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Lessons and Learnings from Tapping the Potential of Community Engagement 2021

Amid the global pandemic, the climate crisis, and the on-going reckoning with racism at all levels, everyone is doing the best they can to navigate all the things. It’s been a trip. At the Nexus Community Engagement Institute (NCEI), we have been working hard with our community to adapt our work to be joyful, life-giving, and impactful in a virtual space, amidst all that is happening.  

In 2021, we hosted our second online training for Tapping the Potential of Community Engagement, an introduction to the Field of Community Engagement. Contending with Zoom fatigue on top of all these on-going crises, we weren’t sure what participants would walk away with. Turns out, folks learned a lot. And we did too. 

We wanted to pause and offer some of our reflections from this year’s cohort to other comrades in the movement trying to host each other in this socially distanced reality.  


Before we share these reflections, we wanted to take time to share our context. Right now, NCEI is exploring what it means to do our work in this moment, and in this ecosystem of people, communities, and organizations doing the work. Taking our lessons from the natural world, dandelions have been particularly resonant with us. They help new plants grow by enriching the soil with nutrients, by pulling out toxins, and by loosening up soil structure.  

At NCEI, we are trying embrace our role as dandelions. How do we build deep roots and networks of community care while also helping community authorship, leadership and ownership take root within systems?   

One way we do this is through our annual training series, Tapping the Potential of Community Engagement. Our goal is to provide space for folks to explore how culture, healing, history, identity, power, relationships and trust impact community engagement, as well as how they are strengthened through authentic engagement processes (see our Impacts Model here). 

Tapping the Potential 2021 

From the beginning, this iteration of Tapping the Potential felt different. On average, the cohort self-identified as more experienced in communinty engagement than any cohort we hosted before.* Based on past feedback, we also added a fifth, 3-hour session to explore culture change more explicitly, bringing us to a total of 15 Zoom session hours.  

We weren’t sure what to expect—would participants come back after the first session? What would they takeaway? In the end, not only did we retain 95% of the cohort for the duration of the series, but participants also named some powerful learnings and desire to continue pausing for reflection and healing.  

Relationships and healing at the center 

What we learned is that people trying to engage community right now are thirsty to be together. They are committed to pushing systems to do better, but are dedicated to taking care of themselves, to slowing down for self-preservation and their health. Participants named their desire for pause, space for reflection, for healing, and for connection. 

  • “I feel emboldened by the series to stand firm in the approach my team takes to community engagement.” 
  • “Dominant culture/white supremacy is still here, and [I’m learning] how that shows up in myself and the work; healing through community engagement.” 
  • “I plan on building in more time to reset, reflect and repair. Take tips from Pleasure Activism and other healing. I often go 100 MPH and actually even though I am in a good space…I need boundaries and time to slow down…” 

Value the process as much as the outcomes 

In community engagement, we’ve always known that how we do our work is as important—if not more important—than what we do in our work. For our online programming, that principle remains as true as ever. It has been vital that we take time in trainings to build relationships; that we break up Zoom meetings with time for small groups and individual activities; that we dig into deep personal and group reflection; and that we still ‘read the room’ and scrap the agenda at times to make space for emerging needs.  

Participants confirmed this for us: 

  • “This series created/modeled an experience for me that I want to replicate. I want to shift to focusing on the inner circle of the community engagement model.”
  • “The importance of the ‘invitation’ and of ‘presence.’ The way your team used technology and adapted practices in real time was very thoughtful and wise. Maybe the truest expression of the values we discussed.”  
  • “When applying for grants, we will focus more on relationship building as a key goal/outcome.” 

Embed body movement and story-telling 

This year, we took another step towards integrating movement and playfulness into our sessions by mailing participants an interactive Playbook and a fidget spinner. The playbook was designed to spark the deeper dialog that community engagement requires through coloring sheets, stretching activities, I Am Poems, reflection questions, and more. Being vulnerable, speaking truth, and learning from each other’s stories to help complicate our own world view. 

  • “I feel like I learned so much about how to hold space as well as the content…the most important thing I learned is to let go of the idea of ‘knowing’ as a goal and more deeply accepted my place at the start of a powerful journey.” 
  • “The biggest takeaway was how the series modeled the main takeaway that I think you intended, which was focusing on the inner circle of community engagement and letting anything from the outer circle flow from there.” Learn more about our impact model here. 

