Word from Lowell: Don’t just give residents a seat, give them the mic

Lowell Perry Jr., Executive Director 

We often overuse the term “community engagement” when those of us in the nonprofit sector talk about bringing people to the table to become involved in the work we do. This desire to “engage” folks in our missions includes volunteers, donors, board members, and yes, the people we serve. A big priority for Cleveland Central Promise Neighborhood this year looking beyond just giving the people we serve a seat at the table. Instead, we are trying to be very intentional about ensuring that the people we serve are empowered with appropriate decision making authority in matters which directly affect them. It’s about recognizing the difference between engagement and integration.

Community engagement is more transactional in nature. Engagement alone rarely leads to a lasting outcome. To use a basketball analogy, it is similar to inviting someone new to your team, but never allowing them to get off the bench and into the game. In this scenario, they have no real chance to impact the outcome of the game, even when it is on their home court! They might as well be spectators.

Integration on the other hand, is a longer-term, transformational event. Not only is this new team member a part of the whole, they are also afforded an opportunity to get into the game and make plays.  Most importantly, their contribution is critical to winning the game.

Lowell Perry Jr., executive director, Cleveland Central Promise Neighborhood
Lowell Perry Jr., executive director, Cleveland Central Promise Neighborhood

One of the five overarching goals of the Cleveland Central Promise Neighborhood is that residents must lead the change in their community to achieve lasting impact. For this to happen in real terms, it means residents must be full-fledged team members in trying to win the game. That is why with every Promise Neighborhood activity or committee, we make a real effort to ensure that a resident leader is at the table and that their voice is being heard. Even with this well-intentioned approach of listening to the voice of our “customer”, we know that we still must do much more, or we risk falling into the age old trap of doing things to and for people, rather than with them.

In this new world, the voice of the community must be heard more than just from surveys, it must be heard at the decision making level, not after the so-called experts have made the decisions. The resident community must be afforded some authority to direct their own paths, or else transformational outcomes cannot happen.  It’s can no longer acceptable for our key public to be placed in the position of merely reacting to a set of “solutions” that they had no real role in helping to craft.

To create this cultural shift, Cleveland Central Promise Neighborhood is working with Enlightenment Consulting to develop an intentional strategy to include residents in board rooms and committees of every single stakeholder of the Promise Neighborhood.

That means giving up a little power to those individuals us “experts” must admit we subconsciously believe aren’t as insightful as we are. This is the essence of patronization. To paraphrase an old saying “if we can teach someone how to fish, they can now fish for themselves” forever.  Stop handing out fish!  The inconvenient truth is that if we stop handing out fish, we won’t be able to take credit, right?  So we must ask ourselves – what is most important: taking credit, or positive outcomes for those we claim we are in the business to serve? If it is the latter, we must adopt a mindset of integration over that of just engagement.

I don’t know about you, but I want a real say on an ongoing basis on issues that directly affect me. That cannot be possible if I am not integrated into the decision making process from the onset of seeking solutions to challenges facing me personally. That is why Cleveland Central Promise Neighborhood is placing a finer focus on what we achieve rather than what we do.  And residents are involved from start to finish in the process.

I conclude with another overworked term – empowerment.  How many times do you hear well-meaning organizations talk about empowering people? Webster describes the act of empowering to mean to give power to; authorize; to enable. If we are not handing over some decision making responsibility to the people being affected in the process, and therefore allowing for true self-determination, then we are only talking at them and not speaking with them. This change will obviously not happen overnight but we committed to passing the ball to our residents and giving them the power to make some plays.