Last week, I had the opportunity to join changemakers from across the country at the inaugural Upswell, Independent Sector’s forum for turning ideas into action. At the event, I facilitated two conversations focused on shifting power to communities. During those discussions and throughout the event, I heard examples of the importance of connections and community authority in creating change. Here are three of my insights from my time in Los Angeles:
Relationships are the anchor of progress. New York Times columnist David Brooks shared the power of individual connections in a talk that illuminated a path we can each take to real change. Our collective ability to make change is that each one of us is in relation to someone who doesn’t think exactly like we do. That individual relationship holds the potential to change a mindset. When mindset changes, behavior changes. And when behavior changes, our social fabric changes.
The relationships we form in community allow our work to become less divisive and more empathetic. Through these connections, we can determine how to arrive at decisions that are made with deep thought and consideration from all sides.
Community power manifests itself in different ways — meaning there’s more than one place to start. In a focus group called “Beyond Transforming Systems to Transferring Power,” I asked participants to share what it means to authentically engage the community. What does it look like when power is held by the community? Through our conversation, participants shared measures that can show when a community has come into its own power. Here are some of their ideas:
- When a community has power, it controls its own narrative. The community is viewed from an asset-based frame, not a deficit-based one.
- When a community has power, it’s reflected in physical presence of decisions being made. Community members have a seat at the table.
- When a community has power, community members are helping to direct where resources go, including philanthropic dollars.
- When a community has power, the people being served in community feel comfortable in the spaces they’re receiving support. For example, when families come to pick their children up from a homework center, family members linger to interact with staff members. The space becomes less transactional and more relational because of the relationships built and respect and value shared.
- When a community has power, community members are at the table for the co-design of processes and strategies, from initial stages through the policy process. Too often we involve community at the program level but leave behind their input at the policy stage. Rather than claiming to speak as a proxy for the community, we need to support community members to speak directly to decision making.
We shift power to communities because it makes sense — and it’s the right thing to do. In our conversations, I gathered ideas from attendees around a simple question with complicated answers: Why does this matter?
Participants shared how shifting power to communities has an economic advantage. If everyone has the opportunity to achieve economically, our communities and country become more stable. People are less dependent on the resources of the government, so those resources can be used in more sustainable ways. Results become more sustainable as well when communities own their agency in determining outcomes. If community members hold the power to determine what outcomes are, the community feels more ownership over the work — and ownership over continuing the work if resources end. Transferring power to communities also contributes to safety. A lack of opportunity or resources, leading to feelings of disenfranchisement, can create the attitudes and behaviors that may lead to unsafe communities.
But in addition to these value propositions and more, we work to shift power to communities for more than economic interests or fewer crimes. We do this work because of the moral of justice: It’s simply moral and just to include communities and ensure they have power over impacting their own outcomes. I look forward to hearing and lifting up examples from across the StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network of communities and community members owning their agency, from programs to policy, and using their power to improve the outcomes that are most important to them.