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Putting Community in Community Work

I attended a training from People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond last week, and something they said has stuck with me. I’ve had the privilege of going through their training before, and as a multicultural consultant myself for VISIONS Inc., I appreciate learning other perspectives on the work. The trainer made the point of intergrating community into the work in meaningful, lasting ways that go beyond the usual suspects in the usual venues and structures. Here are 3 main points that stand out about how to get there:

1) Acknowledging the Power Inequalities in the Room: As a good mentor, Gwen Morris, once told me, “Remember who is getting paid to be here and who is not.” Yes, I may be a dedicated advocate, yes, much of my time I spend doing community work outside of research is volunteer, but at the end of the day, working on social issues is my work. While I am an ally to the struggle, I am not struggling. I may have “relative poverty” but I do not live in the fear of losing a roof over my head, and I am deemed “employable” in several sectors. This acknowledgement may lead to a feeling of guilt, but I see it as an opportunity to open genuine meaningful relationships with community across differences.

2) Problematizing representation from community serving people & organizations: As a Mexican immigrant, and as someone that grew up in the “target” areas of Fresno, I am often asked to represent the voice of the community. However, it is important to note that I am not a representative of that community, I do not have to fear my family being split up because of deportation, I can vote, and am civically involved. While I may have at one point been considered "the community," and being an illegal immigrant was part of my reality, that is no longer my struggle. A true representative is different than an advocate or proxy representative. We can all exist in the same space, as advocates and community should both be at the table in community work.

3) Integrating community at every level of community work: How many times do we have actual community at meetings where real decisions about grant writing, funding, and program development are made? There can be a balance between saturating people by bringing them at every table, and not having them involved in the crucial process of our work. I love the rule of only having a meeting when there are actionable items. I think that can be used as a measuring tool on whether or not a community member should be invited. This takes translation, time, being able to put concepts and actions into language that is accessible to community, but again, being able to acknowledge that community relevance should be at the foundation of community work. This may take lots time and effort educating funders, as people should be paid for their time. How great would it be if there was a line item in every grant for a community person?

Final Notes: We should intentionally work to get folks across the membership of the community. For example, older men and young boys are important to the work just as much as grandmothers and middle-aged women. Those with disabilities are also crucial to integrate into the conversations. It will not benefit the community at large if we always have the usual people, the most accessible, at the table- they themselves can become proxy representatives over time. The final note is that integrating community can and should be fun! Engagement and genuine contact can be made in non-traditional meeting/ice-breaker ways, but rather through things like food, family, culture- both on the side of the community and those doing community work.

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