Given the complexity of issues organizations, systems, and foundations tackle (hunger, obesity, academic equity, access to health care, etc.), nontraditional voices offer the perspectives and experience needed to successfully identify and implement solutions to complex problems. These voices, however, have traditionally been left out of the decision-making process, resulting in policies and processes that often do not achieve their goals. Including these voices will naturally generate more culturally responsive policies and practices, and policies will inevitably be more aligned to meet the needs of the service population.
The purpose of this toolkit is to help stakeholders intentionally plan for and sustain the engagement of nontraditional partners in boards and committees (generally referred to as ‘groups’ throughout this guide). Creating authentic (rather than token) engagement is more than offering a seat at the table. It takes enthusiasm, leadership, and sustained relationship-building to see the work through. The rewards are well worth the effort.
In the context of this toolkit, we’re talking about the members of your ‘target’ community, often the beneficiaries of services or policy change. Specifically, nontraditional and underrepresented voices may include:
- Consumers/beneficiaries of direct services;
- Consumer advocates/leaders;
- Family members of consumers;
- Family advocates/leaders;
- Youth and transition-age youth;
- Ethnic or cultural minority communities;
- Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender populations;
- Community members without a professional reason to be involved; and
- Other voices often left out of decision-making, yet who experience the impact of the decisions.
At a policy and practice level, organizations, systems, and foundations vary widely in how they engage nontraditional voices. Many involve these voices, which include consumers of services, youth, and diverse cultural, geographic, and socioeconomic participants; however they often differ in their approach and level of involvement, and struggle to adequately reach and sustain the active involvement of the identified community. Moreover, without a state or federal statutory mandate, few systems voluntarily engage underrepresented groups.
Successful engagement involves building authentic partnerships through mutual respect, active and inclusive participation, power-sharing, equity, mutual benefit, or finding the ‘win-win’ possibility.
Nontraditional voices bring a perspective that your organization, system or foundation may not have: their lived experiences! Many members of these groups have firsthand experience with barriers and benefits related your organization’s mission, so their contribution will naturally generate more culturally responsive policies and practices, which will then be more naturally aligned to the community’s needs.
Benefits of Engaging Nontraditional Voices
- It creates buy-in. This is particularly important when working with communities that have been historically left out of decision-making processes or have negative perceptions of government agencies or outsiders.
- It leverages community knowledge, assets and expertise. Community members have key knowledge and may have leaders who are well known and trusted. If government agencies or health providers capitalize on these valuable community assets, interventions are more likely to be successful.
- It respects the shared values of the community. Failure to have a good understanding of the shared values of the “target communities” can compromise the success of a program. For example, if a proposed solution conflicts with a community’s values, they are less likely to take part or access the service or program.
- It promotes program sustainability. Underserved populations and communities may have experienced a myriad of projects aimed at addressing specific problems that disappear with changes in the political landscape or cuts in funding. Engaging the community in all aspects of the process can lead to the sustainability of the program by making them more likely to mobilize to ensure the continuation of the program.
Involving nontraditional voices in policymaking, governance, program development, and implementation will make a difference. Like other issues, it will take enthusiasm and leadership to see the work through. Taking the time to do some work upfront will maximize your effort and ensure the time you spend helps create the partnership you want. Understanding what you need before you open an invitation allows for you to best match your needs with the skills and interests of members of the groups you are trying to involve.
The “Self-Assessment” has questions for your group or leadership team that ask about their readiness to engage nontraditional voices including consumers, family members, and community representatives. The assessment directs you to next steps, including:
- Explore how you receive and use the feedback from nontraditional partners at meetings;
- Identify your willingness to adapt to the needs of the community in order to engage diversity;
- Understand possible uncomfortable, but enlightening, conversations that may arise that can change how business is done; and
- Recognize who among you may emerge as a leader and play a key role as a liaison or point person.
Historically underserved, underserved, or marginalized communities: Populations with documented barriers to accessing and/or using services or who face barriers in policymaking processes
Cultural brokers: A broad category that includes workers, community leaders, and activists. Often, these are residents that have some knowledge of and a trusting relationship with a particular community. The role of the cultural broker includes:
- Describing the history of particular communities (in accessing services);
- Sharing knowledge of community-based organizations and leaders;
- Assisting with formal introductions to particular community leaders; and
- Reviewing documents for language and cultural context.
Key informants: Generally, directors of community based agencies, individuals who serve key roles within particular communities (tribal councils and faith leaders, community activists, health educators, etc.) as well as those who are actively engaged in community health promotion at the grassroots level within communities of concern. The role of key informant includes:
- Understanding community resources and support with asset mapping;
- Identifying opportunities for collaboration and co-learning to take place;
- Helping to determine the most culturally and linguistically appropriate methods to engage community participation;
- Ensuring that any gathering of community participants occurs in places that are accessible by public transportation and other means, and occurs at times that are feasible for the target and interested participants; and
- Encouraging the sharing and dissemination of information.
Community: For the purpose of this Guide, community refers to both a geographic location, as well as a specific stakeholder group. For example, community could be the Denver metro area or youth leaders.