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Promoting Community Engagement: Reflections from Runner #13,165

By Kim Ammann Howard

Recently I ran, or to be more accurate, “sort of ran and mostly walked” the Bay to Breakers, the infamous 12K race in San Francisco. After navigating the course with my 11-year old daughter and more than 50,000 others, I found myself thinking about ways to engage diverse communities in social change efforts. While the race is clearly different from these more complex and long-term endeavors, it did serve as a symbolic reminder of successful engagement strategies that I have observed over the years in social change efforts.

  • Acknowledge, respect and support different entry points: The athletic abilities of Bay to Breakers runners varies dramatically, ranging from professional athletes who run with the intention of breaking course records, to the novice who has trouble ascending hills, to those for whom the term “athlete” lacks personal resonance. The variety of pre-race supports (e.g., training schedules and running clubs) takes into account these differences. Regardless of athletic ability, pre-race conditioning or the extent to which race preparation goals are met, everyone remains welcomed.
  • Embrace different ways of participating: While the universal goal is to complete the race, each participant’s approach to this varies. Race attire ranges from costumes and official running gear to street clothes and even a few birthday suits! Different starting points allow for seeded participants, recreational runners and weekend walkers to enter the race based on anticipated course completion times. Scattered teams, some more formal than others, include small groups of individuals with similarly themed costumes (e.g., this year’s winner was the Royal Wedding Party) to human centipedes that whiz by as leaders call out commands to ensure the unison stride of the multiple feet. Regardless of your interest, there seems to be a place for everyone.
  • Offer incentives for engagement: Bay to Breakers has a number of ways to entice individuals to participate and cultivate race commitment. Runners have opportunities to receive tangible prizes and recognition (e.g., race t-shirts, monetary prizes, fundraising incentives), as well as informal incentives such as social time with friends and opportunities to meet new people, which may be more of a motivation for participation.

As we are involved in community engagement across our various roles (e.g., funder, organizer, evaluator), let’s continue to think about the best structures and processes that welcome large numbers of diverse individuals and groups in a way that respects and builds upon differences, experiences and desires. By creating a welcoming space that promotes individual and collective expression, we can work better towards a shared purpose.