Beyond Checking the Box

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Beyond Checking the Box

In community outreach and engagement work, nothing invokes the concept of “Fakequity” more than when agencies (government and nonprofit) do it just to “check the box.”

While many agencies have gotten better and more intentional in outreach and engagement of low-income refugees, immigrants and communities of color – it’s astounding how much they still miss the mark by only seeking to mark that box.

Many agencies still do engagement with half-effort tactics such as inaccessible meetings; short or no timely community notice; translation/interpretation without context and support; duplicative surveying; online-only or email outreach; no follow through and more.

Whether for good PR (that photo opp!), appeasing a higher-up or positioning oneself for funding – to do half-assed community outreach and engagement just to be able to say that you did it is ultimately a waste of time and resources; and a detriment to building authentic community relationships based on trust, respect and self-determination.

The need for agencies to do better inclusive outreach and engagement is to ensure communities are educated, have access to and utilize public services; and where feedback, implementation; leadership and decision-making mechanisms exist to shape the policies and services designed to serve impacted communities.

As there are so many great grassroots organizations and agencies that do this work well, these recommendations really serve more like a “reminder” for opportunities to improve in these practices:

  • Successful engagement makes genuine efforts to maximize social-cultural opportunities to civic participation.Accessible locations; cultural competent technical support with translation, interpretation and facilitation; food, childcare and transportation are some examples of how to maximize participation from low-income refugees, immigrants and communities of color. Timely notice of opportunities for involvement and participation can’t be emphasized enough. Depending on the nature and urgency of the project, I’ve always tried to ensure that my outreach workers have 1.5-2 months to do their work with communities of color in-language for multicultural events. Understandably, there are urgent issues that come up short notice but it’s always a good rule of thumb to give advance notice as possible when attempting to gather diverse community members. Convenings should also be accessible in culturally familiar locations where communities feel more comfortable and at-home to enhance participation – specifically where communities live, work, play, worship, etc. such as a church, mosque, or frequented restaurant/business. Beyond translation and interpretation, limited English speaking (LES) communities often still need additional support to understand technical language and topics. Outreach workers that facilitate discussion in-language and transliterate feedback are critical to engaging LES communities.
  • Do the due diligent research and coordination on whether communities have already been engaged on that particular issue. I was recently reviewing grant applications for a foundation funding policy organizing and a few that I read proposed community engagement efforts to do a community survey on… housing. A topic that’s pretty much been surveyed to death. The fact that there is a local housing crisis and displacement (direct and indirect) is rampant shows the need for more action and implementation versus repetitive surveys. Contact other agencies and collect/coordinate whatever data and feedback was already received on that service or policy. Synthesize past feedback and develop strategies and solutions to use in your next survey or focus group to “check-in” with the community on whether those strategies resonate and can realistically arrive at solutions. This makes people feel that they were heard and that action steps and solutions are being developed to move forward in the process.
  • Report back, follow-up and follow through. Similar to the frustration of repetitive engagement – a huge peeve is when agencies never follow up on the status or results of what was done with the feedback. Or don’t follow-through on a request or action item. It’s this cycle of inaction that further disillusions communities from participating in surveys, focus groups or community meetings and advocacy. A must-do when executing a community engagement plan is to always build in time post-engagement and advocacy for reporting back to community members. Use the names and contact information collected (hopefully you did and you should if you didn’t) during engagement to reach them and inform them on the status, next steps or results of their participation.  The simple action of hearing back from an agency and knowing what was done with their feedback or how their participation made an impact shows respect for that person’s time, builds trust and a deeper commitment to civic engagement.

These “reminders” and recommendations are no means exhaustive and this list can be lengthy. Community engagement is about getting out there, getting to know people, listening, hearing, taking action and following through. The individuals that you talk to are not going to be your first and last point of engagement so make that effort to foster and grow that connection. Above and beyond community engagement, it’s always about building relationships and supporting spaces where impacted communities lead and self-define the types of services and policies that they benefit from; and implement in partnership with other agencies and institutions.

Posted by Cherry Cayabyab

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