Tag Archives: community engagement

The gluten-freeing of community engagement

gluten freeAll right, everyone, we need to talk about the gluten-free bandwagon. “Oooh, I can’t have any bread. I’m gluten-free. I’ve cut out gluten for three weeks, and I feel so much better.” Scoff. I love gluten. Gluten is awesome. I eat it with every meal and finish off with gluten ice cream or a seitan pudding. If you’re gluten-free and you’re not actually diagnosed with gluten intolerance by a doctor, you’re kind of annoying. I still like you, but you’re kind of annoying.

Of course, gluten-free people are high-strung, so this post may not make me many new friends. “How DARE you dismiss gluten sensitivity. I’ll have you know that I suffered from blah blah all my life and then I became gluten-free  and within a week the rash disappeared. In fact, not only that but my long-lost dog came back blah blah. My uncle had one leg amputated, and after a year of giving up wheat products, his leg grew back and he was able to save a bus full of children from going over a cliff, blah blah.”

Only 1% of the population has the serious and possibly life-threatening Celiac disease, and yet approximately 90% of people I know are now gluten-free. We can’t escape them. They’re everywhere. We pro-gluten people have started forming guerilla resistance groups, hiding in the shadows, munching on our wheat breads and pastas.

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Community Engagement 101: Why Most Summits Suck

blenderHi everyone. I just came back from Port Orchard for a friend’s wedding. A day-trip with 3-month-old infant is grueling. It was like writing a grant. A cute, drooly, moody grant who spit up all over my suit. I’m exhausted. That is to say, I don’t know how this post is going to turn out. This may not be my finest post, but I am committed to getting a new post published every Monday. Like I’ve been telling the baby, “Consistent adequacy is always better than inconsistent excellence.” And also: “Please don’t throw up on Daddy.”

***

A few months ago, I received a request from a staff at the City of Seattle’s Department of Critical Services (DCS)*. “Vu,” said the staff, “can you gather a whole bunch of Vietnamese people so that the Director of the Department of Critical Services can come and listen to their concerns? We’ve already pulled together mini-summits with three other ethnic groups: Spanish, Somalis, and Canadians.” (Kidding about the Canadians).

Sigh. Despite my best efforts, this seems to happen a lot in Seattle: “Let’s get a bunch of ethnic people together and listen to them. I bet they’re just standing around; they’ll love to come to a meeting and be listened to, especially if we have hummus and baby carrots.” It is very well-intentioned, and usually ineffective in the long-run. Sometimes it is just insulting, especially when the hummus is all chunky and grainy and not smooth, like high-quality hummus should be.

Summits, conferences, and other gatherings, when used right, can be powerful tools for community engagement. Kind of like a blender. You get a blender and make some awesome margaritas, and people are like “this is the best party ever.” (This may be the worst analogy ever). These gatherings can connect people around a common cause, equip them with skills and resources, and energize everyone to take action. They also look cool: “Ooh, look, 500 people attended! Snap a picture for our annual report! (Make sure you capture the diversity).”

But lately summits have become the default shortcut for everything:

  • We need to demonstrate to funders that we are doing stuff. Let’s have a summit!
  • We need to kick-off our collective impact initiative. Let’s have a summit!
  • Our strategic plan needs input from communities of color. Let’s have a bunch of mini summits!
  • We need a cool picture for our new brochures. Let’s have a summit!
  • We need to spread awareness of a critical issue. Let’s have a giant summit and get a national speaker to keynote!

I and a bunch of other people in the field are sick of summit-like meetings, especially as tools for engaging communities of color. It’s like taking a blender and trying to make an entire meal with it, blending the salad, blending the entrees, blending the dessert (I’m not giving up on this blender analogy).

Here’s why most summits suck as a tool for engagement:

  1. They give a false sense of stuff actually getting done. Sweet, we placed sticky notes and stickers on easel papers and drew visions of an ideal community. Yay! We did stuff! (Hey, we got people to vote using sticky dots on easel paper and write their ideas on sticky notes! Yay! We did stuff!)
  2. They give a false sense of hope and then usually lead to nothing, especially the community input gathering sessions. Time and time again, we ethnic nonprofit staff rally our communities to various listening sessions. Time and time again, little if any of our community members’ suggestions are ever implemented.
  3. There is usually very little follow-through with relationship building. Summits are enticing because you can kill 50 to 500 or more birds with one stone. After that, though, 90% of the generated energy tapers off because there are usually no funds allocated for staff with the language and cultural skills to continue to develop the relationships.
  4. Funds to organize summits are inequitably distributed: I’ve seen so many summits that pay consultants and event coordinators, and allocate nothing to ethnic organizations to do outreach work. So what happens? The paid consultants and/or event coordinators start calling us up to ask us to do outreach for free. It’s very annoying. We got stuff to do, like, you know, running programs and stuff.
  5. The worst part of many summits, though, is that they supplant actual effective community engagement practices. They make people think “Yay, we engaged the communities of color, since they came to our gathering!” Then they might not bother with the one-on-one meetings. One-on-one relationships are the basic building blocks of community organizing and engagement. Absolutely nothing can replace it, and it is totally time-consuming.

