Walking into Communities with Open Eyes, Ears and Hearts
“I work toward engaging deeply with communities as a program officer. I come to the work with a lifetime focus on decreasing poverty while increasing equity. We want to support communities in a way that has the most significant impact while serving people who face historical disadvantages. We often come back to the centering question: How can we be most impactful with the work that we’re doing?” – Rose Green, Colorado Health Foundation program officer
At the Foundation, we recognize that by deeply engaging with communities over an extensive period of time, we can together more effectively move the needle on the unique health challenges they experience. Working locally over the long term also provides us an opportunity to help build the capacity of local institutions, improve policies and systems, support a diverse set of local leaders and stimulate broad civic engagement.
For over a year now, we have been working locally this way in four communities – the city of Pueblo, Alamosa, Eagle and Morgan counties. Working locally goes beyond providing grant funding. This new approach to our work relies heavily on engaging deeply with people and organizations to support their ideas through levering both financial and non-financial resources; building and fostering relationships; and surfacing opportunities where technical assistance may be beneficial.
In this blog post, we talk with program staff, working in these four communities, about insights they’ve gained through this approach to locally-focused work. Guided by our Community Engagement IMPACT Practice Model, we discuss the type of work the Foundation’s program staff intend to carry out, how they show up in community and what they can do to help locals achieve better health and health equity.
What does it mean to work deeply in community?
Monique: For me it means showing up often and being there to connect people to resources to help them solve their own challenges. The nature of working with a statewide Foundation gives me access to other partners, data and resources. I feel obligated to share information with the community. It is important that I show up authentically, so community members can see me for who I am. This means being honest, open, direct, compassionate, respectful.
Chris Bui: It means carefully walking alongside people who live, work and play in the community. This better enables me to both participate with and learn from them about what matters to them most when it comes to their health and well-being.
Rose: True engagement is about listening instead of being directive. My goal is to learn from people and organizations from within and work with them to support the solutions they see as most necessary for them. I hope to engage in many ways, ranging from providing funding to being a thought partner, connecting local people and organizations to other resources, networking and convening.
Chris Smith: Ideally, it means that we have the opportunity to help support efforts by the given geographic region to address issues that are important to them. We do this not by dictating what can and cannot happen, but by working collaboratively with the given community based on a foundation of trust and relationship.
How are you working with your current community and what is unique about that relationship?
Monique: The distance from Denver to Alamosa County is far, yet it creates opportunity for creativity. And through this, I’m continuing to uncover new ways to engage in a community that is both vibrant and unique. I give people access to contact me via phone, text or email. Providing more ways to connect helps to foster stronger relationships. I share as many resources as I can, ensuring I forward relevant information in a timely fashion. I try to ease concerns and calm stress of those who feel like they have to rush to get everything in one conversation. What is unique about this relationship is that they feel like they have a thought partner and advocate who is accessible, even when I’m more than three hours away.
Chris Bui: New to the Foundation, I am currently meeting with organizations in Eagle County to better understand how we’ve traditionally worked with them, their current and future work, and how we can continue to support. I am also exploring new organizations that have not worked with the Foundation (recently or ever) to understand how they operate and what connections they may have with current community organizations we have worked with. More than this, I am focused on building relationships with people so that I can learn from them what it will take to support them in the most impactful way possible, and in the ways they value.
Rose: I spent about a year getting to know people and organizations in Morgan County so that I could learn about the community’s assets and challenges, goals, existing resources and connections. I have worked to develop relationships with a range of folks working in the community in order to support the work they are doing, as well as ideas for new work. I am in Morgan County regularly assisting partners in thinking through strategies to help community members enhance their quality of life. Sometimes I initiate these conversations, and sometimes they invite me in. The depth of the relationships is unique, as is my ability to understand what is going on and how things are connected. My interactions with folks in Morgan County are not transactional. They progress, change and evolve based on what is going on and what I am learning.
Chris Smith: In the city of Pueblo, I engage with community representatives in a variety of ways, such as attending planning meetings, participating in events, supporting grant requests, brainstorming ideas and approaches, etc. I enjoy meeting with people at the places they love – whether that’s a park, the library or a coffee shop – and really taking the time to hear about what is most important to them in their day-to-day lives. My goal is to serve the community as a resource and partner with whom they can trust. The relationship is certainly is deeper than simply being transactional because I truly care about the health and well-being of people in Pueblo.
What strengths and barriers are you experiencing while engaging in community?
Monique: I feel I can be myself with people in the community about how my personal and professional lives intersect. This opens the door to others feeling comfortable too, which helps build trust. We all know that trust is a fragile thing: hard to build and easy to break, so being able to build trust in this way makes me feel truly connected to the people in Alamosa... On another note, a personal barrier I face is being patient with uncovering challenges to communities that go unseen and unheard. Building trust takes time and we have to be patient with the amount of time it takes to reach those we are looking to serve.
Chris Bui: In a general sense, I am observing that many community organizations are always willing to give us time to talk with us and highlight the work they are doing in the community. I’m also cognizant of being respectful of their time while listening and learning from them. My challenge is trying to find out how to help bridge connections that may have been overlooked, while still trying to understand the history, culture, current efforts and dynamics that exist in the community and navigating new relationships.
Rose: The biggest strengths are my ability to make decisions based on a much more nuanced understanding of the community, and support the work that low-income community members think is most important. Barriers include those who are less interested in developing relationships, resource challenges in a rural Northeastern community, and finding a balance between moving work forward and allowing different efforts to progress at their own pace.
Chris Smith: A strength I’ve gained is that I know significantly more about my locally-focused communities than most people in the philanthropic sector. I care deeply about the people of Pueblo – some of that is attributed to having the opportunity to understand them better, what they care about and why they care about it. My biggest barrier is probably time and living in a different location than the community I am engaged with. As much time as I spend in my communities I know more time is actually needed then I can afford to give.
As we continue to work in these four communities, we’re taking time to listen, learn and partner so we can identify the best way to support a wide variety of efforts that will achieve the greatest health impact for Coloradans who have been left in the shadows. We’re expanding our work to be deeper than grantmaking – and bringing our other philanthropic resources to bear – to make authentic connections with other partners, organizations and funders. We’re facilitating conversations in which ideas and solutions can be surfaced. From all of this, we acknowledge the journey we’re on to better understand the unique needs and the ways in which the communities operate. And we’re learning to be open to many of the solutions that can and should be harnessed from within.
Learn more about how we are engaging with these communities to ensure that health is a reality for all of those who call them “home.”