Making the invisible visible: 5 ways to build trust with communities
Updated: May 5
A central part of my work involves coaching and supporting organizations to develop valuable and meaningful community engagement practices. This may include an analysis of what is already known about a program or service, supporting the development of a community or stakeholder survey to explore specific issues, and/or facilitating stakeholder conversations to delve deeper into existing and emerging experiences, and challenges identified through research or a survey.
I was recently reviewing some participant evaluation forms from a community conversation that I facilitated. This conversation was focused on building strong neighbourhoods and brought together residents to identify community assets and challenges. When asked, what worked well for today’s session, the top responses were:
The food was great!
Loved the opportunity to connect with others in the room
Thanks for providing translators, child care and transportation supports
This event, like many others that I have facilitated, reaffirmed that community engagement is really about building trust and an ongoing relationship with your stakeholders (before, during and after the event), and creating the conditions for a diversity of people to participate.
Connecting with people who are often missing from traditional consultations or engaging with those who are most isolated doesn’t have to be a daunting task. However, it does require trusting relationships and thoughtful planning. If done correctly, the upfront investment is well worth the potential long-term results. Building on the feedback from this recent session, I have outlined the following key principles of inclusive community engagement.
Start with empathy and trust: The key to meaningful engagement with diverse populations or underrepresented groups is trust and relationship building. You build these connections over time by listening with empathy and getting to know about the lived experiences of different populations. Start by speaking to partner organizations that do a good job of supporting marginalized populations and ask them to share what they have learned. Get to know emerging and existing leaders in communities, and participate in related events, workshops and networking opportunities. Sharing your organizational goals and exploring shared values are great conversation starters. Simply put: go where they gather, listen and learn.
Make it transformational, not transactional: Convening a community conversation or focus group to gather information about the experiences, needs and challenges faced by underrepresented groups should be viewed as an opportunity to further develop your relationships. You will want to design and facilitate a session with the end-user in mind, and consider: How can this session acknowledge the expertise and lived experience of everyone in the room? What can we give back to the group and/or how can we facilitate additional sharing and knowledge building among those in the room? How can we use this session to further build connections and relationships? Your engagement session should not be a one-way street of data taking, but a two-way street or crescent where stories, information and resources are exchanged among the entire group.
Create a safe and non-judgemental space: To the best of your ability, you want to create a safe space where people feel comfortable enough to share their lived experiences – the good, the bad and the ugly. You want people to feel like they can bring their whole and real selves to the discussion. To do this most effectively, you start before the event, workshop or focus group – in your relationship building and in your invitation to engage.
This is about sharing your organizational values and goals, being open and transparent about “why” you are interested in convening this discussion, why you are gathering this information and how the information will be used. It's also about obtaining consent, discussing confidentiality and establishing guidelines for discussion, which may include things like respect for differing perspectives and opinions, active listening and affirming that this is a non-judgmental space.
Pro tip: Sharing a meal and/or offering nutritious food options, drinks and snacks shows appreciation of one's time and adds another dimension to the conversation and experience of storytelling. Consider catering from a local business, social enterprise and/or ordering culturally appropriate options.
"Design-in” your participants: Designing-in is about accessibility and about providing a variety of options that enable people to participate. It’s also about removing barriers and creating the conditions for active and meaningful participation. Focus on ‘designing in’ for underrepresented populations (versus designing out or excluding marginalized groups). Knowing who your audience is and asking them what they need to actively engage in the conversation is key to planning an inclusive conversation. For example, if you are connecting with newcomer youth, you might consider hosting the session in a barrier-free school or a community centre that is accessible by public transit. You might also offer transportation funding, host the conversation after school hours and provide translators. Creating the conditions to participate, removing barriers and providing a variety of ways for people to share insights, stories and experiences are critical to creating an inclusive process.
Pro tip: Add creatively to information gathering by including visuals, getting people moving, using arts based activities, and offering options to share verbally, in-writing, one-on-one, in small groups and large group discussions.
Ongoing learning and feedback loop: As in any relationship, you want to keep the conversation going. People like to know how the information they shared will be used, what difference it made and what the next steps are. At the end of the session you should be able to share those next steps and offer options to those participants who want to stay engaged.
Pro tip: End meetings with a big thank you, acknowledging people's time and energy. Offer opportunities to co-design future sessions, share meeting resources, contact lists and summary meeting notes for those who want to stay engaged.
While there are many other things to consider when you convene community members, keeping these principles in mind is a great start. Engaging with underrepresented groups respectfully can result in nuanced insights and spark program innovation that would have otherwise remained invisible or untapped.