May 19, 2020

Healing-Centered Community Engagement – Getting Started


Many community development practitioners are seeking to improve how we conduct community engagement, especially in a context of social distancing. Even without extensive training or background in healing justice or trauma-informed engagement, it’s possible to integrate healing-centered practices into your strategies for facilitation and connection with community members. This document outlines a few healing centered engagement practices that you can start using right away.

Use Introductions to Set the Stage

Introductions can help to cover multiple goals:

  • Drawing out a personal level of connection between participants (without expecting them to bare their souls)
  • Putting people at ease: People are more likely to stay engaged and to contribute when they feel comfortable. Use questions that aren’t difficult to answer to bring people into the conversation!
  • Getting everyone to start participating early: This is a really important factor – when people participate early, they are more comfortable participating throughout the session.

For example: an icebreaker we used for one online workshop was, “Share your name, organization, city/town/place and something you are really good at.”

  • This prompts participants to share something personal, but they get to decide how personal they want it to be.
  • It also focuses on everyone’s unique strengths, which is a fundamental aspect of healing-centered engagement

Foster Personal Connection With Warm-Ups

Warm-ups are good to help participants connect the purpose with their own experience.

For example:

  • When talking about resilience, a prompt could be: Think of a time that was stressful or challenging for you – what helped you get through?
  • When thinking about design: When was a time you noticed how the design of something impacted you? It can be positive or negative – something around your house that you appreciate or that drives you crazy, something on your commute, something related to an experience you’ve taken part in or a technology you have used?
  • The prompt we used in a workshop on healing-centered engagement was “Think about a time when you engaged with someone or a group on a challenging issue and it went well. It can be in your personal life, or it can be in work. It can be related to a community project, or something you needed to address with a family member or friend.” We invited participants to close their eyes and imagine it - What was it like? What space were they in? Who else was there? What was the nature of the interaction? Then, they thought about a word or phrase that captured something about why it went well. Since we were on video, everyone wrote the word on paper and showed it to the camera, so we could all see. People shared words and phrases like “listening” and “having enough time”. This warm-up was intended to draw out the sense of strength in participants, and to remind them that they already know how to do effective community engagement. It was posed to reconnect with what it feels like to be good at community engagement, to reflect on what that looks like, and to be primed to bring that to the discussion.

Be Mindful of Technology

It's helpful and important to take time to orient people to the technology, tools and expectations of engagement, whether in person or online.

  • Be clear about plans and expectations for recording and documentation. In virtual meetings, we often choose not to record with video in order to establish a more trusting space that facilitates openness and sharing, and to protect confidentiality. 
  • If you do plan to record or document any component of the meeting – including the chat record (like we did) – be explicit that it will be shared with participants after the session. That way, people can be mindful of what they contribute, knowing that it will be documented.

Establish Group Agreements

Group agreements make expectations clear and establish an environment of communication, safety, and respect. In doing so, group agreements encourage the type of participation you are hoping for. This can be brief or extensive, depending on the group and context. For a short online workshop, it works well to have the moderator propose some agreements then invite participants to add, clarify, and revise.

In a group that will be working together over time and meeting regularly, or that is embarking on a shared input or decision-making conversation, having the group generate the agreements increases buy in. Priming participants with a few proposed agreements to get the juices flowing is often helpful. Some group agreements that we’ve seen include:

  • No phones/phones on vibrate
  • Take space/make space
  • Be mindful of not talking more than others (“me plus three” is a common guideline)
  • When talking about a meeting or group with others who weren’t there, share the spirit but not the details

Disrupt Hierarchies When Possible

In any engagement, consider how to disrupt the paradigm that the person in front of the room or leading the meeting is the expert. Strive to position participants to share their own expertise, prompting discussion and examples of what they know from their own experiences, and including time for small group conversations.

Some Examples:

  • Sitting in a circle is a simple way to change the physical space in which you meet. In online meetings, this is a challenge! Creating ways where it’s easy for every single person to contribute and participate is important. Having everyone go around and have a chance to speak – even if they choose to pass – is one way to make space for everyone to share. Using the technique of holding the paper up to the screen, if all participants are using video, or using the chat and asking everyone to share one thing at a specific time, can also facilitate a sense of the presence and engagement of the full group.
  • Creating space for open-endedness, storytelling, and non-linear processes that are distinct from spaces and times focused on solutions or decision-making is a good strategy to honor participants’ lived experience and create a healing-centered environment that values people’s contributions without constraints.
  • Allowing space for silence is also an important way to give people time to process without needing to jump into the next activity or hurry to share a thought. Simple pauses enable moments of reflection, slow the pace, and make it easier for participants to be fully present for others.
  • Grounding/meditation/creative practice: There are simple ways to shift the energy of the session – such as when transitioning from logistics to learning – by using a short mindfulness exercise. This can be simple taking three mindful breaths, paying attention to sounds around you or drawing attention to the sensations of your body. Land acknowledgements are another thoughtful way to ground a gathering in place, history, and intention. Taking a poetry break, using a group rhythm activity, or pausing to stretch, are just a few of many mindfulness and creative practices that can help to set a tone, shift energy during a meeting, and build a group's sense of a shared experience. Opportunities to sing, dance, and create visual art together are still proving possible using technology. Creating something together can create a unique bond. In our Climate & Cultural Resilience program site visits, we did a papermaking workshop with participants that shifted the hierarchical dynamic between funder and grantee, allowing for other kinds of conversation and connection to open up.

Additional Healing-Centered Engagement Resources

There are many strategies and practices for healing centered engagement - we hope these examples remind you that it’s possible to start integrating them right away. If you’re looking for more guidance, several people and organizations have been offering inspiring ideas about how to facilitate creative, healing centered community engagement in remote contexts. 

Here are some of our favorites:

What are your recommendations and examples of how to do healing centered engagement? Have you found other guides or toolkits that are useful and inspiring? Stay in touch!

Check out Design Matters, featuring tools from our award-winning Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute. For monthly updates, join our Design Matters Newsletter.

Posted in:
Opp360 logo

For full access to our tools and resources, please provide the information below.

We use this data to better understand our users; we do not sell or share this data. By providing this information, you can expect to receive newsletters and other updates from Opportunity360.