My mother recently reminded me of a declaration I made at a very young age, “I was born to talk!” If I was indeed born for that purpose, I have accomplished that goal and then some. I have a short list of things I really love to talk about — and among them is community. Most recent evidence of this passion is the weekly series of virtual community conversations I hosted that highlighted each of five 16 Tech Community Investment Fund grant priorities.
We invited community leaders from a variety of disciplines to converse around the five grant priorities of education, capacity building, workforce training, business support and infrastructure and beautification. The goal? Big ideas and best practices that would yield valuable lessons for our grant makers and grant seekers.
These conversations accomplished just that. These lessons were enriching and each week I learned something new. I listened, took notes, visited new online resources and even re-watched the recordings. As I thought about the gems shared in this series, I knew the learnings had impact and relevance beyond our computer screens on Tuesday evenings.
So let’s talk about them, together.
Our guests highlighted the need to explicitly address equity in education. Dr. Tiffany Kyser offered four key shifts [systemic] that need to be employed to make sustainable progress toward equitable impact in education over time. Those shifts are to:
Move away from fixing students toward efforts to change systems (people don’t need fixing!)
Move away from subtractive schooling that systematically strips historically marginalized students of their language, culture and identities towards schooling that is centered on the lived experiences and heritage practices of our most diverse students
Move away from deficit discourse and a focus on why students and families don’t succeed towards transformative language and equity-focused improvement
Move away from closing achievement gaps and making problematic comparisons towards creating equitable innovative learning environments and reducing systemic barriers
The points she made are relevant in education and in broader community development. We can be even more effective and impactful long-term if our efforts remove systemic barriers and celebrate assets.
Similar ideas were reinforced during the conversation with our workforce development guests. In traditional programming, partners focus on employment numbers and wage increases as outcomes that are relevant, but our guests stated that in order to effectively support families we must understand that “work is about people first.” The most innovative and promising program efforts focus on the needs of job seekers as well as the needs of employers.
Personally, one innovation I hope grows is the creation of social enterprises that provide work opportunities for job seekers while addressing community needs and/or creating a product or service. This model not only creates opportunities for individuals to work, but also helps populate vacant urban landscapes with neighborhood-based businesses.
The presence of thriving businesses is critical for neighborhoods and economic centers. Our guests illuminated the importance of:
- Developing and maintaining trusted relationships as clear focal points of business support initiatives
- Helping individuals develop or enhance their entrepreneurial mindset and leverage as many resources as needed to make their idea move forward.
This requires listening and understanding the vision of the small business owner.
NEIGHBORHOOD CAPACITY BUILDING
Listening was a common skill discussed throughout the series and was stressed as one of the most important skills to have as a community member or organization. De’Amon Harges pointed to the work The Learning Tree does which focuses on three main things:
1) listening first
2) celebrating what already exists in the community; and
3) connecting with others to build social capital.
The actions they take are not centered on needs, but strengths. Other conversation highlights included leveraging technology to support resident-led efforts, investing in engagement as part of organizational budgets, and being clear that “buy-in” is not the same thing as engagement.
INFRASTRUCTURE & BEAUTIFICATION
Our final conversation focused on infrastructure and beautification left me wanting more. The guests interrogated grant-making processes and explored ideas about the ways in which the built environment, art and culture are developed and sustained in neighborhoods.
They reminded us all that:
- The process is just as important as the product
- People need to have and honor spaces in which they can dream and plan
Danicia Monet, urban planner and artist, highlighted that for her success in this space looks like lots of engagement and when attacking big complicated issues like gentrification there should be a focus on “the most good for the most people”.
WALK THE TALK
The full series has allowed me to define a set of critical principles for community engagement work including:
A focus on dignity,
A focus on listening and getting to know people (and neighborhoods),
Acting with love and respect,
Distributing money directly into the hands of people,
Being flexible, patient, and multi-faceted,
Building trusted relationships — people first, and
Prioritizing the most marginalized voices.
If we adhere to these principles, we will have a more rich, equitable and fruitful community. This requires moving from thinking as individuals towards a collective. That is the only way we are going to transform neighborhoods and cities at scale. In the coming days and weeks, we will continue to revisit these conversations to refine and build partnerships with our neighbors. Recordings of each session are available online at 16tech.com and written notes will be posted soon.
The 16 Tech Community Investment Fund exists to support neighborhood-based projects that improve quality of life. The first round of awards was announced in May 2020. Applications for the second grant cycle are now open with October deadlines quickly approaching. Awards will be announced in December. The Community Investment Fund will allocate a total of $1 million in 2020. For more information, visit www.16tech.com/community-investment.
Starla Hart is the director of community initiatives at 16 Tech Community Corporation and contributor for the Indianapolis Recorder. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.