More or less empowering ways to engage with communities?

Once upon a time, during facilitated sessions with the Dudley Community Engagement Working Group, we revisited the Ladder of Participation (we have been working with the Wilcox version for the last few years and this is the one we referred to in this session. Having said that, we have been harkening back to the original Sherry Arnstein version in recent times and it’d be interesting to do that more thoroughly and find out what that’s all about!)

Back to our workshop. We had been looking at community empowerment because the group was interested in developing empowering approaches to engagement in Dudley – and doing this in such a way that it was embedded for the future. We had been working with the 5 community empowerment dimensions and the discussions about engagement led us to think about the different ways in which engagement takes place. This is where the Ladder comes in.

We talked about how it was possible to engage in more (or less) empowering ways on all points of the ladder. Even when giving information it is possible to do it in a way which is more empowering than others. I am sure we have all experienced information with is not empowering  (perhaps a teacher at school who was scary – or bored; or turgid books to read) – and information which is more empowering (perhaps local newsletters, magazines, a spirited speaker at an event where we felt included).

This way of thinking led us to bring together the 5 community empowerment dimensions and the Ladder of Participation into a matrix


Adding the 5 community empowerment dimensions into the mix, it is possible to illustrate how, at each of the 5 levels, there are different ways to approach this engagement – some of which are more empowering than others. This matrix was later taken up by Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council to use in their community engagement toolkit and only last week it rang huge bells when we whipped it out of our back pockets in a meeting!


Monday, March 11th, 2013 Community empowerment, Community engagement

3 Comments to More or less empowering ways to engage with communities?

  • Noel says:

    It’s great to see the development of the community engagement matrix building on the ladder of participation, using the five dimensions of community empowerment.

    I’m going to use this to work out how I perform in my role as co-chair of our cooperative across this matrix and then with the others about how we collectively perform. I imagine that there might be a disconnect between the initial intention of particular forms of participation and how it’s “delivered” and “perceived”!

    We’ve had examples in the past of activities across the ladder of participation. Be great to see examples of activities which demonstrate the different dimensions of community empowerment, i.e. an information giving activity that is inclusive, etc?

  • David Wilcox says:

    Thanks so much for the mention – and delighted the Guide is still useful 20 years after publication! What’s also needed is the participants’ guide to participation … or is that what community organisers are offering, in part?

  • Lorna Prescott says:

    Thanks for sharing this. As one of the individuals involved in the working group referred to, I can honestly say that this has been an incredibly useful way of thinking about participation/engagement stances and it is something I use on such a regular basis in my work that it’s like breathing. I think what the community empowerment dimensions bought to the ladder was a fresh way of overlaying some of the thinking in David Wilcox’s 10 key ideas about participation in his guide (9 of which I think get overlooked as the ladder is visual and sticks in people’s mind). They include a consideration of initiation and process, control, power, confidence and capacity. When I have used the 10 key ideas as something to explore in depth, practitioners have found it really useful and brilliant conversations have been prompted.

    Sadly, what happens more often is that officers mis-understand the ladder, aren’t familiar with the community empowerment dimensions, and don’t read the (essential in my view) detail in David Wilcox’s Guide to Effective Participation. I have seen some really awful documents and presentations based on a complete mis-understanding the ladder of participation (these are usually ones which don’t reference the source either). So although Dudley MBC and others here in Dudley are using the great work you did with us, we still have a long journey for others to understand it.

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