Throughout my career, I have conducted community outreach and led teams that conducted community outreach. Community outreach is something that I take very seriously. Many communities, particularly Black and Brown communities, have been impacted positively as a result of community outreach, and many have also been negatively impacted and harmed by community outreach. For me, this is front of mind anytime there is a conversation about entering and engaging with community members. The foundation of my mindset is ensuring that my words and actions honor and uplift the communities I am working alongside.
Community outreach is not just rolling into a community and offering residents products and services. This approach can be extremely harmful. The first rule should be to do no harm. The primary intention should be for the community to be enhanced because you were there. Not enhanced in your eyes, but enhanced based on community members’ perceptions. Community outreach requires relationship building and cultivating mutually beneficial partnerships. This is not something that occurs overnight. It requires transparency, time, and consistency.
Community outreach is not just an action or activity.
It is a process and a way of showing up.
Yes, the quote may be true; if you build it, they will come. However, if you don’t build it correctly, they may not return.
In my experience, the following mindsets and processes proved to be successful in cultivating a positive community outreach experience.
1. Research. Research. Research. Before you enter a community, do your research. What is your organization’s history in the community you seek to engage with? Are there any past or present harms that must be acknowledged and reconciled? How do the residents feel about the programs or services you intend to offer? What cultural indicators do you need to be aware of?
2. Familiarity Expedites Engagement. The individual(s) entering the community should reflect the community’s demographics unless otherwise requested by community members. The initial interactions should be focused on introductions.
3. Student Learner. It is crucial to enter the community as a student and learner. This requires focusing on listening more, talking less, and making suggestions for consideration instead of giving advice and recommendations. Identifying and celebrating individual and community successes and strengths is vital in ensuring that you are not entering with a mindset of the fixer, but as a supporter of the outstanding accomplishments and strides made before you.
4. Community Immersion. You should be visible to community members beyond the work that you are doing there. This includes patronizing local businesses, attending events and activities, building authentic relationships, and considering community members for open positions. Getting to know people by name and learning their stories is important. Pronouncing names correctly demonstrates respect. Community immersion also includes advocacy actions (e.g., policy development, supporting change, voting) alongside community members. Your care should extend beyond the work. It should appear at the voting polls and decision-making tables with you.
5. Important versus Priority. Identifying needs and priorities based on community members’ voices and lived experiences is critical. There is a big difference between something important and something being a priority. What you’re offering or recommending may be important and a priority to you, but it may not be a priority for the communities you are entering. Please don’t force it. Focus on learning, practicing respectful and curious inquiry, and humility. Be mindful of your power, and ensure that the most marginalized community members are heard.
6. Boundaries. Rules and processes are important to building healthy relationships and eliminating harm. What language does the community prefer? Which terms are allowable, and which are considered to be offensive? What are taboo topics, conversations, and actions? Who is the preferred point of contact for the community? How will boundary violations be handled, and by whom?
7. Transparency. Conversations and actions must be transparent and honest if and when the community grants you (or your organization) permission to enter. What are you offering, and why? Why did you select this community? What are your intended goals? What is the impact on the community residents? How will the community outreach activities be evaluated and shared? 8. Mutually Beneficial Partnerships. Many times, individuals enter a community and think that a stipend is sufficient and a pass to do whatever they want, or worse, that the community should just be grateful for their presence. This mindset can be harmful and disrespectful, negating the community’s strengths. How will your presence benefit community members in one or more of the areas they have identified as a priority? How will positive impacts be sustained in the long term? What will you do with the lessons learned? How will confidentiality and voices be protected?
Meet Our Contributor: Tonicia Freeman-Foster
Dr. Tonicia Freeman-Foster is the Co-Founder of LEIDOSWEL. She is a transformational leadership and organizational culture coach and consultant.