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Education Corner: Demographics Key to Community Engagement


Parks, facilities, and programs are the three basic services offered by park and recreation agencies for individuals and the community, each providing numerous social and physiological benefits fundamental to a higher quality of life. These services function as a catalyst for individuals to engage and build trust with their local government and people within the community. With the US population becoming remarkably more diverse each year, this trust becomes increasingly more difficult to obtain because there are more distinctions to be realized. Thus, the case is made for the necessity to invest in resources that will identify key community demographics because it will induce an effort to review and expand on the current scope of services offered to people in your community.

As explained in the 6th Edition Certified Park & Recreation Professional (CPRP) Study Guide, there are different types of service user levels, ranging from ‘high user’ to ‘non-user’. Practitioners are taught the end goal is make everyone a high user of agency services, and that its more cost effective to focus on advancing light-to-medium users because they’ve already bought into the agency brand and trust the services afforded to them will meet their needs. In other words, common practice says time is money, and working with existing customers is easier and more cost effective than trying to fortify new relationships that theoretically will not provide the same return on investment. Unfortunately, neglecting non-users generally means excluding people from underserved and marginalized communities, thus contradicting the very essence of public service in providing places for health and well-being that are accessible by persons of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds.

Let’s be clear, collecting demographic information is not new because its common practice for things such as program planning and capital development. The challenge here is intentionally immersing oneself into the non-user communities to better understand their needs. This requires time and money, both precious resources on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it also requires one to be vulnerable and accepting to the fact that this work will challenge biases and necessitate some grace for oneself and others.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach because not all agencies have the same fiscal, physical, technological, and human resources, but that shouldn’t discourage anyone from doing the work. Jessica Hersman at the Buffalo Grove Park District says her agency has used a variety of approaches to better understand their community demographics. She states, The Buffalo Grove Park District uses traditional methods such as surveys, and we are actively engaged with other community organizations. Communicating openly with businesses, schools, and places of worship have helped us gain a sense of the individuals we are serving, not just the groups.”

Jon Marquardt at the Skokie Park District says his agency has been able to expand its scope of service with a better foundational knowledge of its community demographics. Says Jon, “The more you are visible in the community the better you are understanding it. The turtle doesn’t know the world if he keeps his head in his shell. The more visible you are the more voices you hear. More voices lead to more ideas which lead to better programs and services.”

As we turn the corner into 2023, I challenge you to connect with your team to talk about the non-users in your community. Ask if you can identify those individuals and groups and what can be done to engage them in your parks, facilities, and programs. Make no mistake, this is a challenging task that requires you to be very intentional with your efforts, but understand it will result in a better understanding of your community and more diverse portfolio of opportunities for engagement. I’d say that’s a worthwhile investment, wouldn’t you agree?

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