You may have read my previous article about Trickle-Down Community Engagement (TDCE) ,which is a frustrating phenomenon that each year causes many executive directors (EDs) of grassroot organizations to daydream about abandoning civilization to live with adorable woodland critters, foraging for grubs and berries. (Note to self: Stop writing blog after watching Disney movies with toddler). Today, I want to touch base on a related phenomenon called Askhole Community Engagement (ACE). TDCE and ACE are connected, like two peas in a dysfunctional pod.
So what’s an askhole? Here are some Urban Dictionary definitions. Basically, you know that one friend who keeps coming crying to you about something, asks you for advice, and so you hit pause on Netflix, listen to them attentively, empathize, and give them reasonable suggestions, and then later you find out that they completely ignored you or did the opposite of what you recommended? That’s an askhole. Or someone who keeps asking for advice until they get an answer they agree with. That’s also an askhole.
In the nonprofit field, just like anywhere else, we have a lot of askholes. At the individual level, it could be coworkers or supervisors who ask you for feedback on their performance or quality of work, and then basically disregard everything you say. Or someone who recruits you to join a committee and then scoff at your brilliant suggestions. If you are not going to take my ideas seriously, annual dinner decoration committee, then stop asking me! People would love glowsticks and a fog machine at our annual fundraising dinner!
Askholism is very annoying, but at the community level, it is dangerous. Now that diversity, equity, inclusion, and cultural competency are as popular as quinoa and coconut water, we have a lot of “Let’s ask the communities of color for their input on stuff!” “Yeah, it’ll make them feel important that we’re listening to them!” If I get invited to give my opinion on one more thing that I know from experience is going to go nowhere, I am going to lose it. And by “lose it,” I mean “drink at work.”
All right, listen, it’s very sweet, but we communities of color are getting tired of being “listened” to:
First, it’s insulting to assume we haven’t already done our own “listening.” A year ago, I was asked to join a committee to figure out an effective information delivery system to be implemented among the Vietnamese community during weather and other emergencies. The organization got a grant and wanted to do some focus groups, surveys, and interviews. Problem was, my previous organization three years ago had already done a lot of that research and came up with this beautiful report. They could have called us up before writing this grant, got that information, and focused the grant instead on actually piloting a communication system, which would be a much better use of funding and would waste fewer people’s time. Save yourself some time: check to see if the communities you want to listen to haven’t already listened to themselves.
People are sick of all listening and no action. “Listening” is not an outcome. It is a required component, the first step, to effectively achieving outcomes. And yet, irritatingly, the session itself is touted as some amazing accomplishment. A shiny report or plan may come out, with lots of pictures of the diversity of the attendees present. Then everyone feels good and goes get some organic ice cream. These reports and plans are then usually placed on a shelf, sad and lonely, until people have forgotten about them, and then they rally to do another listening or planning session, which was the original plot for the movie Groundhog Day.
It raises false hopes and makes people jaded. These sessions are often high energy and very kumbaya. They give people a sense that their voices really do matter, that things will change. When there is no follow-through, it is very annoying and disappointing. I’ve seen passionate community members leave inspired after a summit or community forum, only to become jaded later when they see little follow up. Worse than doing nothing is raising people’s hopes and then doing nothing. And we community organizers who bring people to these events bear the wrath of our communities when these things end up being pointless.
Only ideas that organizers and funders agree with are implemented. If you’re just going to cherry pick the ideas that align with your organization or foundation’s priorities, then stop wasting people’s time. If you just need community support for a particular priority that is unchangeable, just be transparent. Don’t give people false hopes when you have no intentions of changing your agenda.
We’ve been giving the same answers for, like, forever. Communities have been asking for these things for years: General operating support, funds for direct service, catalytic grants and not just tiny amounts, funding for grassroot efforts and not just bigger organizations or collective impact efforts, multi-year funding, full-time staffing, capacity building support, leadership support, closer and more equal partnerships with funders, streamlined grantmaking and reporting processes, etc. No matter what topic you plan to address—the environment, homelessness, mental health, economic disparities, education, or whatever—communities will always need these above things in order to carry out whatever priorities are identified at these listening sessions.
