Photos by Erik Holladay

You attend Art Hop and concerts in the park. You volunteer at your kid’s school. You write an annual check to your favorite nonprofit. You say hello to your neighbors when you’re walking your dog. Seemingly little actions that are all part of a big thing called community engagement.

Engagement changes the way a community feels to residents and visitors alike, according to Carrie Pickett-Erway, president/CEO of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation.

Daily Engagement

"Engagement is central to the theme of democracy," says Pickett-Erway. "Making life better for Kalamazoo County residents is not something we can do just by writing a check. It requires the daily active engagement of the entire community, bringing the community together. Healthy, thriving communities have people who engage in public life through both large and small actions."

Pickett-Erway notes that engagement includes the alignment of money, physical resources and human/social capital. "For example," she explains, "Education is one of our Big Three Goals. Time, talent, facilities and money have to align so we can move the needle on an issue that big.

If we really want to become the most educated community in the country and retain our best and brightest students, the Community Foundation and school systems can’t do that alone. More people in the community have to become engaged, work together and use our collective resources more efficiently."

Turning Outward

When it moved into its new home last year, the Community Foundation made a physical statement about how it wanted to be seen by others and work with the community. "Our philosophy of engagement ties back to this building," says Pickett-Erway. "Because we’re in a highly accessible, visible space, we’re able to open our doors even wider to the community to engage with us directly. We were delighted when people poured in during our open houses. I hope they will come to think of this as a home of their own.

"This new space allows us to turn even more outward," she continues. "It’s creating a culture shift here. We know that before we start initiatives the first thing we need to do is deeply engage the community. Do we understand the problem accurately and the multiple perspectives people will have? Who’s already doing great work around an issue so we don’t duplicate efforts?"

2015: Our 90th Birthday

The Community Foundation is celebrating its 90th birthday in 2015, and change is going to continue. "We plan to start some work this year around a new equity initiative," Pickett-Erway states. "Initially, we will assess current equity efforts in the community."

The Community Foundation’s annual community meeting in November — which will feature writer, journalist and educator Ta-Nehisi Coates as its keynote speaker — also will focus on equity. The Community Foundation engaged with area nonprofits and individuals involved with equity efforts in selecting Coates as the speaker for the event. In the meantime, the Community Foundation is planning more activities to engage its grantees, including collaborative learning forums.

Says Pickett-Erway, "As we celebrate our 90th birthday in 2015, we’re looking for new and exciting ways to engage with the community, including taking positions on important social issues. We want to become even better at reaching out to others so we can make this community we love stronger. We welcome all input."