Anyway, I told the staff at the Department of Critical Services bluntly that I didn’t have time to rally a bunch of VFA clients for his boss to listen to, and that I didn’t think these types of meetings would be effective anyway, consider how annoyed our community members are with the lack of follow-through from previous gatherings. What would be effective, he asked. Well:

  • Meet with community leaders one-on-one, on their own turf. Go yourself, don’t send your assistant. It’s a respectful thing to do, and the relationship building will pay dividends. Stop it with this “I’ll come down from the mountain once a while so that the people may rejoice in my presence” business. That’s not what you mean, but that’s what it feels like when the only time the community sees you is when you’re pushing some project.
  • When you meet with people, ask them to refer you to other people, and meet with those people one-on-one. It’s time-consuming, meeting with individuals, getting coffee, listening to them tell their life stories, finding out about their hopes and dreams and their worries about their kids, etc., but you cannot engage anyone until they feel like you know and understand them and vice-versa.
  • Be where people are. There are tons of places people are already gathered: Senior programs, churches, temples, youth groups, etc. Go down there, meet the coordinators, go multiple times, build the relationships. Attend organizations’ events.
  • Budget for outreach staff who can do on-the-ground relationship building year-long, and not just during summit time, along with funding  for translations, interpretations, childcare, food, and transportation for community members when you have events.
  • Budget for funding for ethnic nonprofits to collaborate with you to do your work. If you value the outreach work these CBOs do, build it into the budget.
  • Do your research to ensure you’re not repeating something that another organization has done and published a report on. It’s frustrating to have to answer the same questions over and over again.
  • If you are going to have a summit, do all the above, and also commit your team ahead of time to actually accept and follow-through on whatever action steps are decided at the summit, if that’s the will of the community, even if you may not like them. So often the only things that get implemented are whatever aligns with the summit organizers’ preconceived agenda. Well, that’s just stupid and tokenizing and a waste of people’s time. If you’re going to get community members’ input, trust and act on their recommendations.
  • Funders: Fund on-going, on-the-ground relationship-building work, and fund communities-of-color-led nonprofits to do it.

Gatherings are enticing, since you can reach more people in a shorter amount of time. When it works, it can be awesome, like a Vitamix blender, which can make delicious hummus and can puree a digital camera. Lately, it’s been sucking, a lazy and superficial way of engaging communities of color. So many of the community members I interact with are so skeptical of any more “coffee chat with so-and-so important person” or “summit to discuss our concerns about the education system” that they’d just laugh in my face if I ask them to come to one more thing. I don’t want them to laugh in my face. I get plenty of that from my family for being in this line of work.

(*This is a pseudonym. There is no Department of Critical Services at the City of Seattle)

For more on community engagement, check out “Being a Nonprofit with Balls” parts 1, 2, and 3, which launched this blog and gave it its title.

A different kind of retreat

tomatoes

Hi everyone. I just joined Twitter. I have 9 followers. Is that a lot? I don’t know. If you want to follow, it’s @nonprofitwballs #confused #stilldontunderstandhashtags. On to this week’s post:

Over the weekend the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC) had our retreat. Whenever we have a major event, I tend to freak out, believing that all sorts of things will go wrong. I get night terrors, waking up in cold sweats screaming, “We gave people the wrong address! The zombies are coming!” (I should probably refrain from watching TV when I’m stressed out).

OK, first some background. Southeast Seattle is home to the most diverse zip code in the nation, 98118, which means ridiculously delicious ethnic foods. Unfortunately 98118 is also home to some of the most struggling schools. Seattle Public Schools District grades its schools from 1 to 5, based on absolute scores on tests as well as how fast they’re improving, with 5 being highest in terms of achievement. Of the 20 schools in SE Seattle, only one school is above a level 3, despite some of the most amazing and dedicated educators working here.

