At Serve & Connect, we believe in the power of partnerships as a driver for safer, more connected communities. We believe that police are a critical aspect of promoting community safety, but they can’t do it alone. Most of the issues related to community safety are grounded in non-criminal actions – things like poverty, hunger, trauma – and addressing these root causes requires an engaged and empowered community that works in collaboration with law enforcement to identify needs and spread available resources.
Since our founding, I have yet to find a police department that doesn’t value the power of partnerships. Yet, what we hear time and time again is how difficult it can be to effectively bring people to the table.
In one particular conversation, I was describing our model to a local law enforcement leader. After I spoke, they paused and then said, “I get what you are saying, but how do you actually make that happen? We host community events all of the time, but it’s the same few people who show up.”
Whether it be low attendance at community events or seeing the same 4-5 people at neighborhood meetings, community engagement is a common challenge faced by many. So, what can we do?
We believe the answer lies in bringing the community into community engagement.
Let’s take a peek into our work in North Columbia to better describe what we mean. Since launching the North Columbia Youth Empowerment Initiative in November 2018, we have engaged over 193 individuals from nearly 70 diverse organizations in our community-based meetings. Furthermore, data from our community-based events hosted this past summer indicate that they have reached over 1,000 individuals, providing critical resources (including 20,000 meals to residents living in food insecure areas at our Second Annual Farmday Funday event!) and fostering connection, pride and hope.
So, how do we do it? We focus on prioritizing the needs of the community and showing up in the ways they want to show up. Here are some specific tips:
- Understand your community. Who lives there? What matters to them? What are their greatest needs? How do they like to come together? What are they proud of? What traditions do they value?
- Open a conversation. Identify local leaders and gatekeepers. Who works most closely with the community you are interested in reaching? Make time to meet with them. Sit down. Ask them to coffee or lunch. If they aren’t available, ask if you can come to them. And, when you meet, prioritize seeking to understand versus being understood. Take notes. These conversations should involve a lot less talking and a lot more listening.
- Show up for what matters. So often, we focus so much on inviting people to our events that we neglect to understand the importance of showing up for what matters to others. Is the community hosting a cookout? Show up. Are they unveiling a new park? Show up. Are they hosting a forum? Show up to that too. What about if they created a football team for kids? Definitely show up…. And offer to bring gatorade. The best way to connect with people is to meet them where they are at. If they invite you, take it as an opportunity to take the next step in trust building and SHOW UP to show that you care.
- Show up consistently. Often, the communities with the highest needs are often the ones who have been promised things again and again, and again and again people fail to deliver. There is a pervasive feeling of “here today, gone tomorrow” where well-intentioned organizations and people enter into a community promising the magic bullet to solve all issues. They come in and take pictures, only to never be heard from again. I remember early on in our weekly meetings, it was like crickets. Very few people showed up. Then, slowly, more and more people started to come to the table. One even said, “I was waiting for you to give up.” It is a sad reality that too often people are waiting for the next shoe to drop yet again. Show that you are different. Keep showing up. It may take time, and progress may be slow, but stay the course. Show your commitment can be trusted.
- Keep the main thing the main thing. My husband Mitch always says, “Keep the main thing the main thing.” What he means is not getting lost in too many nuances and details, but staying focused on the main message and main objective. I think the same goes for community engagement. In community work, you will engage with many people with rich and diverse perspectives. Some of these perspectives may be spot on with your own whereas others may represent a very different narrative. Conversations can get sidetracked and even tense at times. To help get through these challenges, always keep the main thing the main thing. What is the goal? To make our communities safer. What do we need to get there? And does this conversation further this objective? This may look like being willing to stay the course in a difficult conversation if it means building trust. Or, it may look like taking a pause in a meeting that has gone of the tracks to re-center the group on the mission. It may even look like taking a step back and putting a community brand up front first instead of showcasing your own if it means that the community is more likely to be engaged. Never forget the main goal and walk back from there.
We would love to hear from you – what strategies work for you when seeking to foster greater engagement? Shoot us an email – firstname.lastname@example.org
With a heart full of thanks,