There are significant benefits to engaging nontraditional voices and the service population in policy and program decisions. However, while your organization or group may recognize the need to increase involvement by nontraditional voices in decisions, it may not be ready to begin that level of engagement immediately.
Use the self-assessment tool to identify areas where your group feels confident and areas where your group may be ready to learn a bit more. If your group is not ready to create new seats at the table, there are other ways to take initial steps. Bringing on a new group member representing a nontraditional voice before your group is ready can be more challenging that it needs to be.
There are a number of ways your group may begin to engage underrepresented voices without creating a new group position. You may find that a combination of options will be best to receive input and strengthen engagement.
- Conducting focus groups and key informant interviews with nontraditional voices
- Attending existing community meetings
- Creating an advisory council/committee, or an ad hoc committee
- Conducting surveys
- Using technology to make connections
- Hosting casual lunches to dialogue about activities and services
- Building peer support among involved nontraditional voices
The following may present barriers to nontraditional voices being heard by your organization:
- Feedback provided at the grass-roots practice level does not make it to the leadership level;
- There is no organizational structure in place to receive service-level or community stakeholder suggestions;
- There is no designated person associated with cultivating this perspective;
- Fear of retribution if not the feedback provided is not positive;
- Lack of accountability within the organization to ensure community inclusion; and
- Authentic engagement is not an organizational priority.
Although these barriers represent very real challenges, there are a number of strategies that can be used to effectively increase engagement of nontraditional voices. For example, your organization may:
- Dedicate funds to support time and materials for engagement strategies;
- Establish a designee (not a service provider or manager), who is tasked with developing a communication pipeline between the community and organization; and
- Create a regularly scheduled time for community dialogue to address questions and input.
Many communities and states have benefitted from federal, state, and local initiatives that have brought together diverse stakeholders and expanded advocacy efforts and the voices of nontraditional partners. Bu using an existing network of diverse community and cultural resources, your organization can greatly increase the input and feedback you get from nontraditional voices. This network includes such things as:
- Advisory committees that already have community, family and youth participation;
- Family run organizations with trained advocates;
- Community organizations or committees driven by community leaders;
- Support groups for and run by nontraditional voices;
- Public health and preventative/wellness healthcare sites;
- Faith-based community groups; and
- Leadership academes for nontraditional voices that have emerging leaders eager to participate in policymaking settings.
Approaching existing networks for feedback and input will:
- Eliminate barriers to participation;
- Capitalize on already-invested stakeholders
- Engage consumers in a comfortable and familiar environment;
- Recognize interest in their perspective;
- Acknowledge that you value their time and recognize their effort; and
- Maximize the likelihood of a high participation.
The web and other multimedia methods are important emerging tools for building healthy and supportive communities and can also be useful for soliciting input from nontraditional voices, particularly the youth voice. The internet has one tremendous advantage over other methods for youth in that the majority of young people are already fluent in the language and culture of the internet. Social media includes a collection of tools that can help build youth and adult coalitions to address a wide range of issues, from health care to employment to education. In the age of YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, young people and even adults are increasingly aware of and responsive to web content and digital story telling. Policy groups that want to increase youth and adult participation and involvement will benefit from embracing the internet as a coalition-building tool.
The internet provides an excellent resource for fostering creativity as a way of engaging youth. In addition, the digital medium crosses more boundaries, and can bring together diverse parties, in a way that more traditional approaches to coalition-building and community engagement simply cannot hope to. Some ways in which your group can use technology to improve communication include:
- Building community awareness;
- Fostering dialogue between groups, especially far-flung ones;
- Increasing and supporting participation by nontraditional voices; and
- Increasing issue and resource awareness.
The benefits of online and computer-based forums are many, but users do need to be aware of a few things:
- There is a potential lack of confidentiality inherent in online communication unless privacy controls are in place;
- References, sources, and authorship can be difficult information to maintain; and
- Abuses of identity and misguided assumptions that stem from the lack of face-to-face interaction.