We all want the community in which we live to be safe, strong and healthy. There is growing evidence that where you live can literally determine your health. Studies show that people in certain zip codes do have better health outcomes. Rather than focus on only medical and physical issues, this also involves “social determinants” of health that encompass food, the environment, history, culture and other factors that contribute to overall health.

Clearly then, there are complex issues involved in addressing healthy communities. Furthermore, the community itself is complex, with each village or neighborhood having its own context, history, language and preferred way of doing things.

The challenges can seem significant, but successfully engaging the community – as deeply and broadly as possible – creates greater energy and ownership of solutions, which increases the chances that positive change can be sustainable. Native culture also puts a higher value on the wellbeing of community before that of an individual, so lasting change likely will involve community members on some level.

To spark community change, where do you start? First, by talking to people about their ideas and interests. People aren’t asked this question frequently enough: “What do you think? What kind of community would you like to see for our children and grandchildren?” While it can be easy to focus on deficits, barriers and excuses, people – perhaps with some guidance – can focus on their positive dreams. When the community has had a chance to set forth its shared vision, it can serve as a long-term roadmap for any number of programs and services. The community will notice when its vision and desires are made regularly visible and used to hold programs accountable. 

Chances are there are tribal agencies, local organizations or other groups that have conducted a community needs assessment that – through surveys or focus groups – gathered information about both challenges and opportunities. Find these potential partners and see where your interests in improving the community intersect. Work together to show the community where you are committed to following through on making the vision a reality.

Chances are, too, that there are other community members who want the same kind of change that you do. Engage and listen to them. Be willing to compromise. Bring your ideas and minds together in order to create a more powerful plan, because we can achieve more together than we can separately. 

Keep in mind that no one wants to be told what to do. Ask questions and listen with an open mind, being prepared to adjust your approach in response to feedback. Show the community how you have made adjustments, and be transparent about everything – your plan, budget and results. Be prepared for criticism; it’s going to come. Be aware of the community’s preferred balance between leading change and bringing others along. Too many individuals and programs try to go it alone.

There are different levels of community engagement. At the first level, community members are recipients of services. Next, they are information sources that offer feedback for improving services. At the third level, community members are participants in some facets of decision-making. Finally, at the deepest level of engagement, community members are in control of the work. Where do you fall along this continuum?