Life-giving spaces 

There were many other take-aways shared by participants – deeper self-awareness, greater understanding of how community engagement and equity are linked, tools for how to move from outreach toward engagement, stories of successful engagement practices, and more.  

But what stood out most to us was that hosting cohort experiences online can still be life-giving. By intentionally crafting our space and time, we could create opportunities to build relationships, to embrace many ways of thinking and learning, and to let stories and healing to emerge.  

It’s always an honor to host cohort experiences with brilliant and powerful community members – this is why we love community engagement. We learned a lot from the participants in Tapping the Potential this year, and we’re excited to continue deepening our work together moving forward. 


Stay tuned for the re-launching of the Engaged Learning Series this May, and for registration for the 2022 Tapping the Potential series this fall! For more information, email us at 


*82% of participants in Tapping the Potential 2021 identified as “advanced” or “intermediate” in community engagement experience, compared to 73% in 2020, and 51% in 2019.

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At Nexus, we believe that community engagement is central to ushering out the rigged rules, attitudes, and practices that concentrate wealth and power in fewer and whiter hands, and ushering in ways of living, working, and making decisions together that nourish communities for this generation and generations to come. 

The Nexus Community Engagement Institute (NCEI) is committed to establishing beloved communities by co-creating transformation and healing through community engagement. NCEI cultivates our community engagement practices with community through three main bodies of work, which we call growing, gathering and harvesting

As for many others, 2020 brought for us transition, heartache, anger, deeper community love, care, and transformation into new ways of thinking and living into our mission. Within NCEI, this included an explicit, reinvigorated determination to restore power to the people and communities who continue to be harmed by the legacy of cultural genocide, colonization, enslavement, white supremacy, toxic patriarchy, and other systems of oppression. Communities, particularly those directly harmed by oppressive systems, have the right to self-determination and to enjoy full participation in any society.

New Pathways: Where we’ve come and where we’re headed

NCEI honors what has come before, and what is yet to come through broad engagement and co-creation with people doing community engagement on-the-ground. Since 2016, NCEI has been advancing and strengthening communities through equity-based community engagement both locally and nationally. We’ve grown and developed from the work of the Building the Field of Community Engagement collaborative, a four-year initiative designed to magnify and elevate the power of community engagement to change the way problems are solved and resources are invested.

Now, we are re-imagining our bodies of work using the language grow, gather and harvest to more closely align with Nexus values of nourishing and cultivating our relationships with community and one another, as well as healing current and ancestral trauma. We believe using land-based language helps us be in better relationship with community engagement work, knowing that the seeds for systems change we plant now can transform and nourish future generations. 


Grow – in this body of work, we welcome people to the practice of community engagement as a means of achieving racial equity and abolishing oppressive systems. In addition, we expand the tools and networks for folks already doing this work. We call this “grow” because this is where we grow the field through training and workshops in what community engagement is, and how to do it.

Growing includes: 

Tapping the Potential of Community Engagement: a 4-part Introduction to the Field of Community Engagement. This cohort-based workshop series introduces participants to foundational community engagement practices and principles.

Coaching and Consulting: working with institutions, systems and communities to strengthen their ability to implement authentic community engagement policies and practices.

Safety & Justice Challenge: providing community engagement coaching and support to grantees within the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety & Justice Challenge. We work with people in the criminal legal system to rethink public safety and reduce jail populations in the U.S.

GatherGather – in this body of work, we convene folks together in communities of practice. In these gatherings and cohorts, we deepen our practice in using community engagement to eliminate systems of oppression and transform organizations and communities. We call this “gather” because we bring folks together to learn from each other, support one another, and heal from the harm of working within historically oppressive systems.

Gathering includes:

Engaged Learning Series: convenings for community members to learn more about issues and opportunities emerging in the field of community engagement through deep dives and open conversations.

Neighborhood Leadership Program: an annual cohort-based program to support diverse community members to explore awareness of self, work effectively through cultural differences, and take meaningful action in their communities and neighborhoods (see below for more on NLP).

Harvest – in this body of work, we build on the collected wisdom of the folks we’Harvestve grown and gathered with. From this knowledge, we co-create tools and resources to nourish the field of community engagement. We call this “harvest” because we’re harvesting the wisdom that we’ve cultivated together.

