Why are you here? is a common and reasonable question for outsiders entering a community to provide help and support. Indeed, outsiders engaging in community-based initiatives tend to have very little real “skin in the game” in part because they go home each day to a different community. They can also lack deep community context and the credibility that comes from a proven investment of time, talent and resources. In this context, good intentions are simply not good enough for having a positive impact.
These facts strongly guided the team’s choices as we prepared to launch Strong Cincinnati earlier this year in the Madisonville neighborhood of Cincinnati. Madisonville is an extraordinarily diverse and vibrant community with a complex history and a host of existing community programs that are seeking to make a positive impact in the neighborhood. While Carly and I are long-time Cincinnatians, we are not Madisonville residents and we don’t fully reflect the diversity of the Madisonville neighborhood – and those things matter immensely. Given that context, we wanted to be very intentional about how we approached our work to avoid likely pitfalls. We set out with some key intentions and mindsets that have guided our work so far and helped us learn a great deal along the way.
First off, our work is grounded in the belief that individuals already have the strengths within them to succeed in their own self-determined ways. Strong Cincinnati is about providing opportunities for individuals to gain a greater awareness of their strengths and the resources necessary to use them to impact their community. We aim to collaboratively enhance the strengths that already exist within a community, knowing that whatever the change entails is entirely up to the people who live and work there.
Secondly, humility and curiosity lead the way in all our engagement efforts. We have tried to balance areas in which we do not have automatic credibility with a strong dose of humility and a constant curiosity to learn more. It has been critical for us to seek advice and feedback from community partners, stay open to new ideas and interpretations of the work, and give credit for the work where it is due – with the residents of Madisonville. So far, this approach has strengthened our work and fostered meaningful relationships with dozens of amazing people across the community.
Thirdly, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are always at the forefront. Impactful community engagement includes all members of the community, especially those who may not always have the opportunity to engage in community-wide initiatives. That type of inclusion requires creating welcoming spaces that are accessible to a wide range of people in the community. We have been deliberate in removing unnecessary barriers to participation (e.g. scheduling meetings on both weekdays and weekends, offering child care, removing extraneous requirements from our application process), and are always looking for more ways to uphold a commitment to DEI in the work.
Lastly, it is imperative to keep power and agency within the community. This intention has played out in immediate ways – for example, Madisonville residents directly selected which projects received funding, and project teams are comprised solely of Madisonville residents. Longer term, we want Strong Cincinnati to be led and sustained entirely from within the community by residents. We are committed to providing support to get the work started and ensure its success, but ultimately the real impact lies in the will of the community and the potential of the work to be carried forward by the community itself. Anything less will fall short of the ultimate vision for Strong Cincinnati.
It is very important to be clear that we have not been perfect with these approaches to our work. We are constantly learning from our mistakes, refining our approach, and seeking feedback from our community partners. At the same time, we are beginning to see the payoff through the amazing impact of our partners and project leads. When community members are truly in the driver’s seat, their voice resonates with their neighbors, their deep knowledge of the community guides the work, and their efforts have a greater potential for sustaining over time. And that will lead to more than just good intentions.