Implications for Practice: Five Key Principles of Place-Based Community Engagement

WP’s process of engaging and enacting place-based community engagement has occurred through a mix of both organic and formal processes. Especially in the Ministry and Community Engagement (MCE) program, we have found our way via instincts, commitments, curiosities, and relationships as well as through more formal research inquiries and grant-offered funding. In this sense, we may be a different case than many colleges and universities that walk a more traditional path of exploration, development, and sustaining. However, we still identify as kin to other institutions doing the good work of community engagement and, as such, in using Yamamura and Koth’s (2018) key principles of place-based community engagement (PBCE) to analyze our work, I have noticed the following lessons for our work.

Principle 1: A Geographic Focus

In seeking to answer the question of what it means to be an engaged institutional neighbor, and, implied within the response also to answer the questions: And who are our neighbors or to whom will we be a neighbor, WP has intentionally identified both a geographic community as our primary focus but also historically underserved and marginalized communities, particularly communities of color. This commitment has brought a richness and type of focus to our work. However, the question remains—is our approach focused enough? Most institutions employing a PBCE approach choose a clearly defined and more narrow geographic location. Doing so makes it easier to filter some decisions and create deep and lasting vision and relationships within a defined neighborhood. WP is rooted in a particular area of Portland. However, we have largely chosen the entire city and even metro-area as our geographic focus. The size of our focus area may make it harder to determine what we can and cannot successfully engage. It may make it more difficult to bring strategic intent to the longer-term vision and commitments and makes it more difficult to bring to bear equal emphasis on campus and community impact and mutual benefit. It sometimes creates challenges for particular programs trying to practice PBCE within an institution that greatly values community engagement, yet does not always have a strong cohesive focus across programs. It also, however, has brought greater flexibility to different programs and departments to pursue a breadth of community relationships and has brought WP into relationships all over our city.

In addition, we have some particular complexities related to our larger geographic location. Identifying with Christianity in the Pacific Northwest is both a challenge and an opportunity. As noted above, we live in “the None Zone” (O’Connell Killen & Silk, 2004) with a larger number of people who do not identify with traditional institutional religion (or at least practices associated with them included in survey mechanisms). However, people in the Pacific Northwest are spiritually active, curious, often practicing, and savvy. Christian ministry does not have widely built-in street credibility where we live geoculturally. It carries the burden of a past that has sometimes brought great harm and religion-induced trauma to our neighbors. So, Christianity and Christian ministry sometimes bring hard-earned suspicion. At the same time, the Pacific Northwest is a geo-cultural region where Christianity and interfaith collectives find expression in lively, innovative, and rooted ways, willing to experiment with new modes of ministry in and for our place and time. This spirit of experimentation and partnership has brought opportunities as ministry and community engagement co-produce each other in our city. These arc dynamics that shape both how our neighbors perceive and experience us and how we engage as an institutional neighbor.

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