We are committed to taking the lead from the local organizations and people who live in these neighborhoods...

When Seattle/King County set out to decrease health and social gaps among low-income residents, we embraced a new way of working and engaged in a Collective Impact initiative. In my post yesterday, I shared some of the core learnings about community engagement that informed the creation of our Communities of Opportunity partnership.

Even though our Collective Impact initiative is new, we have found the process of working directly with communities to be both rewarding and vital in designing and planning our initiative. But, as I mention, the opportunities also come with challenges.

Here are five opportunities and challenges we’ve faced in community engagement:

1. OPPORTUNITY: Education of residents

At the 2013 Community Forum, Dr. David Fleming, Director and Health Officer of Public Health-Seattle & King County, presented color-coded maps of health and well-being inequities in the county. This visualization of the data (below) was a powerful way to educate residents about core issue we faced in Seattle/King County. The illumination of the intersection of place and well-being sparked attendees to think about issues in new ways. Receiving knowledge in a new way also encouraged us to explore areas where we work “better together” – and where we need to break down siloes to address underlying root causes of poor outcomes.

Maps of Seattle/King County

Maps of Seattle/King County showing concentrations of poor health and social outcomes in dark red in the lowest income parts of the county.

2. OPPORTUNITY: Surfacing of new ideas

Community stakeholders contribute different perspectives to policy, programs, and interventions. The ideas surfaced at the Community Forum ranged from creating a “food innovation district,” to creating a neighborhood-level resource portal, to building partnerships between health plans and housing providers. If not for the forum and the input of cross-sector stakeholders, the Communities of Opportunity partnership may have neither imagined these solutions nor discovered the widespread desire for shared goals.

3. OPPORTUNITY: Gaining buy in early on

At the forum, County Executive Dow Constantine spoke to the meeting participants. He implored everyone to harness the power of Collective Impact and declared that, with the combined efforts of everyone in the room, we could “do something extraordinary.” This enthusiasm from a top regional player demonstrated commitment to the ideas generated in the meeting. It also gave participants confidence that the ideas of the initiative had the support to really take hold in the communities where they work.

4. CHALLENGE: Little advice has been given about how to engage with low-income community members

A common question at a recent gathering of The Integration Initiative sites was: “How do we actually engage at the grass-roots level with the low-income people where we are working?” We heard anecdotes from other health, human services and foundation efforts to work from, but didn’t find a coherent body of work on ways to effectively bring low-income communities into a Collective Impact initiative. Richard Harwood of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation called this type of engagement creating a “civic culture.” We need more concrete examples of successful grass-roots community engagement in Collective Impact to learn from. It’s too easy to create tables of “the usual suspects” instead of opening the circle to those with different backgrounds and perspectives. One of our mantras is “if it isn’t hard, it isn’t equity,” but a little guidance on how to make inclusion work well would be welcome. We think our second mantra “if it isn’t fun, you’re not doing it right” can also guide our work on this.

5. CHALLENGE: Hard to define “community representative”

How do you know at which level to engage in a community? Who actually are the grass-tops and the grass-roots players? Should you speak to local elected officials? Representatives of community-based organizations? Neighborhood leaders? People walking down the street? Communities of Opportunity has spoken with many different community representatives and we will continue to engage at all levels of the community. Our King County Community Engagement Guide provides advice about how to structure interactions honestly with community groups depending on whether their input will be advisory or decision-making. Yet we need more clarity on which community representatives can provide the most helpful input around the design and implementation of a Collective Impact initiative. And what kind of feedback loops we can use to ensure we are on track with pursuing community priorities.

Many of the communities highlighted in our maps of King County have clearly articulated actions plans that spell out a comprehensive set of priorities they believe will make their communities healthier and more livable. We are committed to taking the lead from the local organizations and people who live in these neighborhoods, so we can build on existing hopes and dreams rather than lose energy by imposing solutions from the outside.

Do these opportunities and challenges resonate with your experiences? If you have had a different experience engaging with your local communities, let us know in the comments.