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Lessons in Grassroots Collective Impact

Let me ask you a question – how often in your collective impact work have you met the community where it is? When was the last time you opened a steering committee meeting in prayer, or held it at the Martin Luther King Jr. Cultural Center or the library of a new urban middle school?

Often the answer is not enough. We sometimes struggle to understand the value of community engagement and what it means to do so genuinely. Community engagement helps us understand others’ experiences, since most of us haven’t personally lived all the social issues we are trying to tackle. It would follow then that without resident leadership, the vision and goals of a neighborhood-level collective impact effort could fall short of truly comprehending the assets and struggles of a community.

Over the last seven months, FSG has had the privilege of working in South Dallas to establish a community revitalization collective impact effort. As a more grassroots-driven collective impact project than many others in which we’ve been involved, this initiative presents an opportunity to marry FSG’s expertise in systems level change, with the voice of those with lived experience in the design, development, and implementation of solutions.

Many collective impact efforts we are aware of, and even those with which we’ve directly consulted, have focused primarily on more effective and impactful organization of the formalized system – from populating the steering committee with mostly cross sector C-level professionals, to driving the common agenda with input from these same influential systems players. And, in truth, there is much upside to helping formalized systems – whether in education, health, the environment or other sectors – work in more mutually reinforcing ways. Yet we believe that the most powerful and sustainable collective impact efforts will be driven as much from the grass roots resident level, as from the formalized system. And this requires that collective impact efforts continue to improve their ability to effectively involve the community – those with the lived experience of the problems and challenges the effort seeks to address.

FSG is reimagining our understanding and use of community engagement as a key driver of grassroots collective impact. From our short, but very rich, experience in South Dallas and lessons from many community engagement experts, we would like to surface a few of our learnings:

  • To engage community is to truly listen.  This is rule number one according to community engagement expert, Jim Capraro (www.capraroconsulting.com), who is partnering with FSG in this work. In many instances, the formalized system leads the conversation without asking the community what it truly desires and engaging them in solutions. With Jim’s guidance, the steering committee is utilizing a different approach – completing one-on-one relational conversations with community residents and leaders to incorporate their voice into the common agenda and promote ownership of the future revitalization of their South Dallas neighborhood.
  • Approach the work not from a position of power, but from a position of servant leadership. Recognizing that the community is best positioned to articulate its own vision and needs, means that it’s important to spend more time on the ground seeking local knowledge, building community relationships, and developing rapport with steering committee members and with others living and working in the community as well. Not only do these local conversations build trust and credibility in the community, but also they surface community resources and personnel capabilities, and highlight the cultural and political legacy of the neighborhood – all of which are fundamental to successful grassroots collective impact.
  • Community consensus takes time.  Resident-led community engagement inherently means the effort (e.g., steering committee, participants, etc.) is volunteer-based – comprised of individuals with full time jobs, families, and other commitments outside of the time they are dedicating to the effort. Despite the best intentions of all parties involved, this may translate to missed meetings, less than optimal coordination and/or timeline delays. While this uncertainty can be difficult to manage through the course of a project life cycle, sometimes slowing down is the only way forward. It can take substantial time to identify and gather key resident voices, and it may take additional effort and/or coaxing to bring them to the same table. In small communities, relationships often have deep roots, whether positive or negative, or somewhere in between. Mindfulness and humility are required – and with them comes time, patience and compassion.
  • Community ownership is the cornerstone of this work.  In grassroots efforts, a consultant’s responsibility is to serve as a facilitator for others to participate in creating solutions, not to solve the problem itself. Even with the best laid plans and infrastructure, the degree of success will depend on community empowerment. The community must engender the energy and excitement for the work from within, and mobilize each other to carry it forward.

All said, we believe that the most enduring and sustainable collective impact efforts will lie in the integration of collective efforts of the formalized system with the informal, or resident-led, system. As with many others doing this important work, we are learning our way into what this level of formalized and informal system integration actually looks like in action.

Cara Priestley

Former Associate Director, FSG