Bob 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.