Community-engaged practice – the basics

Chapter extract from ‘The Relationship is the Project’

By Jade Lillie


There are many approaches to working with communities across the arts and cultural sectors.  Some references phrases such as ‘giving voice to communities, making space for communities and social change for communities,’ others are committed to co-curation and collaboration – in language and practice.

In contemporary contexts, we know that imposing ideas and aspirations upon communities lacks sophistication, insight and in fact, inspiration.  We know that co-curating, co-creating and true collaborations are driven standing side by side, almost looking out to the same view so that have the conversations about the issues and potential solutions that we might be wanting to explore through a project or opportunity.

The Relationship is the Project (The RITP) is a collection of works by practitioners and artists who are working in collaboration with communities.  This new resource intends to be a set of provocations, thinking and learning tools for practitioners who are interested in working more effectively with communities and artists.  It has been developed based on the wide-ranging questions that I have been asked, again and again, over time – culminating in my role as the Director and CEO at Footscray Community Arts Centre (FCAC) from 2012 – 2017.  There is a genuine interest in learning how to work within community engaged contexts and unfortunately, very few places to learn how to that does not involve learning ‘on community time.’

As are the Co-creating Change principles– time, care, trust, respect, process, risk, reflection and generosity – these are key to contemporary, community engaged practice and explored throughout The RITP.

Thank you to Liz for the invitation to share these first chapters with you. It has been a great pleasure to curate an incredible group of Australian practitioners to share their thoughts and wisdom from February 2020.


Welcome to The Relationship is the Project.

This is a book of practical tips, tools and provocations for those who are currently, or interested in working with communities. It is intended to be a solid starting point for artists, cultural workers and other community engaged practitioners who want to bring new perspectives and ideas to their work. Community-engaged practice is not an artform. It’s not an add-on. It’s a way of working: a deep collaboration between practitioners and communities to develop outcomes specific to that community.Changing from project to project, community to community, it belongs amongst every artform, strategy, organisation and remit that has a focus on working with people.Community-engaged practice is social, cultural and political. It can be used as a framework to tell stories, explore issues and deliver beautiful and powerful projects. It can be used to shape the narratives of our time, as communities, as artists and as citizens.The Relationship is the Project is a response to the growing interest in working better with communities, in finding out how to develop relationships that foster creativity, cultural engagement and audiences. In it, you’ll find wisdom from practitioners and thought-leaders from across Australia, mostly working within the fields of arts, culture and community development (though their learnings can be applied across a range of sectors and contexts).


BREAK OUT BOX: What’s in a name?

What do we mean by community? A ‘community’ can be a geographically connected group of people, a group of children, young people, or people who have a shared language, interest or cultural identity. It’s important to remember that most people belong to more than one.

How do we talk about our work with those communities? From ‘CCD’ to ‘CACD’ oldfashioned ‘community arts’, not having a shared terminology around working with these communities means that our sector has not had a united message, voice or set of principles for this work.

Many terms have been used to describe community-engaged practice. These include:

  • Community arts
  • Community Cultural Development (CCD)
  • Community arts and cultural development (CACD)
  • Social practice
  • Participatory practice
  • Community engaged contemporary arts practice

Of these, Kate Larsen notes that “community-engaged practice is emerging as a contemporary alternative ‘community arts and cultural development’. The term helps encapsulate non-artistic as well as artistic outcomes (even if those outcomes are achieved using art as a tool), avoids the negative connotations of ‘community arts’, and provides a distinction from ‘community-led practice’ for organisations that are not majority-led or governed by the communities they represent.”


Process makes perfect

Community-engaged practice is an incredibly effective way to create great outcomes (and great art) with artists, practitioners and communities. Key to its success is the development of a solid process for the ways you will work and the ways you’ll get input from the community and other stakeholders. You can start by thinking about the design of your project or experience in the following ways:

