Debunking Family and Community Engagement Myths

6167858Bob was one of my all time favorite colleagues; he served as deputy director of a state government agency. Bob was a jokester and prankster. Our work together was epic, during one conference call my co-worker Sarah and I sat in her car in the pouring rain listening in as Bob and Joel laughed for 45-minutes about little things, we managed to focus the last 15-minutes to talk about creating a parent focused leadership program. One of the lessons Bob taught me is “Any time the word parent or community shows up on a committee assignment, run the other way.” His point was family and community engagement takes a different skill set to do and get right.

Family and community engagement aren’t easy, it takes intentional effort to get right and it takes continuous work, it is really more about a values and belief system than a set of tasks. Families and communities are constantly changing and it takes leadership and dedication to continue to meet the changing needs. The rewards show up later when the investment of upfront time and work pays off with families feeling valued and have a sense of belonging. 

Family and community will be used interchangeably in this post. 

Debunking the Myths
Racial equity work requires us to engage with communities of color who are different than us and with communities who lack access, are further from opportunities, or have barriers to full participation. People want to be seen, heard, and have their experiences validated – this is at the heart of why we should practice community engagement. Here are a few myths we can debunk about community and family engagement:

MYTH — It is someone else’s job: True community engagement is someone’s job, and it is everyone’s job. Many schools and organizations have specific staff positions such as a “family engagement specialist” or “community organizer” whos job it is to go out and make connections with families and communities – this is great, and not enough. It is everyone’s job to engage with the community, from top leadership down to back office and maintenance staff. 

Front office staff are often the first people a community member meets when they walk into a school, health clinic, or office. When we greet a community member warmly, say hello in the person’s native language, and demonstrate we want to get to know the person it lends itself to a much more positive experience. Principals and leaders need to engage with families too and not delegate it to a family engagement specialist or others. We need to see and hear directly from our communities. Authentic community engagement starts with all of us believing and demonstrating how important engagement is. Another colleague who runs a school once told me everyone, including her janitor and back office staff, engage with students and families. She expects everyone on campus to know students and families and to be able to greet them by name.

MYTH — Family and Community Engagement isn’t an Initiative or a Shiny New Program: We have infatuations with shiny new programs stolen or borrowed from other communities — stop it. Don’t watch a YouTube clips about how a program engaged with a particular community and test scores jump up, crime went down, and all of the trees are saved and think bringing it to your community will be like the miracle drink kombuca solving your gut problems. Instead leave YouTube alone and go talk to someone new (preferably a person of color) and ask them about their experiences both good and bad. People want to talk about what isn’t working and how they can help to make it better, let them define a problem and most likely they can help to solve it in some way. 

MYTH — You Can Rely upon the Community to foot the bill, or Community Engagement is Free, or Why are they asking for Money to “Just Talk to their Community”: I recently opened an email asking if I could help recruit immigrant/refugee parents/ELL families for a task force. I emailed back asking if the organizers would provide translated documents, interpreters, child care, transportation stipends, and a stipend for participation. The answer was no – no money available. I let them know I would push out the announcement, but I wasn’t willing to do the harder work of asking my contacts to join the task force. I was ‘gatekeeping’ and this could be interpreted as fakequity, but I wasn’t willing to invite families in and burn a relationship if the experience wouldn’t be a quality one for families. If we say we want authentic engagement, then we need to provide the resources to make sure it is a great experience for families who need the most support. Do it right, offer to remove barriers to participation; put another way invest money in these efforts – offer stipends and value community members time, offer high quality interpretation, buy good food, provide child care if participants want it, etc.

MYTH — Check the Box and Call it Done: Things like “family engagement month” or “cultural week” are not good family engagement strategies. You can can’t confine engagement to a time period, you’ll never be done with community and family engagement. As long as your organization is alive you need to be engaging with the community. Events like family engagement month or cultural week are fine if they are the start or the culmination of ongoing work (such as the end of a school year or the end of a cohort), they should reinforce an ongoing relationship where communities and people of color have a voice and belong to the broader community.

