By Helen Hope Kimbrough

“Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning.”  – Maya Angelou


Last week, Josh Jacobson talked about the evolution of Next Stage’s service lines with a focus on Community Voice. I am proud to lead this effort as Senior Director of Community Voice, prioritizing a two-way directional approach geared towards listening to community and institutions alike, building trust as an asset, embracing transparent communication and moving change-worthy initiatives forward together.

I am excited to embark on something that has so much meaning and purpose. Community Voice is a representation of diverse voices that must be heard, understood and validated. It’s also an opportunity for people to be seen and known, especially for those who experience unmet needs or circumstances that make them feel invisible.

It is important to me that people know that their voices and concerns matter.

Community Voice is Trending 

When Next Stage predicted the top trends of 2023, our team noted that community voice would remain top of mind for neighborhood and community leaders – but uncertainty about how to best do this authentically would hold some organizations back. Personally, I scoff at trends because it feels fleeting and superficial – and only popular for a certain period of time. It’s why I countered by stating:

“Let’s start by acknowledging that Community Voice should not just be a trend for 2023, but a constant staple in our community work that inspires trust and hope. For too long, credence has been given to leaders who’ve upheld a top-down approach of governance, ideation and implementation. We expect to see a movement that honors the power of voice to source solutions, especially by those who are most proximate to the challenges. Let’s validate and ‘see’ the people we want to serve through a lens of diversity, equity, inclusion and representation – while building trust and co-designing together.”

I also shared that organizations would increasingly prioritize place-based voice regarding systemic issues revolving around affordable housing, childcare, education, healthcare and workforce development, creating ways to assess and amplify neighborhood voices in communities across the country. Only a few months into the new year, both of these statements are already trending as civic, nonprofit and corporate entities ready themselves to include Community Voice in their planning and programming.

Community Voice as a Mainstay

At Next Stage, we firmly believe that Community Voice should be a mainstay that’s activated and accounts for every voice to be deemed as important – but what does this look like practically?

In strategic planning work for clients, we take an inside-out approach with those who are closest to concerns in their neighborhoods, communities or organizations to help brainstorm and source solutions. This process includes stakeholder conversations, focus groups, asset-based assessments and town hall meetings at times. We pull in both grassroots and grasstops leaders to gain further perspective and insights strategically. Throughout the process, we test ideas and frame potential recommendations to see if we’re aligned and on the same page in order to gain buy-in from everyone involved. This helps with intention, momentum and forward movement.

Historically, the top-down approach built upon systems has been a sure-fire way to do community voice – but it has not been equitable or inclusive. For example, what if you lived in a neighborhood that has high rates of high blood pressure and diabetes? Systems and organizations want to help but no one has asked you what you need – or if the services you are receiving are meeting those needs. No one addressed the root causes of what you’re experiencing or questioned the social drivers that negatively impact you day after day. What if your neighborhood doesn’t have sidewalks or a safe place to walk? What if there are no farmers’ markets or healthy grocery stores nearby? Or a gym with childcare that would enable you to easily exercise more?

Without exploring the root cause, our organizations produce programs that aren’t effective because they aren’t designed collaboratively, with the people who use them. 

Of course, people want to do better for themselves and their families – but the judgments and hardships are often too much to bear. So instead, people say they don’t care – but that’s not so. In reality, people often put forth effort and action, only to be denied or made to feel ‘less than’ in their own neighborhood and community.

With this in mind, we set forth a path to change and evolve the process, particularly with client engagements. To be intentional and conscious of bias and how it presents itself with a goal to:

  • recognize the hierarchical stance and how that plays a role
  • build trust with organizations and neighborhood leaders embedded in the community
  • collaborate effectively for collective impact

We introduced this concept when we worked with a client to assess the effectiveness of their staff on a set of programs. Leadership assumed that interviews with their team would be the first step of our discovery process. Instead, we began with those who were a part of site staff and programming to provide insights before adding middle management and executive leaders to the process. From a client’s perspective, the experience was richer for everyone, and it established a new culture of engagement within the organization.

Thankfully, our systems are challenging us to navigate Community Voice differently based on societal shifts and increased measures of justice, diversity, equity and inclusion. Likewise, Community Voice is a way of being that will require space for understanding, listening and advocacy with opportunities to be seen and heard –  a true representation and reflection of the community.