Communities United For Peace

Principles of Community Engagement

From the beginning, all the way to the final execution of our project, ethics and community engagement have played an important part of our work. This summer after winning the New Challenge price of $2500, Jillian and I traveled to Caldas, Colombia, to work with victims from the Colombian armed conflict in a community called Pácora.

While we were preparing for the execution of the project in Pácora, I decided to read about steps that are taken when working on community projects. I identified several principles of community engagement found on this website, http://sustainingcommunity.wordpress.com/2013/07/09/ethics-and-community-engagement/ which are:

Careful planning and preparation

Inclusion and demographic diversity

Collaboration and shared purpose

Oral History and Ethics

Openness and learning

Transparency and trust

Impact and action

Sustained engagement and participatory culture

Other principles of community engagement:

1.     Courage

2.     Inclusiveness

3.     Commitment

4.     Respect & honesty

5.     Flexibility

6.     Practicability

7.     Mutual obligation

I will show how some of these principles were incorporated throughout the implementation of our Voces Colectivas project.

Jillian and I have always said that our greatest accomplishment for our Voces Colectiva project was that we planned and design our project one-year prior. The first principle of community engagement is always careful planning and preparation, which should be “through adequate and inclusive planning, ensure that the design, organization, and convening of the process serve both a clearly defined purpose and the needs of the participants.” https://sustainingcommunity.wordpress.com/2013/07/09/ethics-and-community-engagement/

In preparation for the International Field Program Colombia, Jillian and I enrolled in “Rural and Regional Development in the Americas” at the New School, where we studied the economic history of Colombia’s coffee region and also learned about Colombia’s armed conflict, which has been ongoing for more than 50 years. Our greatest learning experience, however, was our time spent living in Colombia and working with people who have lived these realities. 

In 2013, Jillian and I traveled to Colombia as part of the International Field Program. In collaboration with students from La Universidad Autónoma de Manizales, the IFP group developed plans that were going to take place in four municipalities of the department of Caldas, which were Supía, La Merced, Rio Sucio and Pácora.  In Pácora and La Merced, the IFP group found that it is not uncommon for neighbors to still be divided by the conflict, which first arrived at their doorsteps nearly 14 years ago and remained active until roughly 5 years ago.  Those that have experienced forced displacement or have been victims of the violence face unique challenges within these towns. Working with community members in Pácora, Jillian found that victims’ associations were formed to better help them advocate for themselves and to ensure government representation but within these groups there is a lack of cohesion and collective identity; people see themselves as individuals and not as members of a community.


While I worked on my capstone thesis in La Merced, I found that a combination of factors due to the conflict and Colombian trade agreements have resulted in economic stagnation. After the coffee crisis in the 1990s, the tendency of the municipality to concentrate its resources in agriculture has limited economic growth, and thus opportunities for job creation. In addition, the tension and distrust that was born out of the conflict in Colombia has created an unwillingness to collaborate, which has also contributed to the lack of economic growth in the town. The residual effects of the local violence have continued to shape a variety of negative social dynamics that undermine communication and strain community relationships. Distrust and resentment have disempowered the community keeping it from effectively addressing existing social and economic obstacles necessary for growth, including food security despite the abundance and variety of food grown locally.

In addition, while Jillian and I were studying how the conflict had affected  communities in Caldas, we found that there was a gap in literature about the history of the conflict. I sought professional help from a journalist who covered the conflict in Caldas. In an interview with Oscar Veiman Mejía, Regional Editor of Caldas from the newspaper, La Patria, he explained that the greatest battled for victims in Caldas are the displaced population. He stated, 

The post-conflict work in Caldas can be found from the psychological point of view, in the [compensation to the victims] is not only about giving material things and especially with the people that could not stay [in their communities]...but that the biggest psychological conflict for me was about the people that had to come to Caldas. We worked with those people [the displaced population from other parts of Colombia] and to see the face of an elderly that was brutally and forcefully thrown from his town, that to me is a human tragedy, because the man that grew up in his town with his land and who felt free there was forced to leave it all and come to another part of Colombia, that was also in misery and he was nothing there, he was a stranger.

After careful planning and preparation, Jillian and I were ready to travel to Colombia.