What Community Engagement is: Creating a Sense of Belonging
We live in communities and we are predisposed to wanting to feel like we belong to something bigger and larger than ourselves. Good engagement validates a person’s experience and allows connections to be made. When we connect with people, especially people who aren’t who we usually hang out with or are easy to be with, we learn new things. 

We create authentic relationships when we value each other. This means we have to be open and we have to check our egos – communities of color and people of color have so much to offer to all of us when we are willing to suspend our agendas and power trips. Listen and validate people’s experiences, you don’t have to agree but you do need to acknowledge their experiences are valid.

Finally, one of the last lessons I learned from my former colleague Bob was how to have fun and still get work done. When we laugh and enjoy each other community engagement moves slower and faster. We slow down to enjoy each other, but the work moves faster. In another post I’ll have to share the story of Bob bringing a six-foot blow up zebra to a meeting – that was community engagement at its questionable best.

Posted by Erin Okuno. Special thanks to University of Washington College of Education Danforth 28 for helping to shape the post.

Fakequity in Surveys — Surveys are Not Community Engagement

Earlier this week I opened an email from someone I didn’t know asking me to take a survey about equity in education. I closed the email without taking the survey. I’m tired of taking surveys, especially from people I don’t know. I’m saying no more taking surveys unless I know the person sending it, or if there is a prize or compensation attached – I can be bought, often for the price of a taco. I realize I’m being a survey hypocrite since my organization just ran a large successful survey project. I know the value of a good survey and the data generated can be powerful. But I’m tired of being over-surveyed by askholes (people who ask questions and don’t listen to the answers); so many of the surveys are well intention but poorly designed or executed the data becomes meaningless and waste time, resources, and burns goodwill.

Surveys do not Substitute for Community Engagement
Often times organizations produce a survey “to hear” from the community. Just this week, I’ve gotten four request to complete surveys. All of these well-intention surveys are asking questions about topics important to them, but I don’t know what I’m gaining or what communities of color are gaining by filling out the survey. Is launching a survey a way of ‘checking the box’ and saying the community had a say in the project? Will things change because of the survey results? Is the survey collection method right for the community being asked? Asking without first listening is fakequity; good surveys are driven by the community and the community has ownership over the process and data.

How to do better surveys
A good survey design produces good survey results; vice versa crappy design produces crappy results, and fakequity in the design produces fakequity in results. Designing a survey rooted in the principles of equity will produce more equitable results. This isn’t hard, but it takes intentional thought and work.

One of the first steps is to look at who has a say in the survey design. The project should be centered in communities of color, which means you are doing the upfront work of gaining trust and buy-in, communities of color have a say on what is included and counted, and communities have control of the data. Inclusiveness is a key step in engaging the community.

My organization just completed a big survey project. Our design team was made up of a diverse group of stakeholders. We were thoughtful in putting together the team to include a mix of people, including parents of color, school partners, and community based organizations. We also invited partners to expand the table as we went along. This team guided the survey design process. They had a say and ownership around what data was captured, how questions were written and translated, and how surveys were disseminated and collected.

On the flip fakequity side, I recently reviewed survey data from a process put together by a small insular team. The return rate from people of color was so low it wasn’t a representative sample and the results were invalid for communities of color, essentially wasting the time of the people of color who took the survey.

Survey Delivery Methods – SurveyMonkey FTW (for the win), WRONG
Online surveys have become the default method of collecting surveys. Online methods definitely have their perks: cost effective, easy to put together, eliminates the need for data entry, and they are easy to disseminate. However, we need to ask is the ease of use still the right way to get results? One of the biggest limitations with online surveys is in-person engagement is lost. Online surveys are a one-way communication stream out then in, they don’t allow for dialogue to happen while taking the survey. Many people of color, especially non- or limited-English residents, benefit from having a translator and/or cultural broker who can explain the survey questions to gather the feedback.