  • Invitation: You don’t have to wait for an invitation to start talking about a project, but it is very important that you are invited to continue. Ask the questions: Is this idea something that you would like to explore? Is this something we could do together?
  • Research: What other projects have happened in the context before (it’s unlikely you will you be the first)? Who was involved? Which organisations have a history of working in a particular place or with its community? Talk to them. Be sure to look for arts and non-arts organisations – working with communities means understanding the broad stakeholder groups. Understand the current community context as best you can without having to ask all of the same questions of the artists and community members you are working with.
  • Design: Some practitioners will co-design the project with their collaborators and participants, while others will design a project it themselves and then take it to communities for input. Both ways are appropriate at different times – it really depends on the context. Ask people how they’d like to be involved and go from there.
  • Delivery: Best laid plans can (and do) change. Your delivery stage needs to be the most flexible part of the process. Be open to change and re-direction at all points.
  • Outcome: Some practitioners believe that the outcome can’t be not known until the process is finished. Others (like myself) think you can generally know where it is heading while acknowledging that there must be a willingness to shift if needed. The most important thing is that the outcome is something that everyone can be proud of, and that it has been given the time and expertise to become the best it can be. If the relationships or trust have been damaged in the pursuit of the outcome, this could be considered an #epicfail.
  • Reflection: This is something we rarely make time for but that is very important. We need to celebrate successes, find out if something hasn’t gone well, and learn how to adapt when you next do something similar. Reflection should happen with all project stakeholders – artists and participants, colleagues and partners. It can come in the form of surveys, focus groups, sharing a meal with a community group, leading a structured conversation, or informal conversations with stakeholders. Build capacity for reflection into the design of the program and co-design the process together.


Things to keep in mind

What makes a great community-engaged practitioner? The attributes and qualities required to be able to work with respect and impact in community contexts include:

  • The ability to really listen. Often, this includes listening to things that are not being said. Non-verbal cues are also important to observe. Be patient.
  • An interest and commitment to people (other than yourself) being the visible ‘face’ of the project. This means you need to be happy to take a back seat and make sure other people have the opportunity to speak first.
  • A clear agenda. There are a range of ways and reasons for using a communityengaged framework, but it is important that you are clear and upfront about your own agenda. Is it because it is simply your job? Is it because you received funding? Is it your organisations mission and vision? Are you trying to move into a more engaged practice framework for your next work? Whatever the reason, be clear (and honest) about it.
  • Remembering that you are being paid. This ‘payment’ could be through a grant or organisation or even your choice to volunteer on a project. It doesn’t matter what or how much you’re getting paid. You are still receiving some kind of benefit to lead or work on an initiative. This will not be the case for the people you are working with (unless they are being paid to participate). This can create a power imbalance, so it is important to be clear about what this means for all of the stakeholders involved.
  • Great facilitation and communication skills. These develop over time, but you’ll need to be a great communicator to be a great facilitator.
  • Flexibility. Things will change and shift throughout the project. Whether you’re dealing with a change in direction for the project, location, timeline or creative team, flexibility is key.
  • Time. Collaboration always takes more time than you anticipate. This is particularly important when starting to engage with a new community. Take the time, meet the right people, make the connections that will develop the idea. This means it can be difficult to be part of multiple community-engaged projects at the same time (unless you are part of an organisation or team).
  • Excellent organisation skills. If you’re not organised, your project is unlikely to be a good experience for you or the communities you are working with. It is very important to respect the time of the people participating in the project. By being organised, you are being respectful. Work with other people who can provide the skills you lack.
  • Know yourself. What are you good at? What are your flaws? What are your biases and how do they impact the ways that you work? Are you racially literate and culturally competent? What don’t you know? How can you find out the things you don’t know? What are the skills and capabilities you bring to this project? What are your gaps?
  • Ask, don’t assume. Making assumptions is one of the ways we cut corners in community-engaged contexts. Even if you have been working with a group of artists/communities for a long time, it’s important that you continue to ask questions and clarify that you are on the right track.
  • Reflection. Make sure you take the time to evaluate (throughout), reflect and assess. What would you do differently? What worked well? Celebrate the successes and leave the door open for the next conversation.

To pre-order The Relationship is the Project please follow the link:


About the writer

Ph credit: Sarah Walker 2019

Jade Lillie is an executive, facilitator and cultural leader with 15 years of not-for-profit experience in arts and culture, community engagement, education and more recently, community health

Specialising in strategy, co-design, governance, people and culture, Jade has worked in government and non-governments settings in Queensland, Northern Territory, Victoria and SE Asia.

She is known for her skills and expertise in strategy development, governance capabilities and her commitment to collaboration, cultural leadership and advocacy in championing diversity and access.

She is currently working as a consultant for arts and cultural organisations in Australia along with her role as Director, Public Affairs at cohealth. Jade was the Director and CEO at Footscray Community Arts Centre from 2012 – 2017.

In 2017, Jade was the recipient of the prestigious Sidney Myer Creative Fellowship for her thought leadership in contemporary, community engaged practice.  Thanks to the time and space afforded through the fellowship, Jade’s book project, The Relationship is the Project will be published in early 2020. The RITP is a curated collection of works by leading contemporary, community engaged practitioners.

Jade is a Board Director for Diversity Arts Australia and Everybody Now!



Larsen, K, Best Practice Arts Language, larsenkeys website




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