BY: Nicole Breazeale, Associate Professor of Sociology, Western Kentucky University
Public health can benefit from some different and exciting new approaches to engaging with the community, namely community organizing techniques. What is community organizing? How can it help move us “beyond flyers” to recruit our desired collaborators and community partners? How can it help us to build new leadership among constituents who are directly affected by social problems, relieving pressure on current community leaders who are often overworked and overwhelmed? For inspiration and new ideas about what might be possible in your community, check out some of the strategies community organizers use:
- Identify the people who are often excluded from the conversation, but who are most affected by the problem.
- Go to their table. Where are they already congregated? Where can you talk to people one-on-one in their space before you invite them to yours? I remember once I was talking with a friend of mine about a public event her nonprofit was organizing in downtown Lexington. She wanted to be welcoming to the poor, black neighborhood around her building, so she posted a bunch of fliers around the apartment complexes. The day of the big event arrived and not a single person from the neighborhood came. She was saying, “I was inclusive, I invited them, but clearly, they don’t care.” But how does it feel to you to go to a space that is largely comprised of people who look and act differently than you? Do you feel uncomfortable and self-conscious, afraid that you might say or do something stupid and make a fool of yourself? What if instead of just inviting everyone to OUR table, we first go to THEIR table, the place where they are already comfortable and get to know them on their turf first.
- Build relationships. Listen to their stories, their interests, their experiences, and find the common ground. Keep showing up. Follow-up with personal reminders (not email) that show you actually care about the relationship and that person.
- Develop community leaders. Provide steady mentorship to support the development of new leaders who will recruit new people, volunteer their time and share ideas. Many people need a lot of encouragement and support to believe they have anything to offer. If they have an idea of something that “they” or “we” should do, turn it back around. “You think we should have a kid’s breakfast at the farmer’s market. That’s a superb idea! Would you be willing to help lead that effort?” Push through many of the common excuses – these are just coming from a place of insecurity and surprise at being asked to step up. Remember how important it is to support people who have previously been voiceless – they really struggle to believe they can be part of affecting change that improves things for their families and the broader community.
- The ultimate goal is to empower everyday people who are experiencing a community problem to work together with other people like them to try to improve their situation. That’s because there are people (and even whole communities in Kentucky) that are afraid to speak up or don’t think they have a voice or have no idea how to go about the process of trying to improve things. The idea is to help these people to be able to decide together what they want and give them the information to help them act on those decisions.
Nicole Breazeale is an associate professor of sociology at WKU-Glasgow and an expert in empowering students, faculty, and community organizations to work together to improve society and promote a culture of stewardship. She earned her doctorate in community and environmental sociology in 2010 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her academic interests include agri-food systems, sustainable development, poverty and inequality, and critical pedagogy.