My colleague Jondou shared a story about working on a survey translation into Somali. His Somali colleague looked at the survey and said “Somalis don’t talk like this. We are more direct and we ask open ended questions. You took an American survey and translated it into Somali, that doesn’t make it a Somali survey.” He also shared a similar story out of the Chinese community. Jondou was orally translating a survey and the survey taker was getting agitated. After a few questions he paused and said (in Chinese)  “I know this isn’t how Chinese people talk, these are American questions,” after  acknowledging the 4950589questions were biased and not culturally appropriate they were able to continue. These types of dialogues and exchanges can’t happen over a computer screen; they happen in person and where the experience is validated.

Paper surveys are much more adaptable for focus groups, interviews, and guided conversations around survey collection. Paper also wins when you have little children who want to ‘help’ you complete a survey – the picture is of a survey completed by a preschooler; can’t get that experience over a computer screen. Community engagement starts young.

Invest in People for Better Results
Racial equity work happens best when there is a relational component. When we invest in people we get better results. As you design surveys think about the people part of the project, what is the experience you want to give people? Don’t focus on the data, focus on people of color.

Quick tips:
Design team: Ensure you have diverse voices helping to write the questions.

Translation: Translate your survey to make it language accessible, and ensure the translation is appropriate and high quality (have a second person proof the translation). We also have to acknowledge having it translated is at best a minimum step, it is still an American/dominant culture survey and may need cultural brokers to help explain the nuances of the survey.

Allow for multiple ways to take a survey: Invest in multiple ways to take the survey, online, paper, focus groups, interviews, etc.

I have more to write about around survey designs and how to keep the experience positive for communities and people of color, but I’ll save the rest for future posts. Feel free to post questions or email us if you have thoughts or questions for a future post on surveys,

Posted by Erin Okuno

We Don’t Work Together (yet), We Don’t Write a Grant Together

2704913_origSeveral months ago we wrote about the importance of trust in partnerships. We need to revisit the topic, especially as it relates to grants and grant application processes. Grant making and grant seeking are like dating, most people don’t marry someone after one date or after just seeing their Tinder profile. Grant making is very relationship driven, who you know and how you work with each other are telling, especially as it relates to race and equity. Relationships allow good organizational partnerships to develop.

Do Your Really know who you’re partnering with?
Fakequity shows up in the grant application process from the moment you ask a POC led or centered organization you haven’t worked with to partner with you on an application. We’re going to assume your intentions are in the right place, but it is completely the wrong approach. We think of it as being the same as the good old friend request on Facebook. You know the person you have to search to even see who you know in common? We may have met once or twice, but are we really friends? For the formal business people, like LinkedIn when you get an invitation to link to someone, but you have no idea who the person is, do you accept the invite to connect or hit delete? (For the record we only link to people we actually know. Very awkward getting a text from a colleague asking for a reference for someone we are connected to on LinkedIn and having to text back saying you have no idea who they are talking about — that um, never happened.)

Reaching out to an organization to partner in a grant without a meaningful connection is fakequity. If your organization is seeking to partner on a grant, stop and ask yourself if you’ve really done your own work to build a relationship with the organization. If you haven’t stop typing an email to [fill in the blank PoC centered organization], your organization has some work to do before asking if they will partner on a grant.

A grant cycle or a grant application shouldn’t drive how you form a partnership. The collaboration should begin long before an application is on the horizon. As an example, a few months ago a colleague met a professor at an event and exchanged business cards. Professor X invited us to his center to learn more about our organization and to share what he’s working on. Throughout the meeting we verbally danced, saying nice things and asking questions, finally at the end of meeting we asked “What are you hoping to gain?” Professor X answered truthfully: “access.” He wanted access to our networks since he wants to focus his research more on closing achievement gaps.

