The concept of engaging those affected by an issue is nothing new. A quick Google search will turn up thousands of results on the importance of engagement (including our toolkit on Engaging Nontraditional Voices). Yet, the issue of who has a voice in which decisions is critically important when seeking to make decisions that will drive equity. Identifying, recruiting, and supporting participation in your decision-making processes are all critical choice points. Rather than recreate what is already out there, this section provides practical, hands-on tools for assessing whether your organization’s engagement is at the level needed to help drive equity-guided decisions, as well as links to resources to help guide your organization’s work.
- This Living Cities e-course module, part of a larger community engagement e-course, focuses on how to advance racial equity through community engagement in collective impact, and includes reading materials, videos, discussion questions and exercises, and a webinar and online discussion forum.
- The Creating Welcoming Places Workbook by Bruce Anderson, a fellow at the Assets Based Community Development Center at Northwestern University, provides concrete actions for groups who are looking to increase membership size, diversity, commitment, and enthusiasm, along with check-is and assessments.
- Our Engaging Nontraditional Voices Toolkit is designed to help groups involved in policy-making and governance embrace the perspectives of nontraditional voices, providing overviews, discussion guides and checklists, including sample recruitment flyers, reimbursement forms, and other practical materials.
Inclusive processes begin with ensuring a wide array of communities is empowered to be engaged. Although we can do our best to bring voices to the table, our assumptions of individual characteristics may be misleading. One solution to ensuring your group has diverse representation is to move past visual judgment calls by creating a survey that allows people to self-identify. The format encourages groups to ask questions about things that aren’t visible while simultaneously providing documentation.
When applying an equity lens, however, it is not enough to simply bring a diverse set of people to the table; initiatives must create an environment where all voices are heard, respected, and incorporated into the work in a meaningful way. In practice, this kind of work requires effectively engaging people in a participatory process and focusing the quality of inclusion and specific actions you can take to increase the likelihood the voices at the table are able to generate solutions that make a difference in increasing equity.
What does quality inclusion entail, broadly?
- Ensuring those directly affected by the problem and who would be most impacted by the solution are at the table and recognizing the unique contributions of those individuals, groups, and communities, celebrating their values and history, while recognizing lived experience is no less valuable than professional experience;
- Building everyone’s capacity to participate by providing quality background materials that include information about community assets, as well as identifying and developing leadership potential;
- Recognizing the importance of dual-readiness, that is: the readiness of community members to contribute in a professional setting and readiness for professionals to include and value community participation;
- Promoting open and ethical communication, including active listening and decision-making protocols that emphasize achieving consensus, while ensuring all members are able to fully participate in a mode and manner in which they are comfortable;
- Fostering commitment and trust in the collaborative, its members and process, the programs it implements, and the people it serves.
- Generating and Sustaining Commitment in Community Collaboration by Darrin Hicks looks at the dimensions of commitment in collaboration.
- The National Communication Association has outlined a set of principles of ethical communication, which are focused on fostering truthfulness, fairness, responsibility, personal integrity and respect for others.
- This article from Fast Company looks at inclusiveness in the workplace, and how diversity is only one part of the puzzle.
Part of inclusion is ensuring not just that voices are heard, but that they are listened to and that their participation is more than just tokenism. Representatives of marginalized or under-represented groups are often best-positioned to articulate barriers and benefits of a policy, and whether a proposed policy fits their needs and values. Moreover, acknowledgement of their perspective, and compensation for their time and input, can help build trust and capacity within the community. It is important to note that asking someone to speak on behalf of a group (e.g., to provide the “black perspective”) is also tokenism. While diverse participants can provide important insight and cultural/community considerations, they are still individuals with their own experiences, thoughts, and feelings.
The tool below can be used to help document how different participants play a role in the process, as well as how to track the input of different participants to ensure all opinions are taken into account. This tracking should be shared internally with the group, as well as externally to support continued community engagement and accountability.
One of the challenges inherent in bringing together a diversity of perspectives is that not everyone may define the problem the same way, see the same solution, or agree on how (or when) to implement a solution. Taking the time to have a quality decision-making process helps ensure perspectives are taken into account while still moving toward a solution.
To prepare for the decision-making process, you need to identify:
- Who should participate;
- Whether outside facilitation is needed;
- Core principles/group norms to orient participants; and
- Decision rules.
Each of these can be seen as a choice point, an opportunity to find and implement solutions that can either increase or decrease equity in your process. Consciously examining how these choice points affect equity in a decision-making process can both help increase equity as well as help support a larger framework through which other decisions are made.
- Tools for Complex Decision-Making includes a set of tools designed to help structure a decision-making process in complex environments, including decisions rules and when to bring in outside partners to help manage a process.
While the focus of this toolkit is not on individual behavior, it is important to recognize the ways in which relationships and interactions between individuals play a part in integrating an equity lens. Authentic community engagement starts with building relationships that are grounded in mutual respect and joint action and which recognize the value each person brings to the process. Moreover, it means taking the time to build relationships before asking for something. This type of engagement happens at multiple levels, ranging from the personal to the systemic. The chart below, which comes from Spark’s practical experience working with diverse communities, outlines a few examples of engagement along this continuum.
- Voices for Racial Justice has a short brief on the hows and whys of authentic community engagement within a racial equity context, along with a set of principles for authentic community engagement.
- Spark’s Engaging Nontraditional Voices includes a section on leadership development for nontraditional voices and how developing leadership within the community with which you are working can strengthen partnerships and lead to better outcomes.
Sometimes how we say something is just as important as what we say. Although paying attention to how we present data does not, in itself, ensure an equitable process, it can help the process be more inclusive and the decisions/outcomes be communicated in an understandable, accessible, and culturally-responsive manner.
- Disability is Natural has a short article on the importance of person-first language, as well as a list of examples of person-first language.
- Moving from Them to Us is a report from Public Health Institute, which explores how the issue of race frames how youth and violence are depicted in the news and the impact this has on policy development.
A note on accessibility compliance:
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 outlines federal requirements for electronic and information technology, ensuring equitable access to individuals with physical, sensory, or cognitive disabilities. This includes ensuring, for example, documents uploaded to websites are able to be read by e-readers or that images contain descriptive text that an e-reader can access. While these requirements do not apply to non-federal agencies or entities, they may offer some useful guidance for organizations working with certain communities.