SESEC was formed for a couple of reasons. First, education reform in Seattle has been really contentious, with people blaming each other and throwing rocks. Reading comments on any article on education is like peering into the darkest recesses of the human souls. The tension is everywhere. I’ve seen friends literally get into fist fights at the Farmer’s Market, arguing about charter schools. OK, not literally, but there definitely was vigorous head shaking and vague threats of squishing the other person’s organic heirloom tomatoes. SESEC believes instead of fighting about stuff we don’t agree on and threatening to damage prized organic produce, why don’t we work on stuff we can agree to, like parental engagement and extended learning programs.

Another reason we were formed is that while in Washington State we have many efforts to improve schools, communities of color are not well represented. It is alarming and a symptom of a not-quite-effective system when the “achievement and opportunity gap” most impacts kids of color, and yet the communities of color are barely there at these tables that are making major policy recommendations. We communities of color in SE Seattle must be in the front leading and painting a vision where all kids are successful. “All Fives in Five,” we say, our campaign slogan to push for all schools down here to become a Level 5 school within 5 years. And we believe we can get there if we all work together.

A year later, we now have about 50 organizations and schools working in collaboration, one of the most diverse coalitions in the State. That’s why we had to have the retreat, to prioritize our goals and develop an action plan, and why I bolted up in bed screaming, “Pork sandwiches?! Nooooooooo!!” (With so much diversity, having culturally appropriate food is very important).

On the day of, I had gotten up early so that I had extra time to freak out. I was worried that people wouldn’t show up, or they couldn’t find the place, or the babysitters we recruited would flake out and the children in the childcare room would escape and run amok, or that people would find the retreat useless, or that one more of my favorite characters would die on Downton Abbey. I was worried about whether we had enough stickers for when people started voting on the advocacy priorities. Each person gets five and a half star stickers to vote with. What if we didn’t have enough stickers?! People who didn’t have stickers would then have to vote by writing their initials like animals and the retreat would be a failure!!!

38 people showed up representing over 25 different organizations. The attendance was great, but I was still stressed. Our facilitator had her baby on a sling. The baby started making loud baby sounds. At one point, we could hardly hear a guest speaker because some children were curious and left the childcare room and climbed on to their mothers’ lap and started asking questions such as “can we get some stickers?” Arrg, I needed to crack down on the babysitter in the childcare room, I thought. For various activities we broke into groups. “If my five-year-old son is looking for me,” said a mother, “can you let him know I’m in the basement with a group?” How could anyone concentrate with children running around?

Then, as I watched our facilitator, whose baby was now snuggled up asleep in her sling, I realized something. In my worries about having an efficient retreat, I lost sight for a moment of why we were having it in the first place. This is what the community looks like. This is our community. We cannot retreat from our community. It is diverse. It includes children and babies. Most of the people in the room were not professional lobbyists or policy analysts. These are direct service providers and parents and educators, people who gave up six hours of their Saturday after working hard all week to be here.

After I took a breath and calmed myself down, I looked around the room and saw how awesome it was that so many people came, and what a great community we had. At least 60% of the room were people of color from all over the world. One Somali mom, for whom English is not her first language, told us it was her birthday. It was her birthday, and she was here in a church foyer working to improve the education system.

The groups took turns reporting out. The five-year old had found his mother and was happily eating a cookie. His mother started reporting on what her group had discussed. “We believe that every school needs a counselor or case manager, or both,” she said. The little boy, not missing a beat, shouted, “My mom is right!” The room broke into laughter. “We first need to map out which school currently has which resources in this area, and what they need,” she continued.

“My mom is right again!” said the little boy, “that’s two times now that she is right.”

The day was a good learning experience for me. Most times the purpose of a retreat is to withdraw from civilization so that we have time to think. But I have seen this to become the default in social justice work, where in the drive for expediency, we leave behind the people most impacted. They become the “for whom” we do the work, the recipient of our fight for equity. It is an ineffective model. When we do this type of work, it cannot be “for” the community. It must be alongside the community, and the Southeast Seattle community looks like this room. The babies, the little kids, the parents fighting hard to understand the discussion, they are not a detriment to the work. They are our community; they are our strength.

Overall, it was a good retreat. I can relax for a couple of days before starting to freak out about our annual dinner.

Are you a cultural competency wombat? Take this quiz to find out

The term “cultural competency” has been thrown around a lot. For instance: “We must be more culturally competent in our outreach efforts in order to synergistically shift the paradigm for collective impact.” And also: “Stop being so culturally incompetent! In many cultures, staff are expected to make the Executive Director a mango lemonade while he naps!”