We don’t want to be seen as gatekeepers to communities of color, but in reality we sometimes have to. Our reputations are on the line, we don’t want to be seen as “the person who brings in bad partners.” We went back to Professor X and said we would like to get to know him and his work better and encouraged him and his team to attend our meetings and get to know us. Professor X said he would attend our meetings and he has. As a result, we’ve gotten to know each other and build relationships. Professor X has met with others in our network so they now know him as well. All of this led to us joining in on a grant proposal. We’re looking forward to connecting and working together.

The Approach – Like the First Date
If you are looking to collaborate with an organization centered in a community of color please be aware of how you are approaching a people of color based organization. Skip the ‘savior’ mentality of thinking you’re doing someone a favor, or the “you owe us, because we serve kids of color” entitlement and privilege lines. Be polite and say nice things.

Recently an organization called seeking to partner and gave us the worst first grant date pickup line ever, layer in a tone of judgment, annoyance, and privilege: “You never pay attention to us. You only pay attention to those kids over there. … We want you to be the lead partner on a grant that is due in three weeks.” Erin almost hung up on them, well it was only because she was trying to take them off of speaker phone. Not a great way to build a partnership. Starting with “Hi, we really appreciate the good work you’ve done with XXX, can we explore expanding?” is a nicer way to start.

Here are some examples of how to shift your thinking as well as your approach and some examples that highlight what this work looks like when done the right way.

1. Understanding everyone’s mission. Is the mission of each organization aligned? If it’s not, then stop here. You should not even be considering applying for a grant together. Collaboration implies we share similar goals for our work.

2. Do we have a history of collaborating in the past? What was the outcome of the project? What did you learn that could help inform future work together?

3. If you have no history of working together, what have you done to intentionally learn more about their work and more importantly the communities they serve that make it all possible?

4. What are the responsibilities of each agency? Is the project mutually beneficial?

Sealing the Deal – Marriage via a Grant
Equitable grant relationships are like panda bears – all shriveled with squinty eyes and tiny bits of fuzz, but when nurtured and fed a rich diet of bamboo and trust, they grow into cute and strong equity minded pandas. Part of growing a baby panda into a bear is knowing who is in charge of the feeding versus the licking the bear clean (or whatever you have to do to keep a panda alive). We’ve partnered together on several projects and a few grant funded projects. What made the grants work well was having a great working relationship to start with, we’ve also developed several short hand codes: “Hey can you do the outreach to your folks, and I’ll work with the coalition.” We also talk openly about race and push each other to do better. Since our early grant marriage has led to a genuine like of each other we can now partner on other things – like this blog and fighting fakequity.

Posted by CiKeithia Pugh and Erin Okuno


5208223Wednesday was GiveBIG day in Seattle and about 50 other cities across America, also known as Give Local America! GiveBIG is a big day for a lot of nonprofits in the Seattle and Western Washington region. The Seattle Foundation, which runs the day, set a goal of having $20-million raised on the day, much of it driven by an incentive pool of funds – every gift given through the Foundation’s website will be ‘stretched’ by a pool of money the foundation raised. Hooray, for $20-million flowing to nonprofits.
A few members of the Fakequity team compared ‘equity’ notes about GiveBIG, including the good and the bad. We also consulted a few colleagues at nonprofits of various sizes and in different fields to get their perspectives.

GiveBIG – the Good
Despite all of the gripping about how many GiveBIG emails people got, I had over 65, it is a concentrated day of giving with excitement. When GiveBIG first started in Seattle it was during the middle of a recession and fundraising was hard. The day really shook people out of a giving malaise and raised important money to support the work of many nonprofits. We shouldn’t take this for granted.

For many smaller nonprofits, like the one I work for, the return on investment (ROI) of time and effort is decent. Collectively our staff put in about eight hours of work. With this investment of time we raised more than we would have if we had tried to pull together a special event, or write a grant for the amount of money we raised. GiveBIG is a great way for our small nonprofit to have an individual giving drive without creating one from scratch.