Community Engagement can be powerful when the right people—the communities most affected—are doing it, and it is done right and has support. For example, I learned of a community engagement effort rallying Latino parents around education. Parents of a particular low-income school were asked what their top priorities were, and their answer was school uniforms. This is a public school, so the concept of school uniforms was interesting, but that’s what the parents wanted. The school and the District listened and negotiated. Now, all the kids at that school wore uniforms. It was awesome. To come together, to have your voices heard, to have your suggestions implemented—what something like that does for a community’s morale cannot be overstated. They felt hope and they wanted to work harder and to be more engaged civically.
So, in summary, if you or your org or foundation do listening sessions or community forums or summits or whatever, raise people’s hopes, then don’t follow through, or only follow through on the crap you like, you’re an askhole. Luckily, it’s preventable and treatable. Here are some recommendations:
First, admit to times when you and your team have acted like askholes. The first step to not being an askhole is to admit that we are capable of being an askhole (This should be on a t-shirt somewhere). Don’t feel ashamed. We’ve all done it. I’ve been an askhole on many occasions, both personally and professionally. It’s important for us all to reflect on listening processes in the past and analyze where we screwed up. Did we include the right people? Did we follow through? Vow to not make the same mistakes.
Second, before launching some listening forum, check around to see what work has already been done. You may think it’s brilliant to get diverse people to come together to determine a “policy agenda” or “community priorities” or something, but chances are, they’ve already done that, and the plan is just sitting on some shelf waiting for funding. If a plan exists, fund the implementation of that plan instead of another exhausting input process.
Third, be where people are; attend existing community processes. Communities by their nature usually already have gatherings where they discuss concerns and solutions. And most of the time, it is like pulling teeth to drag funders and leaders of large organizations to attend them. It’s frustrating when you don’t attend when people ask you to come to their things, and then you turn around and expect people to show up when you call. Take time to build those relationships.
Fourth, if you insist on doing a listening process, get your org or foundation mentally ready and committed to trust the community’s feedback and act on it. If you are not willing to change your priorities or strategies based on what you hear, there is no point wasting your time or the community’s time. Be prepared to hear stuff you may not want to hear and do stuff you may not want to do. Within reason, of course.
Fifth, get your org or foundation committed to providing funding to act on the feedback you receive. Don’t raise people’s hope if you have no funding set aside and don’t plan to work on securing funding. Funding is what is required to implement ideas, and if there’s no plan to secure support somehow, or at least the commitment to searching for it, again, don’t waste everyone’s time.
With that, I’m going to go research fog machines. I don’t care what the decoration committee says, I’m the ED and I want a thick layer of fog on the ground at my next annual fundraising dinner. And, I want some woodland critters.
The Y Wants Everyone to Take a #SelfieWithSomeoneNew
Today, the YMCA of the USA (Y-USA) is launching a new social media campaign, #SelfieWithSomeoneNew. Inspired by the Y’s new “Us” national campaign creative, #SelfieWithSomeoneNew is an opportunity to highlight how the Y uniquely brings people together. To help raise awareness for the campaign, the Y will partner with long-time member and supporter, actor Ethan Hawke.
The Y is encouraging people to meet someone new, strike up a conversation and discover what they have in common, then, take a selfie and post it to Facebook, Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #SelfieWithSomeoneNew and tag @YMCA.
Whether it’s a new neighbor down the street, a parent at your child’s school or a person you see every day on your commute home, the Y hopes people will take a few extra moments to get to know one another in order to build a stronger, more connected community.
To encourage participation, the Y is partnering with Oscar-nominated actor, Ethan Hawke, a long-time Y member and former Y camper. To help drive momentum, Hawke will be taking a selfie with someone new at his local Y while encouraging others to do the same.
