My Definition of “Engagement” for Imagining America 2011 (word limit)

Rather than engagement, which evokes a sense that we are focusing on something static, completed, or defined, my experience in community work has centered around engaging – an ongoing and fluid process of engagement. In my experience, engaging involves a process of defying social expectations in ways that provide real space for connection. This can happen in coffee shops, community centers, or lecture halls. I notice it with a particular barista at a favorite coffee shop who asks, ―”What are you doing today?” rather than ―”How are you?” This change of question invokes a profoundly different interaction. Engaging comes in many forms. After a violent shooting at a community center in which I was working, a young person who had prior barely spoken a word to me for months asked if I was scared. Answering ―”yes” was engaging, taking a stand of my own (rather than the stand I was expected to take) and revealing my own weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Opportunities to engage are everywhere, with people of all kinds, in any context. While these opportunities may be planned, engaging is an active choice, made in the moment, to be vulnerable and open.

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