The blog of the Urban Institute
February 19, 2021

Community Voice Is Expertise

President Biden’s January “Executive Order On Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government” directs federal agencies to increase their coordination and engagement with community-based organizations. It explicitly recognizes that work with community members reflects a commitment to a “comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved [and] marginalized.”

The question that remains is how to turn this directive into action. What tools can federal agencies use to engage effectively with communities to advance equity and inclusion across policy domains?

The Urban Institute offers a range of rigorous data tools and analysis strategies, including community engaged methods, to promote equity in our research, policy analysis, and technical assistance. To us, community engaged methods means prioritizing the leadership, participation, and active reflection of the people at the heart of the issues we study. This work rests on the understanding that lived experience is valuable expertise. Finding opportunities for lasting change requires a robust understanding of current challenges and opportunities, which can only be fully achieved through ongoing input, collaboration, and investment in the people closest to the issues. Without this approach, our ability to effect change is stymied.

Community engagement can help identify and implement changes that are wanted, needed, and sustainable. Creating the kind of environment that fosters community engagement in research and policy analysis requires four key principles:

1. Reckon with institutional racism

Organizations of all types must learn to ground their work in the context of structural racism—acknowledging problematic histories and honoring the capabilities of marginalized communities to lead the way forward. For Urban, this means understanding traditional research’s history of extracting information from communities of color. Without the input of people with lived experience, research causes further harm by investing resources in entities outside of affected communities to conduct the work. Funders should examine the ways they may reinforce racial inequalities and recognize the racialized measures organizations must go through to be funded. Policymakers must inspect the consequences of long-lasting policies that have left Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color without the same access to resources as white communities. Specific steps on this path include the following:

2. Learn from others

Community engagement’s origins stem from emancipatory philosophy, Black-led community organizing, and a highly respected tradition of public health work. Other organizations interested in better incorporating community engagement should consider dedicated working groups and intentional internal funding to advance the importance of centering community expertise. As interest in community engaged methods grows, many organizations are offering their lessons and guidance on how it can be adapted and used effectively. Valuable resources include the following:

3. Redefine expertise and follow the ethos, “Nothing about us without us”

Community engagement recognizes the expertise of the people who are most affected by policies and actively employs them as main knowledge contributors. By centering this knowledge, community engaged research uncovers root causes of issues, allows marginalized communities to access long-withheld resources, funds locally desired solutions, and contextualizes outcomes. To ensure ethical and authentic work, organizations should shift their operations to better respect communities’ capabilities. Expanding the definition of “expert” ensures individuals and groups most affected by an issue are part of the team(s) driving strategies to address them. Key tenets include the following:

4. Recognize that engagement can build over time and empowerment is the goal

Organizations should continuously strive to both increase the level of engagement they have with community members and create new methods of engagement. These efforts will help organizations better meet the needs of the communities they aim to serve, shift resources where they are needed, and improve equity in decisionmaking. Specific actions can include the following:

  • Data Walks can facilitate information sharing and dialogue. They could include community members as co-analysts of data and decisionmakers who help highlight key takeaways and set recommendations and next steps.
  • Federal agencies, private foundations, local policymakers, and research institutions can hire community members as senior staff members.
  • Institutions can fund participatory action research or create community advisory boards with decisionmaking power and autonomy.  

The Biden administration is signaling the importance of engaging communities as experts. Communities know their own experiences and needs better than any scientist, government official, funder, or policymaker. Engaging with community-based organizations and entities is a concrete way to invest in marginalized communities while contributing to more effective, sustainable responses to public policy challenges.

(SDI Productions / Getty Images)

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.