There is power in voices coming together to protest a broken system or to heal communally after a system has hurt them, whether through hashtags on social media or through US Representatives raising their hands in protest on the floor of the House.
But there is greater power in listening to those who stand to be the most impacted to repair a broken system.
Without the perspective of those who stand to be most impacted, even well-meaning policies often do not have their intended effect because they fail to take into account the lived experience of the members of the community they are trying to affect.
Engaging these perspectives is not easy, but it is the only way to create sustainable and equitable change.
There is no one magic checklist for this work, no quick “how to” guide. If one existed, I would share it with you. However, Spark’s work engaging communities has generated some important lessons learned:
DO pre-work. Engaging marginalized persons is something that needs so much more than good intentions. Before you come in to a community, do your homework. Engage with key leaders who can be a partner and ensure the way you work with the community is respectful and appropriate. Learn about cultural norms and traditions. Learn about the history of the community, including other initiatives that were unsuccessful. What made them unsuccessful? What can you learn from and do differently? Additionally, do some internal work regarding your own potential biases. For example, do you hold preconceived notions about this community that may be a barrier to genuine interactions?
DO take your time. For people to share their stories, advice, and perspective with you, they need to know it’s worth their time. They need to know that you will really hear them rather than tokenize their participation by checking them off your to-do list. Put in the time to build relationships and set the foundation of mutual respect and joint action before diving into the specifics of your project.
DO listen. You learn more by listening than speaking, and isn’t learning what you’re there to do? Learn about what the community needs and what it’s going to take for the initiative to be successful and sustainable. You might hear unique and creative solutions that would have not occurred to you or seemed unrealistic without that community perspective.
DO build trust by making sure the work yields something actionable. Honor the relationships you’ve built by making sure you don’t just gather data and leave while some report collects dust on a shelf.
DO be flexible. The process of engaging nontraditional partners sometimes means holding meetings outside of normal business hours so that people who work or go to school can attend, or taking care not to use jargon and acronyms that may be unfamiliar. Adjust what you know and be open to unique aspects of a new situation – don’t assume what worked in one place will work in another!
DO invest in human capital. If possible, build your partners’ capacity to advocate for themselves and their community. It might be providing training on how to navigate a system, creating a space to practice skill-building, or sharing tools to facilitate a process. Just make sure that whatever you do acknowledges the community’s existing strengths.
DO practice humility. Arrogance is the death of progress. Recognize that you do not have all the answers and that your facts may be correct without your point being important. It’s not about coming into a community and telling its members what they need. It’s about checking your ego at the door and soliciting honest opinions that will help the partnership grow to make a meaningful and sustainable difference.
DO share the spotlight. When the hard work pays off, make sure you don’t claim credit solely for yourself and the agency you represent. Recognize the work the community has put in and celebrate the successes together. Highlighting the community’s achievement strengthens its voice and ensures it is seen as a valued part of the next project or initiative that comes along.
DO be accountable. The nature of this work means you’re likely to hit some bumps along the way. Address these bumps with accountability and humility, and work to make sure they don’t happen again.
DON’T ever stop growing. Meaningfully partnering with marginalized people to catalyze change can be challenging, but don’t give up! When time is limited, you may be tempted to just take the easier route and do your work without partnering with marginalized groups and it can get discouraging when results aren’t immediate. Be patient, with yourself and with the process. The payoff is worth it!
Interested in learning more about engaging nontraditional voices? Check out our toolkit!