March 27, 2023
Through our “No Silver Bullet to Community Engagement” blog series, we’ve shared our learning about how to incorporate equity in your work, how to center relationships in community engagement practices, and how to create transformation by shifting power. The final entry in our series focuses on designing accessible community engagement spaces and processes. A common theme through each practice we’ve highlighted is the critical interrogation of one’s own power and positioning. The work is much the same for designing accessible processes–begin with the design of your own team.
There is power in the collective assets of any team. Each person brings unique expertise, experience, perspectives, and networks that form the infrastructure for more expansive community engagement. The more diverse sets of skills and lived experiences, the stronger the base for effective community engagement. While it is important to ensure that your team is reflective of diverse perspectives and experiences, it is also critical to actively cultivate a reflective awareness about potential gaps or blind spots throughout the team’s community engagement work. One strategy to round out missing pieces is involving more individuals through advisory and volunteer positions that may be relevant for particular efforts.
The phrase “nothing about us without us” is a good framework for inclusive design. Start with the invitation, a plan for broad distribution, and a goal for expanding your network as part of the effort. Think about who is missing from your current list and typical outreach efforts. Who might be difficult to engage? Some groups to give particular consideration include parents with young children, individuals experiencing housing insecurity, and religious or ethnic groups that you may not typically reach out to. Once you have an expansive definition of “us,” advertise the opportunity (or opportunities) widely through your networks and other standard vehicles, along with channels associated with your target demographics. Encourage people to share the invitation and partner with organizations that regularly work with populations that may be difficult to engage to help spread the word. People are more likely to attend a meeting if they receive an invitation from a trusted source.
As part of community engagement planning, it’s important to make sure that everyone you invite can actually participate, as well as feel valued and welcome. Ensure the meeting space (if physical) is in a central location accessible by public transportation, has parking, or offers other conveniences. Meeting dates and times should take into account the variety of people who will attend. It may be necessary to offer several options for participation, including remote options and more. Is the building navigable for individuals with physical limitations? Can you offer childcare? Is there compensation for people that may need to miss work to attend?
Once you’ve planned for broad outreach and addressed as many barriers as possible to getting people in the door, don’t forget about the design of the content and structure for the meeting itself. Every person that attends should be able to engage with the materials and discussion. What accommodations (such as a sign language interpreter) might you need? Will language interpreters be necessary? Should materials be translated into multiple languages? Are there dietary restrictions in instances where food will be served? These are questions that can also be included in the registration process to give you a sense of the group’s needs in advance. If there are some needs that can’t be accommodated, let people know. It will provide a level of transparency about your planning and level expectations.
Attention to both the physical and emotional space of the meeting is critical for productive engagement. Think about how the room is set up to achieve outcomes (i.e. seating designed for conversation, room for small group break outs, acoustics, visual displays, etc.). Consider adopting a “community agreements” practice that allows for group ownership of how the meeting will be conducted to account for dynamics such as accommodating all voices and resolving conflict. Finally, return to the foundation of your team. Establishing different roles for team members such as facilitation, attention to participant physical needs, materials, and other meeting aspects can smooth operations and help distribute responsibility.
We look forward to sharing more of the learning from the Community Voices for Health initiative in our forthcoming toolkit. Join our newsletter mailing list to keep up-to-date on its release!