Written by Helen Hope Kimbrough

We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community… Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own. – Cesar Chavez

Imagine what it feels like for communities to express their opinions or needs, only to have them disregarded or misunderstood. Would you continue to trust the people and programs you felt weren’t hearing you? It’s times like this when it is imperative to center those conversations and decisions inside Community Voice.

The definition of Community Voice is worth repeating. Community Voice is defined as a representation of diverse voices that must be heard, understood and validated. It is also a two-way directional approach geared towards listening to community and institutions alike while building trust as an asset, embracing transparent communication and moving change-worthy initiatives forward together. Community Voice requires extreme responsibility and care.

In leading this service line for Next Stage, I do not take this responsibility lightly. I have read historical encounters and witnessed negative instances when individuals most proximate to concerns and issues don’t have the space to lift up their voices and stories. One noticeable example of this is around regentrification with boundaries of affordable housing expanding further outward. This change is significantly impacting communities – but are we effectively hearing the voices of those communities?

This lack of proximity is counterproductive and leads to a side-eye disposition of mistrust. In communities that have historically been marginalized, people start to question the reason for your presence in the community – “What do you want? Why are you here? Are you willing to stay for the long haul to make changes or is this a short-term visit?”

In a recent client engagement, we approached the subject of a Methodology of Trust and what that actually looks like – versus the ways our organizations and systems have traditionally approached community.

Picture the way we have traditionally ‘done’ Community Voice – a cycle of knocking on doors with the hope of getting a favorable response, conducting survey after survey, and convening one-time focus groups that don’t report back on findings. We’re not saying that this approach is not useful, but it is not the most effective way to garner trust, especially when there is no community champion or advocate to help form or solidify trust.

Now picture a community or neighborhood where the conversations are easy and results are measurable because Community Voice is based on collaborative partnerships. Organizations are able to deepen their impact because they are focused on relationships rather than survey results – and when multiple referral sources give a positive recommendation to your organization’s values and character, building a pipeline of trust and involvement happens a lot more easily.

So what does beginning a trust cycle look like?

It can start with the necessary research to learn about the assets within the community, to engage informally with people to learn about them, to partner with other existing nonprofits that have trusted relationships and to secure trust advocates to break down the barriers of doubt and mistrust that most likely will occur. Thereafter, it’s about stewarding trust. So what does that entail, you ask?

  • Shared resources are an opportunity to work together and collaboratively. There’s an African proverb that states, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.”
  • Become a mainstay with ongoing check-ins inside the community to remove feelings of abandonment. For decades, marginalized neighborhoods have gotten the short end of the stick with no lasting interaction due to a lack of funding and capacity. People need staying power with intentionality and action.
  • Secure volunteers from the community or with corporate and community partners. No one can do this work alone. We need one another for collective impact which can boost capacity, resources and funding.
  • Attend community events and be available for panel discussions to tackle the real issues. It’s important to get close and proximate and to listen and hear from lived experiences.
  • Create a partnership checklist with companies and nonprofits to make certain that they follow a similar methodology and are also a proven and trusted resource. Having a partnership with similar values and guiding principles is a win-win combination – but referring people to a partner whose values don’t align with the community’s is a surefire way to sow distrust.
  • Measure KPIs in meaningful ways, quantitatively and qualitatively. It’s no secret that data drives decisions and is useful for additional investment and essential resources.
  • Above all else, respect the community! Always remember that they are the experts and that their lived experience matters. At the end of the day, it’s the people and their experience that matter – not the program or the metrics.

Even with this methodology of brokered trust to enact Community Voice, we have to be honest with ourselves and understand that this is a process that doesn’t solve itself overnight. It’s truly a long game. This means that there will be instances when you hear things that you don’t want to hear or the reality is different than what you desire. There will be times when there is no easy answer or clear solution, leaving grassroots, grasstops and community leaders vulnerable. It’s times like these when we must keep showing up and embracing that vulnerability. We can’t guarantee outcomes but we can recognize that there is more work to be done and figure out the way forward together.