Three fundamental values guide my community work. This post focuses on the first: Respect.
I talk a lot about respect with my young children, and the two things I hear myself repeating to them throughout the day are 1) listen well and 2) honor each other. I find that these equally apply to community work. I would say at least 75% of community engagement work is deep listening. It is a skill that I have honed through getting to know the community, knowing what questions to ask and who to ask them of, and then listening for opportunities for connection and growth.
Listening is a vital part of getting to know the community. This requires leg work. I am a researcher at heart, so I typically start with demographics, geography, and general impressions of the community. I will ask the people who know their community: mayors, directors of social service agencies, religious leaders, Neighborhood Associations, and neighbors. But, I don’t stop there. I try to paint a broad picture of the place where I am so as issues, ideas, groups, and networks start to form, I work to flesh them out through one-on-one meetings, focus groups or community dialogues, and neighborhood walks. I work to identify community centers – the places where people gather and meet. Coffee shops, malls, libraries, ball fields. And from those people and places, I gather stories about the community.
This takes time! It is not a one and done event. It is an ongoing process, in which identifying who you can return to, who is invested, who is not (and finding out why), who cares and who doesn’t (and why and about what), about how the land, the community, the institutions, and the people intersect and inform one another. It’s complicated and complex.
And just a hint. If you have it figured out after one conversation, you haven’t gone deep enough. It’s a start, and one to pursue further.
From these conversations, you can begin to identify some areas of focus. What do people bring up again and again?
You are honing what questions to ask. There is a difference between sitting down with someone to talk about “poverty and what we can do to address it” and “Tell me about your community.” If you start with issues you’ve already identified, that’s all you will learn about. Those are leading questions, and you are limiting the options! These are what Peter Block describes as powerless questions. But, let the person you’re talking to tell you what they know and care about, you will learn and understand so much more. They are the expert in their life and work. This is a way to honor them.
The second part of knowing what questions to ask is who to ask them of. I start with the people I know, and ask them: Who else should I talk to?
One of the strategies I use for keeping all this straight is mapping out the issues, the people who care about them, the skills that people have, and who and where is already addressing them. From there, you can look at the gaps and start connecting people and organizations as needed. I think about this as mapping out possibilities.
You can use a wall of post-its, a physical map with notes pinned to it, a web diagram, or if you are more tech savvy, there are lots of programs available for organizing data. I am old school, and find value in the physicality of pen and paper, so I keep written notes of every meeting and encounter and sort them in various arrangements until I can visualize the connections between people, spaces, and ideas.
Listening for opportunities for connection and growth is what happens in the gaps. Who should know who? If someone raises an issue, do you know who else they could talk to in order to address it?
For example, let’s say you’re meeting with someone and they mention that their small group met an immigrant family through a program that delivers Christmas gifts and a meal to families in need. In the course of their conversation, they realize that the family might be undocumented. Do you know who to connect them with – an immigrant ally organization, immigration clinic, or churches who help support immigrants in their community? Part of the job of community workers is knowing what services, organizations, and assets are in your community…and then connecting people with them.
This is an act of modeling as well – helping others to approach their interactions as opportunities for connection and growth. And, isn’t this what Jesus did throughout his ministry, modelling new ways of understanding and relating to people for his disciples to follow?
Block, P. (2008). Community: The Structure of Belonging. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koeher Publishers.
Ruth M. Smith
Community arts educator and researcher. Drinking coffee. Home educating. Making art. Listening intentionally.