thereafter, they developed a model dress code, and advocated for positive change in their school board. The project allowed students to influence the development of school policies and programs that impacted their lives.