Authentically Collaborating with End Users
If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
– Aboriginal activists group, 1970s
If you drop by the Innovation Team office, you might overhear someone say that we need to “look for the Coca-Cola.” This rather perplexing phrase is how our team reminds ourselves of a story:
A nonprofit was called in to a small town where the residents were having all sorts of health problems. After some initial research, they determined that the health problems were due to poor dental hygiene. The nonprofit began a widespread toothbrushing campaign, putting up posters, speaking in schools, and handing out free toothbrushes. After several months, they were dismayed to find that not only had there been no improvement in residents’ dental health, but things had actually gotten worse. Perplexed, the organization eventually convened a group of community leaders to ask for their help with the awareness campaign. Toward the end of the meeting, one community leader stood up and said, “We appreciate the free toothbrushes, but I really don’t think we’ll see much improvement unless we can find a clean source of water for the town so that people will stop brushing their teeth with Coca-Cola.”
This story reminds us that solutions to challenges are not always obvious, and that we may be blinded to them by seeing the world through our own limited perspectives. No matter how well-intentioned we are, we do not have the life experience of the people who experience the challenges we are addressing.
Engaging the community in our process helps prevent our work from falling into the same racially unjust pattern of building systems that only reflect the experiences of, and benefit, a few. We know that if we don’t include an equitable balance of perspectives, our solutions simply won’t work. As a team, we have developed guiding principles for community engagement. These principles are:
Prioritize End Users. We prioritize the perspectives of those who will eventually be impacted by the work we do.
Unfiltered Community Voice. We want community members to tell their own stories directly, without filtering through our team’s interpretations.
Clear Purpose. We do not engage community members simply to check a box. Their time is valuable, and we will engage them only when there is real work to do.
Facilitate Meaningful Community Collaboration. Community members will be key advisors and decision-makers at every point in our process.
“Check yourself.” Our team is not free from internal biases, and we need to be aware of where that shows up in our work. We can’t be afraid to name racism where it exists, within our team, the broader City structure, and beyond
These five principles informing how we bring the community into each decision we make. Our commitment to community engagement makes our team more effective agents of change!
For more on community engagement in our Second Priority, check out our Community Synthesis Event post. Here’s another helpful tool that guides our team’s thinking about community collaboration. Visit our Contact page to get connected and learn how you can get involved.