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Learning Communities: Tamarack - An Institute For Community Engagement

Tamarack: An Institute for Community Engagement:

Tamarack is a charitable organization dedicated to helping Canadian communities take ownership of local issues by making use of proven strategies for community engagement. Community Engagement is commonly defined as citizens from different sectors of a community joining together taking leadership, to address issues that affect them all.

Community engagement focuses learning on ways of building durable relationships that foster improved lifestyles for all community members. The materials presented arae of high quality, yet I find that the voice of community engagement is difficult to find...

The purpose of the Tamarack Learning Centre is described as:

The Learning Centre, established in 2003, is designed to create a fluid, creative system of documenting community building activity and delivering this learning to organizations. The centre has a threefold purpose: to broadly disseminate knowledge gathered through research and practical experience; to help communities increase their power through learning; and to generate knowledge about community engagement so as to advance the field.

Community Engagement: Knowledge Dissemination

The idea of Open Services captures the methods by which Tamarack diseminates knowledge about community engagement. There are currently seven services identified:
  1. Web-based Learning
  2. E-newsletters
  3. Tele-Learning
  4. Resources
  5. Join the Learning Community
  6. Ask the Coach
  7. Workshops Online
These services form the basis for Open Services.

There are two kinds of knowledge mentioned: a) knowledge gathered through research; and b) knowledge gathered through practical experience.

The knowledge created through research refers to a variety of models and processes for developing community engagment. The knowledge created through practical experience is disseminated through case studies.

Helping Communities to Increase their Power Through Learning

Community power refers to the capacity for helping communities to become more independent and self-directed in their learning. Tamarck often refers to the idea of a Vibrant Community, or more specifically, a community of partnerships and multi-sectoral collaboration designed to reduce poverty:

Vibrant Communities provides a process and a working environment where diverse community leaders from across the country work together to share ideas, practices and policies that strengthen their community-based poverty reduction initiatives.

Each Tamarack community initiative is referred to as an active collaborations. It is in this context that the idea of "helping communities increase their power through learning" becomes visible.

Generate Knowledge About Community Engagement

Ideas and knowledge about community engagement are collected and summarized on the About Community Engagement page. There are three parts to this knowledge:
  1. Community Engagement Core Documents
  2. Our Growing Understanding of Community Engagement
  3. Examples Of Community Engagement (e.g. see Vibrant Communities)
Community engagement is, at its core, a learning process. Tamarack has identified key criteria that characterize this learning:
  • A broad range of people are participating and are engaged
  • People are trying to solve complex issues
  • The engagement process creates vision, achieves results, creates movement and/or change
  • Different sectors are included in the process
  • There is a focus on collaboration and social inclusion
  • The community determines local priorities
  • There is a balance between community engagement processes and creating action

This strategic direction is similar to the one implemented in the Connected Intelligence Project. Essentially, various kinds of relationships and connections, or what might be referred to as interaction design, are formed in order to help community members make decisions and take action for themselves. It is a process that is fundamentally different from education.

There is nothing more powerful than an organic learning system that brings together critical components of a community, to learn from and teach one another, to uncover knowledge in both success and even in failure, and to use that knowledge to effect positive and lasting change for all.

The Voice of Community Engagement

One of the areas Tamarack should integrate into the Tamarack Learning Centre is what I would refer to as the voice of community engagement. I was unable to find, although further searching may reveal it, accounts from the community members themselves. In other words, the voice of the people's lives who are being changed are absent, or perhaps just difficult to find.

From a design perspective, it seems to me that to have members in the communities being engaged in some manner is critical to the idea of disseminating knowledge through practical experience. This practical experience is as much about the perceptions of people in the communities as it is Tamarack's. Many of the resources refer us to academic style articles. This is not in itself a problem, but the lack of authentic accounts might be.

The nature of learning being described is largely Tamarack's learning. This is important and valuable, but without the voice of community members who have lived through the experiences of community engagement, learning becomes characterized as knowledge frozen at a particular moment in time. The process of community engagement, one would assume, is highly dynamic and somewhat chaotic.

Interaction Design: An essential feature of community engagement is interactivity, or an orientation to interaction design that spans across a range of people, places and things. This broad understanding of interaction promotes learning as a means to foster new kinds of connections and relationships that benefit people and target specific issues in communities. Without the voice of the community, those people that are directly experiencing the intended benefits of engagement, the nature of learning becomes more oriented toward observation rather than participation.

Of course, Tamarack holds tele-learning seminars, workshops and seminars and it may be that within these learning environments the voice of community members is heard loud and clear. Undoubtedly, there is a voice of community enegagement inspired by Tamarack. Perhaps the Tamarack Learning Centre could capture these true stories and accounts from the front lines of learning.


  • Tamarack Learning Centre
  • Phlia Learning Community
  • Google: Community Engagement

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