Now is the time to make the commitment! Meaningful engagement is time and resource intensive. Your organization or group may already have bi-directional communication established and a working harmony with the community. For those who do not, however, you may be working with historical marginalization and disconnection. This is particularly the case when agencies or organizations are trying to engage underserved/marginalized populations that have been excluded from the decision-making process. Because of the challenges organizations face when trying to incorporate these voices into their groups, it is often easy to suggest why now is not the right time, or that it is not important or appropriate to engage these voices. However, there are steps you can take to mitigate these challenges, outlined in this section.
It may be the case that the board or a committee you chair or are involved with is wondering whether to make room at the table for nontraditional voices. The self-assessments and discussion questions in this toolkit are designed to help you identify hesitation or resistance, as well as to address concerns. Common concerns may include:
The Work of the Group is too Complex of Specialized
Even the most complex topic will have an effect on how underrepresented voices experience a system or service. For example, a group exploring privacy laws as they develop a consent form would benefit from input on how to explain privacy in an accessible, accurate way to consumers or community members. Similarly, a group developing continuing education requirements for staff would benefit from family and youth input on their experiences with staff skills and qualifications.
Group Members Can Represent Their Agency and the Consumer Perspective
While group members may have some experiences with the system, their perspective is still limited to that of someone with extensive knowledge of the system. The perspective brought by a nontraditional voice, who is not informed about the system by working in it, will be very different. Keep in mind, it is hard to balance a professional and a consumer perspective at the same time.
Similarly, while group members may learn a lot about the consumer experience from what their own clients tell them, there is a significant advantage to having direct experience at the group meeting instead of relying on second-hand stories. For example, an issue may arise that a group member never thought to ask clients about, but a participant from a nontraditional perspective can draw on their own experience to contribute to the conversation.
There are Privacy and Confidentiality Concerns
Policy, governance, and advisory groups do not typically focus on specific cases, but may broadly discuss case-related issues. Even in the event these concerns arise, for example, in the context of a healthcare related discussion, privacy and confidentiality can be maintained while representatives of nontraditional voices on your group remain in the room for the discussion.
It’s too Much Work
While it is true that recruiting, training, and sustaining engagement by nontraditional voices is a challenge, engaging these voices will inform policies and practices, making them more likely to reach their intended goals. There are alternative ways to bring in this perspective. If you need to, start small and work towards full inclusion. Given the numerous ways inclusion of these groups can be achieved, there is no excuse to leave consumers out of the dialogue!
- Mental Health Consumer Participation on Boards and Committees: Barriers and Strategies, by Valentine & Capponi looks at barriers to effective consumer participation and provides strategies to address these barriers through the lens of mental health consumer participation.
To recruit nontraditional voices, your first steps may include:
- Identifying the issues and population that need to be represented;
- Developing written materials that clearly define the purpose and role, including the availability of compensation and reimbursement, locations of meetings, timing of meetings, and other relevant information; and
- Conducting outreach to members of these groups.
Personal outreach is highly encouraged and can be very useful when recruiting nontraditional voices. Your personal outreach and effort to meet with members of these groups at their gathering places will be most productive. You may want to consider partnering with community leaders to recruit through trusted channels in diverse communities. Other individuals and organizations with access to nontraditional voices may include:
- Religious organizations;
- Neighborhood and community groups;
- Resource centers;
- Service providers;
- Family, consumer, or youth advocacy organizations;
- Civic leadership academies;
- Faith and cultural leaders;
- Local business owners;
- Other organizations with active community advisory roles ; and
- Individual contacts through word of mouth.
When conducting outreach, you may want to consider:
- Starting from a place of cultural humility with an openness to learning and partnering with nontraditional voices;
- Advertising in languages other than English and ensuring all recruitment materials are translated for non-English speakers;
- Using YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking entities;
- Making efforts to meet in locations other than traditional service sites to minimize any potential location stigma on part of the participants; and
- Making efforts to minimize tokenism by encouraging a partnership or by including more than one representative of the marginalized population on the group.
A mentor or liaison onboarding system will help new group members become more comfortable. These guides can help develop a support system by:
- Providing context and history;
- Making sure the needs of new members are being met, including addressing any concerns about the content or structure of meetings and helping resolve misunderstandings or conflicts;
- Advocating for new people, particularly if the participant is not comfortable speaking up for themselves;
- Connecting participants and build peer support, and;
- Being the consistent contact for the participant to ensure ability to fully participate.
TIP: Set up a regular phone call before and after the first few meetings
When selecting a mentor or community liaison:
- Make sure that the liaison has the time and interest;
- Make sure that the liaison is clear about the role and responsibilities;
- Check that the liaison has the content and knowledge needed;
- Find whether the new group member is comfortable with the liaison; and
- Consider the role of age, race and ethnicity, gender and other factors when choosing a liaison.
Once you have successfully recruited members from nontraditional groups to serve on your group, they may feel like a token,
isolated and not truly included in the group process. This sense of tokenism can act as a barrier to meaningful engagement, reducing the positive impact inclusion of these voices can have. Steps to eliminate this barrier can include:
- Recruiting in pairs. They can attend together or tag-team, but they will have each other to process and use for support. This is establishing an internal buddy system!
- Reaching beyond the group for feedback and input. Nontraditional voices can take information presented at the group to their communities to vet and offer additional insight.
- Making sure their input is acknowledged. Arrange for full participation in the group, inclusive of voting privileges, and ensure their input is accurately reflected and recorded in the meeting minutes.
- Advocating for 50/50 participation, or another mix of nontraditional voices and professionals that would offer these voices significant and meaningful input.
- Avoiding “Alphabet Soup”. Eliminate jargon. People get lost quickly if you use acronym short cuts. If you must use an acronym, take time to ask if everyone understands what the letters mean, particularly when there is a new face at the table.
- Dealing honestly with the issues of stigma. Recognize that stigma exists, rather than ignoring it and deal with the issues in an upfront and honest manner.
- Being clear on the role and scope of influence the group will have in decision making. Tokenism can come from being asked to approve or give an opinion on a decision that has already been made; true engagement means involving people in the whole process, not treating them as a checkbox at the end of the process.
- Partnering with People with Diverse Abilities on Consumer Advisory Boards, Best Practice Guide, developed by Judith Stevens, M.Ed. and Barbara Ibañez, M.A includes best practices for avoiding the potential for tokenism.