Among its key strategies for supporting healthy community change, Healthy Places by Design builds learning networks. This format—done almost always through virtual meetings—engages people who are creating impactful change across great geographies in a mutually beneficial conversation about their important work. In their convening role, learning networks let community leaders know they are not alone solving similar issues. We’ve been doing these for years now, and in preparing for a recent Learning Network meeting, we had an epiphany.
Working with a group of SNAP-Ed partners across the state of Michigan, we followed an internal calendar for convening topics that matched what we’d heard from the partners. The first topic for the calendar year was community engagement. In partnership with the Michigan Fitness Foundation, we outlined a meeting where we would share practical tips on engaging residents, those with lived experience who were most impacted by the issues for implementing policy, systems, and environmental change strategies.
The level of experience in this area varied quite a bit. In some cases, these partners were health educators or nutritionists with limited exposure to policy or systems work. Therefore, we chose to emphasize the importance of “getting out from behind the desk” to expand partnerships and engage those who are most impacted by the issues. It was exciting to co-create something where people could consider how to go into the community, have some mutually beneficial conversations and work towards implementing new strategies.
But then we paused. Reflecting on the things we were asking of community members and our SNAP-Ed partners, we feared we’d grown tone deaf to what we were really trying to achieve in the moment.
While we all are relieved COVID infections, related deaths, and our access to social and communal spaces are trending in a positive direction, too many of us are going to be rebuilding our personal and community lives for a while. This includes everything from repairing collective and individual grief, reckoning with personal losses, recalibrating our work/life balance, and adjusting the ways we show up for priority populations.
It dawned on us that many of the community members most impacted by COVID are the same people being asked to participate in community dialogues. Meanwhile, the partners who are expected to implement these strategies are navigating losses and quarantine-related disruptions of their own.
For this particular Learning Network meeting, people echoed this sentiment and it was abundantly clear from results to the registration question: “What is your partnership's biggest barrier to authentic community engagement?”
We took a step back.
We realized that we are asking for “extra” work from people who are struggling and at the same time we’re also contending with extra barriers and limitations ourselves. For those of us focused on advancing healthy community work, personal lives and professional lives have always overlapped. We decided we needed to focus on the “community” in the learning network, before we look further into our communities. This is not an excuse to short-change the community engagement process. In fact, it’s just the opposite—it’s a call to action.
In times like these—even as COVID restrictions ease—we must remember the things that are most vital to community engagement: real listening, meaningful adaptations to the needs of those most impacted, self-care, and true power sharing among partners.
For our partners, these simple realizations were cathartic. They appreciated a chance to voice their exhaustion, a moment to share in their own challenges, and the opportunity to reveal themselves—simply—as human beings. The session was not about wallowing or venting, but identifying a shared struggle and using the time to identify solutions that work for communities and for community champions both. We can get more done in building trust and relationships when we view one another as humans first.
Too often, we fixate on the task at hand. We get caught up in meeting deliverables, executing plans, and following agendas that we lose sight of the bigger purpose. Sometimes we need to pause, take pride in what we have accomplished so far, and assess what is truly needed to move forward. And then, we make those adjustments and get things done.