As a part of their efforts to engage families, many child welfare agencies sponsor community events. These happenings are designed to build social capital, to provide an opportunity for residents and stakeholders to meet each other and to create a network of supportive relationships.
We have finally come to understand that these activities can be a contributing factor to enhanced child safety and family well-being. In addition, it is a smart and practical way to meet community residents.
I’m always anxious to attend these events, and I’ve helped to plan and manage many of them over the years. It is an opportunity to enjoy myself and to be with others who are celebrating the life of a community. While attending, I always remind myself that I am a guest and should follow the guidance given to me as a child when my parents took us visiting – behave and be respectful.
In my consulting role, I find that most child welfare agencies have difficulty finding the right point of involvement with families and communities. When jurisdictions ask me how to engage with a community, I tell them to provide stakeholders with an opportunity for a conversation, then raise an occasional question and listen. If you do this well, the engagement will happen.
There is no special formula except empathy and respect, blended with a dose of humility. Effective community conversations require listening for our common interests and priorities, our points of accommodation around time and availability and setting realistic expectations of each other. Though I’m certain that someone has developed a manual or a tool for community and parent engagement, the right questions to ask, etc., I’m a believer in keeping it simple.
I genuinely enjoy the stories people have to tell. The stories reflect the soul of the community and the narratives that inform our partnership with resident stakeholders. They frequently reflect the community values. This is the place where we should look for an intersection with our child safety and family well-being priorities.
I say that because most people will tell me they value personal safety and security for their families and friends, self-determination and the space for independent decision-making, the value to co-create a neighborhood space with each other, and the right to accept or reject externally created solutions.
Another key to community engagement is understanding the swirl around stories, facts and values. We might be able to describe every empirical detail of a community and not know the first thing about its values. Data is one dimensional – a monochromatic perspective of a neighborhood or census track. Values tell us which data points and facts are relevant. The people we wish to engage make decisions guided by values that have consequences.
Just recently, I participated in an event that was attended by a pastor who has served the neighborhood for 40 years. For some time he has been providing lunch and food boxes for people every day. Almost all of what he distributes comes from donations.
He said while they are at the church, families reveal every issue and problem imaginable. He welcomed the idea that we might be able to partner. I quickly realized that unless we collaborate, going solo would not have the full impact for residents of that community. In that one brief conversation however, we learned an enormous amount about each other, as well as our common circumstances and concerns. His role is to feed the body and soul – ours will be to serve as a resource and a connector for him and the families on his doorstep.
The pastor’s story, like others, takes us beyond any data or mapping. His narrative reflects the community’s perception of itself. When people describe the selfless acts of generosity and kindness for one’s neighbor as well as the underlying concern for social justice and fairness, it resonates.
Those individuals who volunteer their time in the neighborhood still inspire me. Maybe they do it in defiance or as a subtle thumb in the eye of a system that cares little for them? Because while the system has to keep reminding itself of its power, these neighbors will not be shaken, their lights will not be extinguished. And it’s never lost on me that storytellers are usually watching and waiting to see how I will react to this subtle bit of rebellion. If we’re on the same page, the conversation continues.
These stories defy categories but every one of them has a sweet spot. Some are big picture reflections of hope and possibility. Others are smaller vignettes of incremental improvements. There are tales of humility and how certain neighbors make a difference, like an elder in the community willing to help a younger parent who is struggling. And I appreciate that their stories are mostly told with no consideration to political politeness or correctness.
If we are in the business of transformation, we do well to enter a community space with humility. There is a good deal of richness there that frequently exceeds our initial ability to decipher. On the question of how we engage families and neighbors, we must remind ourselves that neither data, nor mapping of a community, will get us beyond anyone’s front door. We should use the data judiciously. The starting point is in the stories.
Our current reform strategy should not be seen as a race to the finish but instead an evolving belief system and process guided by shared values. The endurance of a reform strategy is based in large part on our ability to scale and sustain the momentum.
That means our engagement with community stakeholders’ needs to endure as well. If our strategy is working, our neighborhood partners will let us know that. If not, they will remind us that we are guests in their house.