This morning I got a treat. I spent the morning watching elementary age students participate in their Freedom School’s harambee. Translated from Swahili harambee means to ‘let’s pull together.’ The morning harambee included ridiculously energetic songs and dance, chants, and call and response. To create a greater sense of community they include recognitions that sound like this (read this in your loudest voice): “Hey, I got a recognition!” “A what?” “A recognition! I want to recognize you for being a fakequity fighter!” Let’s go fight more fakequity in community engagement.
A few months ago I wrote about community engagement and debunked a few myths. We’re returning to the topic to highlight some ways we can work together to build better relationships. Like the last post the words family and community will be used interchangeably.
Fakequity: Community engagement happens in individual relationships.
I work for a neighborhood based coalition, Southeast Seattle Education Coalition. We are intentional about bringing people into the coalition tent and encourage partners to build relationships not only with the organization and with each other. The more people know each other and form relationships the stronger our communities become. When we share our relationships we broaden and deepen the network of people supporting communities of color. With relationships comes access to information, new people, and resources.
As an example this morning on the Freedom School visit I brought a dozen people with me. The poor Freedom School staff didn’t realize I would invite so many others. nor did they know there would be over a dozen emails exchanged to arrange the tour. The people who came on the tour are amazing coalition supporters, and now they aware of another program and experienced the magic of community building. Community building isn’t a zero-sum game where if I have a relationship and I share it the relationship transfers; in reality the relationship network is now multiplied. This morning I saw many who hadn’t known each other before the visit chatting, building new relationships, and exchanging business cards for follow up. It will take a while for these relationships to yield tangible results, but the network of support is wider and deeper to allow sharing to happen.
Fakequity: Look outside for answers.
On the tour of the Freedom School Martin, the site coordinator, talked about how he encourages his Servant Leader Interns (what they call teachers) to look within their classrooms to solve problems. This includes smaller problems like resolving conflicts between scholars and larger social problems such as inequities in their schools and communities, many times the servant leaders found their scholars had suggestions about how to fix complex problems such as housing, hunger, etc. These children are living with the problems and they understand their community better than an outsider.
Communities, including schools, often know the solutions to their problems. What communities and families need is access to resources (e.g. information, money/capital, relationships with people who can clear barriers, etc.). A few weeks ago I sat in on a Head Start Policy Council meeting. Parents of color, many of whom who are immigrants and refugees, are taking the time to share what is working and not working at their Head Start program. Some of the problems were complex and there were also a few problems that were more easily resolved with increased communication or quick fixes. They didn’t need to bring in outsiders, new curriculum, consultants, or others to fix problems. The solutions were within, but more importantly the program has a system to listen to parents who traditionally don’t have access to decision makers so they can be heard and remove barriers to problems.
Community Engagement is About Others
Heidi (of the fakequity team) reminds me community engagement is about sharing control/power and recognizing often times that is uncomfortable. The discomfort shows up in big and little ways – leaving the building to go where families live or work, providing interpreters and translated materials, changing language to be accessible and understood and avoiding jargon, and bigger ways including changing practices and habits to be more inclusive and sharing of decision making power.
Community engagement is about sharing control of agendas, decisions, and having ongoing discussions about race. Can we make ourselves a little more uncomfortable and share access, relationships, and agendas? The temporary discomfort of having to work differently will be rewarded with better community engagement. If you need a little positive community engagement gather a group together and create your own harambee — remember community engagement is pulling together with the community, watch this video of a Freedom School’s harambee, it will get you out of a funk and into the community.
Posted by Erin Okuno