Harvesting includes:

Tools such as our Community Engagement Assessment Tool and Impacts of Community Engagement Model.

Stories of Impact of community engagement to support people, communities and systems to explore, embed and expand community engagement principles and practices in their work.


Welcoming the Neighborhood Leadership Program to Nexus Community Engagement Institute 

As we grow, gather, and harvest with communities, we know we must center and remain tethered to people who are powerfully building with their communities. The Neighborhood Leadership Program (NLP), formerly a program of Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, does exactly that—it supports community leaders on their healing and transformation journeys, while grounding them in the engagement practices necessary to build permanently organized communities. 

NLP has been a staple resource in the Twin Cities region for over 20 years, and it has a robust and engaged alumni network with over 600 community members. Each year, NLP brings 25 people together across neighborhoods and identities—like race, class, gender, age, and others—to deepen self awareness, learn skills to work effectively across difference, and create change in their communities. As NLP becomes a core piece of NCEI’s work, we commit to honoring the past, being mindful in the emergent present, and building toward an irresistible future. 

Since early 2021, NCEI staff have been connecting with alumni and partners of NLP to explore how to best honor its legacy and envision its future. The first NLP cohort at Nexus is slated to launch this Fall. Contact mk nguyen for more information or to connect about NLP: NLP @ nexuscp . org.

New Co-Leadership Structure for NCEI staff 

 For us, the transformation and healing had to begin internally. To better reflect our belief in the power of collective leadership to shift oppressive narratives and change systems for the better, NCEI has transitioned into a co-leadership model. This change is an intentional way for us to:

  • Collaborate. More closely reflect the collective way we do our work, allowing for deeper relationship-building across staff and community. By working together more closely day-to-day, we can prevent the isolation that organizational leaders can all too often experience, especially BIPOC leaders.
  • Practice wellness. Distribute a more equitable workload that allows for better work-life balance, time to invest in our own personal healing, and alleviate burnout for directors and staff.
  • Share decision-making. Co-leaders are able to make better decisions by bringing together their experiential knowledge, intersecting identities, and diverse and complementary skill sets.
  • Be more sustainable. Create greater stability and continuity moving forward as we shift, grow and adapt. As individuals transition through their leadership roles at NCEI, our collaborative leadership model will help sustain knowledge, relationships, and practice throughout the Institute.

 We are excited about this new structure, knowing it won’t always be easy. It will require more intentionality, deeper self-awareness and togetherness, which requires more time. It will take longer and be messier – and we’re here for that beautiful, messy, ambiguous and emergent process – because that’s how healing and transformation happens. 


What does it mean to center culture in community engagement? How do our cultural identities impact our relationships in community? How do we get closer to our own stories in order to move away from extractive relationships toward reciprocal relationships?

On November 1st, 2018, Nexus Community Engagement Institute (NCEI) hosted the final Engaged Learning Series of 2018 to explore: What’s Your Story? How Identity & Culture Impact Community Engagement.

Introductions at tables began with creating and sharing I Am Poems, many of which were left to share back with the group.

Panelists Bilal Alkatout, Roxanne Anderson, Vina Kay and Susan Phillips spent the second half of the session sharing how personal identities have influenced how they are engaged, and how they engage others in community. Listen to the video below to hear their I Am Poem introductions. 

Following introductions, NCEI program director Avi Viswanathan asked the panel three questions followed by audience-panel Q&A. Check out the videos below to hear their responses to each question.

Question 1: What does it mean to you to center culture in community engagement work? What identities are you drawing from?

Question 2: How have your cultural identities been impacted by or impacted others when engaging community – either negatively or positively?

Question 3: What advice would you give to this group to build authentic relationships centered in identity and culture?

Audience-Panel Q&A:

This Engaged Learning Series was a brief two and a half hours to begin the discussion about centering culture and identity in community engagement. Feedback from the group included a need to further explore cross-class perspectives and deeper discussion around the impact of white supremacy in community engagement. We hope to continue supporting each other at future Engaged Learning Series in these topics as well as other opportunities and challenges in community engagement.

Check back here to register for future convenings. We hope to see you then!

