“Defining a Community Member” by Patricia Terstenyak

Are you looking for input from community members to make your program better?  Do you want to include community members so you can be inclusive?  These questions are frequently revered as good program planning questions.  However, how your organization defines community members will make the largest impact.

In the Community Research Scholars Initiative, this topic has surfaced on numeral occasions.  At a recent community-based meeting, I was considered a community member since I’m not a researcher – fair enough.  In that particular instance, there were only two choices to select – researcher or community member.  Sometimes a person can be classified as a community member by their zip code of residence/geographic location, socio-economic status, or in my case, type of employment.

Community members can also be defined by a shared common experience or certain characteristics.  Examples are the HIV community, medical community, senior community, Black community, Facebook community and suburban/urban community.  A person can choose to belong to a community (Facebook) or membership can be imposed (HIV).

Of course, there are many details to consider when defining a community member; program goals and objectives and the intended audience of stated intervention. Though one larger question remains – are organizations imposing their definition of a community member on someone? 

Your intended audience belongs to a community that influences their behavior and beliefs, especially health beliefs.  Individual characteristics, common experiences, even a zip code or neighborhood can all shape health care interactions and beliefs.

How does your organization define community members?  Do those community members agree with your organizations’ definition?