“I am excited to support the Y and help shine a light on the work they do,” said Hawke. “They are so much more than a gym. They create community. I started going to the Y as kid when my parents didn’t know what to do with me all summer. Since then, the Y has been a staple in my life; my refuge when I am an out of work actor, or the place that has taught my children to swim. I hope we can raise awareness about everything the Y does in communities all over the country.”
Because of the Y, people who may not have met otherwise, come together, whether they are kids in an afterschool enrichment program, adults in a cancer survivorship group or families volunteering. These are natural and easy ways for people to find commonality and even unity among perceived differences.
“For more than 160 years, the Y has brought people together – no matter their differences – and helped build stronger, more connected communities,” said Kevin Washington, President and CEO, Y-USA. “#SelfieWithSomeoneNew is a great way to illustrate how we can all take small, but meaningful steps towards unity with something as simple as a photo.”
— The Y (@ymca) September 26, 2017
The Y is one of the nation’s leading nonprofits strengthening communities through youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. Across the U.S., 2,700 Ys engage 22 million men, women and children – regardless of age, income or background – to nurture the potential of children and teens, improve the nation’s health and well-being, and provide opportunities to give back and support neighbors. Anchored in more than 10,000 communities, the Y has the long-standing relationships and physical presence not just to promise, but to deliver, lasting personal and social change. ymca.net
For more information on how to participate in the Y’s #SelfieWithSomeoneNew campaign and to learn more about the Y’s “For a better us.” campaign, visit ymca.net/forabetterus.
How Disability Culture Can Inform Mentoring Girls with Disabilities
I am a social work intern at the Big Sister Association of Boston. This is a unique organization, as it is the only gender-specific branch of Big Brother Big Sister in the United States. This is also an important fact as research suggests that girls experience mentoring relationships differently than boys do.
Additionally, research suggests that girls have gender-specific needs that can best be addressed by gender-sensitive support. One of the values of the Big Sister Association of Boston is cultural responsiveness, as the agency finds it important to learn about and embrace cultural differences – and this is where Disability culture comes in.
Disability social workers Romel Mackelprang and Richard Salsgiver discuss the emergence of Disability culture and assert that it is not only an identity but a ‘way of life,’ similar to race or ethnicity. I feel that it is critical that when conceptualizing how to be cultural responsive that Big Sister mentors keep Disability in mind as a type of culture. Recognizing Disability culture is important because we work with Little Sisters ages seven through twenty, as well as volunteer Big Sisters over the age of eighteen, and any of these girls and women may have a disability.
In addition to being aware of the language and history of Disability culture in order to show respect, we must also understand that there is a community aspect of Disability culture that can have great social benefits for the people we work with. The goal of our mentoring program is to strategically match girls with mentors who have similar interests and experiences as them. Therefore, making an effort to match girls and mentors with disabilities can have the added benefit of sharing an understanding of a common experience and culture, therefore making the match relationship even more impactful.
In their book, Romel Mackelprang and Richard Salsgiver share the story of Carolyn and Marnie, two women who met and “developed a sisterhood formed from shared circumstances….their self-concepts and meanings they ascribed to their disabilities were similar.” Further, the authors note that Carloyn and Marnie had “few or no role models with disabilities, their disabilities were defined as negative, shameful…were isolated from others like themselves.”
The concepts of sisterhood and community are two more of the Big Sister Association of Boston’s values, and increased confidence is an outcome goal held by the program. As the relationship between women can be so powerful, it is important that Big Sister staff recognize this potential and thoughtfully seek to make matches between women and girls who share experiences as people with disabilities.
Big Sister Association of Boston values gender-specific programming, and it is important that this specificity carries over when thinking even further about what it means to not only be a girl, but to the intersection of being a girl with a disability in our society.
