Debunking the Notion of "Hard to Reach" Communities

Submitted by ninaholzer on March 30, 2016 - 5:07am
Reflections on Community Engagement: The Next Generation

One of my favorite workshops at Tamarack Institute’s Community Engagement: The Next Generation conference was Trickle-Down Engagement of the Marginalized and How to Avoid It, led by Mark Holmgren.

I was drawn to this session because of the notion that there are “hard to reach” groups in our community-building work and we need to do a better job of bringing those groups into our community-building efforts. Often, especially in our work, those “hard to reach” groups are renters, individuals working second- or third-shift jobs, parents with very little time to commit, idle youth, or the homeless. Often, these individuals are mislabeled as being “uninterested”, “unwilling”, or “unable” to take part in our community-building work, so less effort is made to engage them and get their input. Rather than being at the top of the list of people to reach out to, outreach to these individuals often falls by the wayside. We assume that our project will be big enough that they’ll learn about it and what to be engaged or we assume that our great community-building effort will produce good things for these groups in the future and they will feel the trick-down effects of our effort.

I appreciate Mark Holmgren’s session because it reinforced and affirmed my belief that many groups are not “hard to reach” – we just do a poor job at designing efforts that meet these groups where they are. Often, our community-building strategy or other efforts are built around our schedules, occasionally expanding our work day or causing us to work on the weekend. We host these efforts in spaces that are comfortable and accessible for us or choose locations that have easily been used in the past (like that community center or school gymnasium or church hall that seems to always get an okay crowd). Sometimes (or should I say often times?), we even take the cheap way out because we under-budget our proposal because we really, really want to get a project going.

Mark’s session challenged the notion of doing what’s easy or what’s easily funded – rather, if we really want to design a community-building strategy that is inclusive of “hard to reach” groups, we need to work alongside them and meet them were they are. We need to push our boundaries as community-builders, we need to go where these groups are comfortable. We need to challenge our own biases and assumptions, and never assume that just because a group may seem “hard to reach” that they don’t want to be included.

Most importantly, we need to be human. We need to treat people with dignity, respect, and empathy. If we are truly going to be inclusive and engage “hard to reach” communities, we cannot view anyone as an “other”. With this perspective in mind, we can design efforts that bring the “hard to reach” to the table, show that their input and voices are valued, and create community-building strategies that will benefit all. 

This blog was submitted by Nina Holzer, a participant at the Community Engagement: The Next Generation workshop in Ottawa from March 9-11, 2016.