We all agree that Cultural Competency is a good thing, but do any of us really understand what it is? I mean, sure, there are tons of research papers and books and stuff on the subject, but who actually reads them when we all have so much work to do and Season 3 of Downton Abbey just started?

Cultural Competency is complex, and we can delve deep into it for hours. But for this post, I just want to spend a few minutes discussing cultural competency and how it manifests in the basic logistics of community engagement. Let’s begin by checking to see how culturally competent you currently are.

Question 1: You are leading a committee to talk about community safety and you want to ensure participation from residents of color. Where should you have the meeting? A. At my office downtown; it’ll make it easy for everyone, since downtown is a central location. B. At the local bar, since it’s an informal place where people can be free to express their opinions. C. Maybe a library, or a community center, some place with easy parking.

Question 2: You are thinking of having food at this meeting. What should you order? A. Prosciutto finger sandwiches, baked brie and dried pears, crudités and olives, accompanied by a nice pinot noir. B. Grilled pork banh mi’s (Vietnamese sandwiches), spring rolls C. Pita and hummus, chicken skewers, fruit.

Question 3: You want communities of color to be well-represented at this meeting. How should you go about outreaching? A. Send out flyers, emails, and Facebook messages. B. Call up the various ethnic organizations and ask them send out word to their community members. C. Have information translated and placed in ethnic media such as newspapers and radios, send staff to physically visit various places with translated materials.

Scoring: Give yourself 0 points for every A answer, 17 points for every B, and 900 points for every C. If you got 0 to 900 points, you are a cultural competency goblin*. If you have 901 to 1816 points, you are a cultural competency wombat*. If you have 1817 to 2700 points, you are a cultural competency platypus*.

Now that you have your score, let’s get on to the tips to make us all become more culturally competent!

Tip 1: Do not assume a person of color is culturally competent. How dare you automatically think I am qualified to talk about cultural competency! People of color can be just as culturally incompetent as everyone else. Why, just over the holiday break I managed to offend people from at least four separate cultures.

Tip 2: Ask questions, but check your assumptions. Assumptions lead to annoying questions like “Vu, what’s the best Vietnamese restaurant in Seattle?” How the heck would I know? A better question would be “Vu, do you know what the best Vietnamese restaurant in Seattle is?” (“No clue; I’m vegan.”)

Tip 3: Be where people are. I mean literally, geographically. Come down to the neighborhood. Ironically, I’ve attended a bunch of meetings about cultural competency that are held downtown, known to many of us as “The Maze of $8-Per-Hour Parking and the Endless Gnashing of Teeth.” Move your meetings around and check out all the cool locations where real people naturally congregate. Expecting people to come to you all the time is culturally insensitive. Plus, you can learn more about people and cultures by being where they are.

Tip 4: Have food at your community events, but try to avoid pork. Sounds kind of harsh, since bacon is so delicious and they’ve incorporated it into so many great things like chocolates and vodka. But several cultures and religions avoid pork, so you can make it easier on yourself and ease the mind of a ton of people by just not having it there. At VFA, whenever we have a public event, such as our Tet Celebration on 2/8, we just don’t have pork, since many of our friends who may attend are Muslim. When in doubt, go with chicken.

Tip 5: Be considerate of circumstances and challenges. Take into consideration childcare, transportation, and other factors as you engage communities. Not everyone has a car or knows how to take public transit. Have volunteers to watch over children and have appropriate games and activities for them.

Tip 6: Be careful giving out swag items. I was attending a meeting regarding improving the education system and how to get communities of color to be engaged in the process. At the end, as we left, we were each given a gift bag. I looked inside. It was a bottle of wine. Each person got a bottle of wine! Several cultures and religion do not encourage alcohol consumption, so this was in poor taste, especially in combination with a serious discussion on education. Swag items are fine, but make sure they are appropriate. Pens, note pads, travel-size hand sanitizer, flash drives, and food, especially vegan chocolates, are good. Avoid alcohol, weapons, and stuff made of leather or other animal products.

There are so many different cultures, and each culture is so complex, that it would be impossible to be completely competent. Competency, then, is an evolving process, a sense of self, and a willingness to ask questions and challenge one’s deeply-held beliefs. Or something profound like that. Look, I only scored 934 points, and Downton Abbey is on.

