What qualities should and shouldn’t we have when considering ourselves advocates, liaisons, engagement or outreach managers for parents and community? You know, we all have names for it. As a matter of fact, most of the organizations in the city of Detroit have a position listed for someone who connects with community and parents. Seems to be a growing trend.
But, how connected are we — I say “we” because my title for the past 6 years has been Community Outreach, Engagement or something like that on some level or another? What does that mean?
I sit in meetings and trainings and here people speak of how important it is to “meet people where they are.” (This is where I get judgmental y’all). The phrase is used on a regular basis to describe how deep the profession is and yet I get offended when I hear it. Most of the time it’s backed up with an undertone that people are beneath us. That parents or community aren’t where they need to be and we need to bring them to where we are so that they can be as good as us.
In reality. most of the interactions we have with community members makes us better people. Why can’t we just meet people?
When interviewing for a position, I’ve heard people explain their ability to engage families but most of these conversations don’t seem like anything special.
“I’m a people person, I’ve worked with families at churches, schools, youth programs, or community organizations for 15 years.”
“The parents love me.”
”I’ve hosted events for parents and had large turnouts each time.”
Here’s a few examples of why these statements don’t make us qualified for a job in outreach.
People person; A person who has a good rapport with people. Does that mean you know them or have really engaged with them? Do they feel comfortable enough to say you have engaged them or just treated them nicely at the front counter as they signed in?
Church members: Families trust in the places they call their church home and the people who work there. The real test comes in how you’ve impacted growth and new members attending. If you’ve never committed to door-to-door knocking and community meetings then you’ve most likely only engaged already dedicated members to the church.
Youth Leaders: this can be good but How do you actually lead youth? Do you know what challenges your youth face in their homes? Do you know their parents or foster parents or grandparents or older siblings, whomever is raising them? Do you know if they go to school regularly? Do you expect them all to act alike or acknowledge that they need to be uniquely approached? (Yep! I’m being very judgemental.)
My point is that just because an organization or a person says they engage families doesn’t mean they do. We should reconsider how we hire people to do outreach. I will be the first to admit that I am not perfect at this and probably only 60% as effective as I want or need to be but I am working at it. Every person I meet pushes me to advocate in new ways, learn more and connect to new resources I may not know exist. Every family gives me a new respect for this work and teaches me how to interact with my own children. I surround myself with people who work tirelessly for families so that I can learn from them. I AM alway willing to be trained to hone my skills working with parents. I acknowledge when I don’t have answers and find someone to help me.
A company that says it has someone to fill these type of positions should revisit their titles if they aren’t dedicating that person to do this work.
In the end, It’s about relationship building. You can’t be engaged until you’ve built a relationship which, mind you, is a two-way street. Think of a marriage (and people have always questioned the validity of a mail order bride, bear with me!). It’s amazing when you see a couple meet, interact, and get to learn one another’s likes and dislikes, and then get engaged.They have built a relationship and now can go on to the engagement process. They are planning a life together that will benefit them both, as well as worked out where they should move to, what resources are needed there, how funds should be best spent, and how new family members should be added.
See where I’m going here?
Whatever the organization and intent behind your need to engage community, don’t make it a title just because it looks good to say you have a person who keeps you grounded or connected. An organization must actually have someone who does this work and the organization must acknowledge that this is not a work for the faint at heart. It also needs you to really have an impact on the community. If you get a real person who wants to do the work but you decide the work is too heavy of a lift for the organization, you will lose that person.
I am Bernita Bradley, a community outreach and engagement manager. I would say “specialist” but I am learning as I go and don’t think I qualify for that title yet. I know a few bad asses at this work as well. They love what they do and whom they do it for. Most of them wouldn’t say they have perfected their craft but I say they rule in their work and I’m honored to know them.
Some of them are:
Arlyssa Heard (Heck most of 482forwards staff)
Robert Lewis Robinson ll
These are just a few of those who make an impact on families. The work they do speaks for itself and the people they work with would fight tooth and nail to defend them. I only hope to be as great as some of these people and if you’re ever looking for examples of what true outreach is, check them out.