How do you effectively tell the story and impacts of authentic community engagement? How can we capture, evaluate and communicate the power of community engagement?

Join us for our next Engaged Learning Series to explore Storytelling & Evaluating Community Engagement with a dynamic panel of community leaders.

The session will begin with a facilitated panel with community engagement practitioners from Frogtown Neighborhood Association and another local organization (to be confirmed), who will share how storytelling has been a means of capturing the process and outcomes of authentic community engagement. Following Q&A, we’ll break into small group dialogue to explore challenges and questions regarding effective storytelling and evaluation of community engagement, and what opportunities you see in your own engagement practices to more authentically tell the story of engagement with community.

Date: Thursday, August 9, 2018
Time: 9:00 AM – 11:30 AM

Breakfast & Networking: 9-9:30am
Program: 9:30-11:30am

Location: International Institute of Minnesota
1694 Como Ave
Saint Paul, MN 55108

Click here for more info and to register!

Nexus Community Engagement Institute invites you to: 

Tapping the Potential of Community Engagement:
A 4-part Introduction to the Field of Community Engagement


Dates: June 1, June 8, June 22, June 29
Time: 9:00 am – 12 Noon
Where: UROC Room 105, 2001 Plymouth Ave N, Minneapolis, MN 55411

Description: This workshop series is designed to deepen your knowledge, broaden your perspective, and sharpen your skills as you explore the potential for community engagement to create equitable, healthy, and sustainable communities. The sessions are for anyone who is interested in learning more about community engagement, or for those who wish to deepen their work with community.

Session Topics:

  • Session 1: What is Community Engagement? Why is it Important?
  • Session 2: Effective Tools for Community Engagement
  • Session 3: The Link between Community Engagement and Equity
  • Session 4: Integrate Community Engagement into your Organization’s Work and Culture

Learning Goals:

  • Understand the principles and values of community engagement and how it differs from other practices, such as outreach and the traditional social service model.
  • Learn how community engagement can make your work more effective.
  • Utilize community engagement tools for building relationships, leadership, and ownership.
  • Explore how community engagement leads to equity and how understanding equity is essential for effective community engagement.
  • Assess your organization’s readiness and capacity to incorporate community engagement as an approach in your work.

*NEW THIS YEAR: Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) Cultural Exploration Pre-Work Option: Culture, healingand relationships are central to authentic and sustainable community engagement. Thus, this year we are piloting offering the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) as an optional pre-work add-on for participants who are interested in more deeply exploring culture and identity, as well as challenges and opportunities connecting across difference and commonality. Your confirmation email upon registration will have more information and next steps for opting into the IDI pre-work component, which will take place in May 2018 prior to the beginning of the workshop series.*

Fee: A few scholarships are available, no one will be turned away. Contact Angie for details (see below).

  • Individuals: $450 for all four sessions
  • **Groups of 3-5 from one organization: $400 per person for all four sessions**
  • *Individuals Plus IDI Pre-Work Option: additional $150 per person for IDI group session and individual feedback session in May 2018 – registration is separate and will come with your confirmation email from one of the above selections*

NOTEAttendance at all four sessions is required, as this is a cohort experience and each session builds upon previous sessions.

**Please do not register for more than 5 participants from one organization** -this is to ensure a mix of participants from various sectors and backgrounds for a rich, dynamic experience. Please contact us if you have any questions or concerns about this requirement.

Feedback from Previous “Tapping the Potential of Community Engagement” Participants:

  • “The series is a challenging, inspiring experience that anyone and everyone can learn and grow from.”
  • “I would recommend this workshop series….the conversations, connections, and knowledge learned will help them go from outreach to engagement; from equality to equitable approaches.”
  • “It’s very helpful both as an introduction to CE as well as providing more in-depth training for people already working in CE.”
  • “Prepare to be challenged and accept that what you’ve been doing needs a new perspective.”


About Nexus Community Engagement Institute: Nexus Community Engagement Institute (NCEI) advances and strengthens communities through equity-based community engagement, both locally and nationally. NCEI is continuing the work of the Building the Field of Community Engagement collaborative (BTF).

Facilitators and Presenters: The presenters and facilitators are staff and partners of Nexus Community Partners and Nexus Community Engagement Institute.

Contact Angie Brown at with questions or for more information about scholarships.