Engaging community members in improving educational outcomes is key. Both federal and local levels seem to agree that extensive government intervention in the “how to” community engagement process is not the answer for local implementation of new educational reform policy initiatives. The challenge is to develop a comprehensive community engagement approach in order to convert policies to the best practices that yield desired results.
As communities are engaged, identifying who to engage and providing clarity around tasks are critical first steps. Initially, there are two groups that should be identified for engagement: grassroots and grasstops.
The grassroots are the local informal community leaders with prolific social capital in the community and a dynamic social network that can engage community members who feel left out of the decision making process. These informal leaders are savvy with the amplification of information via technology or persuasive dialogue; most importantly, they can quickly mobilize community members. The grasstops leaders are the local business and policy partners with key access to legislative and monetary structures. The grasstops leaders can help advocate for and sustain the long term goals of the local initiatives, even as local and federal leadership structures change. Engaging both grassroots and grasstops groups can create a robust driving force to amplify local initiatives any time and any place.
The initial phase of this robust community engagement process is being implemented by EDWorks New Start partner Central Collegiate Academy, a Detroit public high school recently featured by the U.S. Department of Education. The work at the local level by Detroit Public Schools is designed to build capacity and sustainability from a combination of community members and business partners. Implementing such a community initiative requires the development and cultivation of authentic collaborative relationships across all formal and informal groups.
In Detroit, like many other communities across the country, schools are synergy of the local community. At Detroit’ Central Collegiate Academy, the school made it a goal for students to engage their community by applying what is learned in school to help solve a local problem. The school hosted a summative performance-based assessment gala with their various community engagement partners so students could showcase their efforts. They combined both grasstops organizational leaders (St. John Hospital, Detroit Parent Network, United Way, Sodexo USA and Focus Hope) and grassroots leaders (students, parents and community advocates).
The students provided academic tours and demonstrated how they applied what they learned in school to enhance their greater Detroit community. Students provided performance-based demonstrations of their work with local homeless families, alternative and sustainable energy resources in Detroit and genetics and family health services in Detroit. Additionally, St. John Hospital provided a tour of the new health facility inside the school, designed for students and families to have access to quality preventative health care screening. Detroit Parent Network, Focus Hope, United Way and Sodexo were able to engage parents and families with the daily services they provide in the school for families daily.
The reason why the school was able to have such a success in their community engagement process was due to their block-by-block approach. The school identified every community membership group in each block of the school’s attendance zone. The school recruited both grassroots and grasstops members into the school to develop a sustainable private-public partnership that is built to last.
I was just recently part of a discussion with several of the Strive Cradle to Career communities about how they’re working to promote shared accountability within networks that are building collaborative action plans.
It became clear throughout the conversation that this is one of the toughest challenges that partnerships wrestle through. There is no denying it – collaborative action is hard work. It requires a level of collaboration that goes beyond rhetoric, to a place where partners are asked to set aside individual agendas, change behaviors and adopt new practices. It is time-consuming in that being data-driven means being willing to take the time to analyze and make difficult decisions. And in most cases, it requires network partners to do something that is above and beyond their “day jobs.”
As the discussion continued, Dan Ryan of All Hands Raised in Portland stressed that we need to be “writing a new job description,” one which includes collaborative action as one of the core competencies. This will likely require partners to re-evaluate all of their many responsibilities and prioritize authentic collaboration around a shared vision and common measures, with the expectation that this type of action will get to improved outcomes.
Geoff Zimmerman of the Strive Partnership in Cincinnati, Newport and Covington added that we must find a balance between how much support and capacity the backbone provides to the collaborative action work, with how much we expect partners to change how they’ve been operating in order to adapt to the “new job description.” If the backbone provides too much support, partners will not change their behavior and this work cannot be sustained.
So the questions are: how do we write the new job description for this work, making collaborative action a critical competency for our partners’ “day jobs”; and as backbone support organizations, how do we provide the right balance of capacity building and support to catalyze systemic change and make sure our partners don’t want to quit their “day jobs?”
Working with a few sites recently, I came to realize that “enlightened self-interest” is a beautiful thing. It’s often referred to in the negative because of the perception that people are being selfish if they think about how the partnership work could help an individual partner succeed. But in the end, real and sustainable partnerships do have to meet the unique needs of each partner while serving the common good.
As a practical example, these sites are all having trouble getting one or two sectors to actively engage in the partnership work. When we thought this through with them, we realized we really needed to capture both what would likely bring them to the table AND what could be keeping them away. In the end, this matrix will have to be tailored for the needs of each partner. Doing this by sector can get you a good start, helping you to understand what would be the “enlightened self-interest” of the partner to actively engage in the work. These sites now have plans with concrete talking points for how to get the much needed and critically important partners actively involved.
In the end, each partner will need the work of a cradle to career partnership, and the civic infrastructure that emerges, to meet their own mission and goals. Because, in the end, it is the alignment of all these efforts that will lead to long-term success. And that really is in all of our “enlightened collective interest.”