We also appreciated the outreach provided to smaller nonprofits. Before GiveBIG the Seattle Foundation staff reached out to many smaller nonprofits and invited us in for technical assistance/help sessions, which was great.

So with all of this said there are things that can be improved.

GiveFAKEQUITY – the We Can Do Better Part
We need to acknowledge not all nonprofits are starting from the same playing field. Small nonprofits don’t have the same staffing as a large hospital, university, or well-resourced institutional nonprofit. I know many of the larger nonprofits will complain that even they don’t have the level of resources they would like to take full advantage of the day, but we need to acknowledge some are better resourced than others. In reality the organizations with the least resources need the support of the GiveBIG platform the most.

Last year I got so annoyed with my alma mater’s GiveBIG emails; I wrote back and asked Social Justice Minded University to forgo taking the stretch gift because others need it more – they didn’t email back, shrug. As a university they have at least triple the staff a small nonprofit working on just fundraising which means they can raise more funds. I’m all for them raising loads of money to support their scholarship fund which in-turn may support students of color. From an equity and community minded lens, is it appropriate for larger organizations with more fundraising ability to draw down from the stretch donation pool at an equal proportion? Probably not.

Another example, a larger organization shared a tip, incentives work. In their case delicious cupcakes – I’ll admit I donated a few extra dollars to qualify for their cupcake gift certificate. I love this organization, but I also see their ability to tap into donors who can donate gift certificates as an advantage over other organizations. Smaller nonprofits don’t always have the same donor base.

Several colleagues mentioned GiveBIG is beginning to feel a little like a popularity contest and like the Hunger Games – May the GiveBIG Odds be Ever in Your Favor. I wonder when did we lose the feeling like we are coming together as a community to support our organizations. The excitement is great and important, but I still believe in the truism donations and gifts should be made in the spirit of giving and connecting.

GiveBIG Next Year – More Equity, Less Fakequity
Here are a few suggestions of ways to embed more equity into the day:

Use an equity filter: If the goal is to raise as much money as possible, great the current structure encourages this. If the goal is run through an equity filter then the goal needs to be adjusted and we need to acknowledge resources, especially the stretch donation pool, needs to be allocated differently. An equity lens shows smaller organizations, especially people of color centered organizations, will benefit MORE from the stretch gifts than larger more established nonprofits.

Reallocate the stretch pool: Cap the amount of funds larger organizations (i.e. universities, hospitals, etc.) qualify for. Such as allow them to participate but forgo the stretch, or cap the stretch to $5,000 or some number so they don’t water down the stretch that benefits smaller nonprofits more. Or once an org reaches $100,000 then the stretch stops. There are different formulas to help drive the funds towards smaller nonprofits.

More Equity: If part of the day is to promote racial equity, organizations should be required (or at least highly encouraged) to demonstrate their commitment to equity on their profiles. Questions such as: How many people of color are served, how are you working WITH communities of color, geographic area served will help donors understand where their donations are going.

Transparency: There is still confusion around the stretch donor pool – some people think it is a 1:1 match, challenge matches that individual organizations raise are confusing, and where are the match funds are coming from isn’t clear. Transparency is important in creating trust.

Community: As mentioned earlier a lot of the community spirit behind the day is waning. Can we create more community rallying spirit and the coming together versus a sense of competition?

Supporting Communities of Color: The current giving platform totally caters to English speaking, technology based donors. Communities of color are diverse and not all English or technology based. Can we adapt or open up the technology to accept non-English based pages? We also suggest asking people of color based organizations how their donors give and adapt GiveBIG to meet their needs?

Finally, I know my colleagues at the Seattle Foundation worked hard to bring us GiveBIG. I share this in the spirit of getting the work right over the long haul. Thank you for your work and thank you for giving. Here’s to next year and more equity in philanthropy and giving.

Posted by Erin Okuno, with thought partnership from Heidi Schillinger and colleagues in the nonprofit field.