It started out as any-old regular storytime in Mrs. Henson’s second-grade class. The children scurried to the circular colored carpet on the floor at the back of the classroom. Vying for position, they bumped and stumbled into one another as they toppled criss-cross-applesauce into their favorite spots. Once they were settled, Mrs. Henson held up the book for all to see and began reading,
“La llama llama
lee un quento
aqui en la cama”
“That’s not how it goes!”
“Mrs. Henson, we can’t understand you!” little voices exclaimed in frustrated unison.
“What do you mean?” she asked. “I’m reading the words exactly as they are right here on the page.”
“But we don’t speak Spanish,” some of the children persisted. Others, having understood the story right away, quietly grinned.
“Well then, now you have a taste for how it feels to come to a new school where the students and teachers don’t speak your language. It must be very difficult, no? You must work very hard to help your new friends feel welcome.”
As grown ups we forget sometimes what we learned as children, that we share responsibility for making new neighbors feel welcome. Sometimes, even when we have the best intentions, our attempts to include others are like speaking a different language, and sometimes it may even be literal.
Those of us in community work and ministry often want to hear from a wide variety of voices in the community. We want our neighbors to feel a part of the good work happening and to share their input and ideas. However, it’s not always quite as simple as just asking.
To truly gain insight from all those around us, we may need to think outside the box and think differently about how we solicit participation. At EIRO, we’ve experimented a few different strategies to make an extra effort and to involve different neighbors who may not speak our same language (literal or figurative).
#1 Find a translator or cultural guide
It should probably go without saying that if you want to hear from your neighbors and they speak a different language, make sure your materials/meetings/flyers/website/etc are translated appropriately. However, sometimes this effort feels overwhelming, but it is well worth it to build community and solicit greater participation.
In addition, many communities have their own established traditions, ways of doing things, and communication structures. Working alongside a local community leader who is willing to serve a “cultural translator” can help to avoid significant missteps and may be able to promote collaboration and stronger partnerships.
#2 Consider your communication mediums
There are also practical barriers to soliciting community input, including how you’re asking for involvement. Not everyone has a smart phone or home internet access, and older populations especially may not prefer technological communication tools. Many efforts to involve neighbors include online surveys or signing up for email lists, but not all neighbors communicate the same way. One practical way to hear from more voices is to expand communications to include both digital and paper communications, as well as phone calls or text reminders.
#3 Go where the people are
Being present and engaging face-to-face is always a powerful way to connect with others. But consider the places where your program shows up. Do community members have to come to you to participate and share their ideas? Are all meetings held inside a place of worship? Do you tend to talk to people in the same places? Consider locations in the community where others gather and take the first step to engagement. Setting up a table at a local school will connect you with so many parents and families who may never cross your path otherwise. Rotating meeting spaces or hanging flyers in local laundromats. All new ideas in new spaces will help you reach out and invite new voices.
Community programs are strongest when they are led and shaped by community members. As we seek to engage neighbors in positive collaboration, we need to make sure we’re doing the work necessary to invite all voices to the table.