A few years ago, I shared a post called, Want to Close the Achievement Gap, Close the Relationship Gap. Today I was thinking about it again. Partially because I don’t want people to look at that post in isolation. In the post, I shared a slide about how families of color in our community like to receive information, in-person and via phone. I can’t say this is true for other communities and am hoping people don’t make overly broad generalizations based on that one slide. The process to getting to those results was just as important as the data shared out from the survey. As an example, two different people asked if they could see the survey questions we used in the hopes of embedding those questions into their own surveys. I sent them a link to where the survey questions can be found. (The survey design team and organization posted the data to practice transparency and to build trust with the community.) I also told the people asking for the survey questions that asking these questions isn’t enough to get them good data, the process itself was as important as the results. Put another way, phub the process, you phub the results.
Designing a Better Process
Relationships are important to everything we do. Earlier this week a friend sent me a NY Times article about how low-stakes connections are important to feeling happy and engaged. At SESEC (my organization) we believe this as well, although we don’t call them low-stakes, we call it building a network. In our survey process, we spent time building connections. We talked about how we wanted to engage with each other and with our families. We had deep conversations about how to what questions to ask, how to ask questions, and what those stories meant. This is what I mean when I say the process was important, we didn’t just write a survey – our community partners owned and rewrote a process centered on our community.
As an example, I remember we spent a lot of time figuring out how to ask about family income and what would be culturally appropriate across diverse communities. A colleague suggested we ask if families are eligible for free-reduced price lunch. She said this was a sensitive way to understand family income, she also said we should ask about eligibility and not use-of/enrollment in the free-reduced price lunch program because some families don’t enroll for various reasons (i.e. stigma, fear of government, etc.). Understanding these nuances was an important part of co-designing and co-constructing the survey to center and honor the wisdom and values of the design partners. This extra effort in thinking about how to frame questions and think about the potential answers took time, but it was part of the trust building process.
Personal Acts of Trust-Building
Building trust as part of bigger processes isn’t a value I see regularly practiced in mainstream organizations. If you had asked me at the beginning of our survey process what I thought the process would be, I would have said it would be a data-generating project. Now I would say it was a way to build trust and reshape and redefine who we are and what we believe in.
As an example of how trust was built and extended. During the survey collection process, I watched the returns and tracked the demographics of who was returning surveys. Midway through I noticed we weren’t hearing from the East African community. We have a significant East African community in our area and I wanted to make sure they were included in the data results. I reached out to a parent and asked if she could help and she said yes (we provided a stipend for her time and expertise). She trusted me and I in turn trusted her to complete the project as she thought it should be done. At one point she reached back out to me and told me she went door-to-door finding her East African neighbors. One neighbor said she didn’t want to fill out the survey but invited her in and said, “I’ll tell you what I pray to Jesus about for my child’s education.” I’ve shared this story many times, but what I didn’t realize until tonight – three years later – is my parent-colleague is Muslim and the neighbor who invited her in is Christian. There was a leap of faith and trust between these two women to share intimate stories about their children’s education. To me this new relationship is just as important as the data, and more important than any fancy chart generated. This is one tangible way we centered our community – we focused on allowing trust to form organically, to have people collect data how they saw it best, and to nurture and redefine what is important to them.
Redefining the Norms
Through our design process, we were redefining the norms. We shifted the meeting norms away from having a set power-holder (often hierarchical leadership), we shared power and the design team made decisions and determined timelines. There were a few times where I had to make key decisions, but I did my best to do so with transparency and explain the decision.
We redefined what we thought of as data. We didn’t hold ourselves to the traditional model of saying surveys had to be collected through online and paper methods. Some of our partners listened to stories and prayers. Rather than seeing this as an invalid and messy form with too many variables, we decided it built trust and centered our BIPOCs and we needed to be open to new processes.
Redefining processes, allows us to redefine norms. Redefining norms, allows us to define our values. Redefining our values, defines us.
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