(*These titles are only to illustrate a point. In order to be an official Cultural Competency Platypus or even Unicorn, please follow directions here)

Being a nonprofit with balls, part 3

[Part 3 of the Nonprofit with Balls series. Read Part 1 and Part 2 before you read this]

batmanAfter several months, I was able to meet with Ted, Luke’s multi-millionnaire friend. It had taken a while to arrange this meeting, and the coordination was done through Ted’s assistant, leaving me to conjure up the image of Ted as an elusive genius, like Batman inside his Bat Cave devising plans and building awesome gadgets to combat injustice.

I got there 20 minutes early, parked my car, and started re-googling Ted and his accomplishments. They were numerous and very impressive. Obviously he is a very smart man. And he’s trying to improve education. Since I chair the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC), which is trying to rally community-based organizations and schools to work together to help all the schools in Southeast Seattle succeed, my primary objective was to learn what he’s doing, and to tell him about what SESEC has been up to, and see if there is any ground to collaborate.

The secondary objective was to convince him to give Southeast schools a gazillion trillion dollars.

He had a modest office, a small room tactfully decorated, and all around were pictures of his family. What a nice man, I thought.

“Thank you for meeting with me,” I said, “I know you are extremely busy, and I am very appreciative of your time.” He nodded. Behind his high-quality but simple desk, Ted described his effort with Luke to reform education. I asked him question after question, and he was open and articulate, the easy confidence of a man who has earned his laurels. One day, I thought, I too shall have the easy confidence of a man who has earned his laurels. And I’ll also have a high-quality yet unostentatious mahogany desk.

Ted is trying to build a movement that will change the educational tides, pushing agenda items that many would agree to. As he talked, however, I was getting a little concerned. Not so much about his policy agenda, but about his approach to building the base.

“Our strategy is to target the low-hanging fruit,” he said. I had heard this term before from Luke. Low-hanging fruit are families that are already engaged, have the language skills, don’t work several jobs to make ends meet, etc. “Basically, White families, and some Asian families,” Luke had said.

“So then high-hanging fruit,” I said to Ted, “are people like immigrant/refugee families, or others who have language, socioeconomic, transportation barriers and other stuff they have to deal with that make them hard to reach?”

He nodded.

“Don’t you think, though, sir, that these families have been historically left out of these types of discussion, even though we know they are MOST impacted by our flawed education system?”

He sighed. “Yes, but we only have so much funding.” He paused. “However, we do everything with them in mind.”

I argued that this low-hanging fruit approach is one of the weaknesses of current educational advocacy efforts. How could you inspire people to action when you see them as passive fruit on a tree, waiting to be picked? And doing things with people “in mind” is patriarchal and condescending, which might even be OK if it were actually effective. It hasn’t been. For several decades we have had this “achievement gap,” and this approach has not been closing it.

Having worked in the community for a little bit of time, I understand the temptation to go fast, to go big. We get pressure by funders who are driven by regional, global reach. But it is counterproductive if in our urgency for change and for scope of impact, we leave behind the very people who most need this change. SESEC, comprising over 25 organizations and growing, take our time building relationship and trust and agreeing to a collective agenda. We are rallying diverse communities who speak different languages, who face all sorts of historical and political traumas, who are still trying to navigate a very complex system. We will not be able to quickly agree on anything. It is complicated and sometimes frustrating and always challenging.

It is also inspiring. We are starting to see the SE communities starting to work together. Funders and education advocates need to understand that it takes lots of time to build bridges. It takes years and a series of small victories, leading to medium ones, leading to big ones. It takes belief in the premise that those who are most impacted by anything should be leading the efforts to change it, no matter how messy that process might be.

For forty-five minutes I sat across from Ted. Debating with him didn’t get me anywhere. I also realized nearing the end of our meeting that he never asked me once why I wanted to meet with him. He never asked me a single question about anything, in fact. I started telling him what SESEC is doing, which is precisely trying to engage these “high-hanging” fruit. He nodded, asking no follow-up question. He seemed both focused and bored; focused on his own methods, and bored by my attempts to argue with him and also present the work that SESEC has been doing. He was meeting with me probably only as a favor to Luke.

I thanked him for his time and left the Bat Cave disappointed. Ted seemed intellectually uncurious, as if his admittedly impressive success in life made him immune to ideas that run counter to his own. In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne has vast resources to invest in new technologies that he uses to fight injustice. He is influential, connected to others who are just as powerful. Together they can change the world for the better. Batman becomes a symbol of hope for the city. I don’t think that was whom I met.

Or, who knows, maybe Ted just had a bad day. I want to give people the benefit of the doubt. Still, I wrote him the customary thank-you email and have yet to hear a response. Maybe I should hang lower.