One way that Big Sister staff can work on developing knowledge about Disability culture as it relates to girls could be perusing the Gimp Girl website. As a refresher, the Georgetown Health Policy Institute defines cultural competence as “the ability of providers and organizations to effectively deliver health care services that meet the social, cultural, and linguistic needs of patients.”
The Gimp Girl website can be used as a resource for Big Sister staff to assist them in the task of continuously working on their cultural competence by becoming fully informed about the views and needs of girls with disabilities in particular. As a non-disabled person, I have permission to access articles and presentations on the site and join their online public forums. The website also includes links to many blogs written by and for girls with disabilities, which can raise awareness of the most current issues and interests of this particular community.
Tuning into Gimp Girl can help me practice cultural responsiveness by making me aware of the issues and concerns of interest to this population in order to most effectively meet the needs of girls with disabilities in a respectful and accessible way. Realizing that some people might prefer the term ‘gimp’ to the term ‘disabled’ might be important for Big Sister staff to realize vis-à-vis the debate between whether to use person first or disability first language.
The website will also help staff to practice cultural humility by reminding them that girls with disabilities have distinct and individual needs, as they describe what it means to experience the intersection of gender identity and disability. Reading about girls’ varying experiences will encourage Big Sister staff to consistently check their own biases and assumptions as well as maintain their position as learners when interacting with girls.
In addition to increasing any given Big Sister staff members’ knowledge and awareness about Disability culture, staff will also be able to share this website with Little Sisters if they are not familiar with it. Our agency constantly provides Big Sisters with information, resources, and activities they can use when spending time with their ‘Littles,’ and this website could be a great resource.
Big Sisters could explore the website with their Littles to find blogs that their Littles can relate to, or even help Littles join a Support Meeting in the online chat room. I think this resource is something that can benefit all of our staff and the girls and women we serve – and perhaps this will be true for you as well!
NBC Nightly News Headline on the American Red Cross is Deeply Misleading
Recently, NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt headlined a story entitled “American Red Cross Fails to Pay Funds Promised to Many Harvey Victims”. The report discussed the failure of the American Red Cross to disburse funding to the victims of Hurricane Harvey. As a volunteer with Red Cross, this report raised my concerns for several reasons, and I immediately contacted them in order gain some insight into the causes preventing the Red Cross from distributing emergency funding.
According to the American Red Cross website, the primary function of the charity is “providing relief to victims of disaster, blood to hospital patients, health, and safety training to the public, or emergency social services to U.S. military families.” For more information on how the American Red Cross spends its donations, you can visit their website. After speaking with staff, I am now able to provide some clarity on the issues causing the delay with the disbursements.
The website crashed from the 1 million displaced people trying to access it (plus repeat tries). Not only is the Red Cross attempting to aid those displaced by Hurricane Harvey, they are also handling an equally major crisis in Florida due to Hurricane Irma. Both Hurricanes have left a destabilized communications infrastructure with limited wifi and cell phone access in which to process aid. Everyone in flood areas is also still fighting the shaky access and embattled communication infrastructure in place. Many residents were showing up at the Red Cross HQ in hopes of gaining connectivity through the Red Cross. Unfortunately, the office has been experiencing the same connectivity issues.
Headlines about “High Overhead” feed into Confusion for Donors
When donors don’t understand that upgrading systems and IT staff, hiring volunteer coordinators and trainers, and other administrative staff duties are necessary to make it possible to handle 1 million plus displaced victims in multiple disasters at the same time, it breeds confusion and misinformation. The American Red Cross is not a governmental agency, but it is responsible for the bulk of relief efforts when a disaster happens. With Congress continuous cuts to FEMA, the American Red Cross will not be able to continue mass scale relief if they are denied donor support due to misinformation. This is a dangerous way to share information about life-saving charities. Without the American Red Cross, who else is equipped to handle natural disasters on this scale?
The $400 funds allocation from the Red Cross is an attempt to fill the gap that insurance and governmental delays create for desperate families. However, the reality is that it is dangerous to have volunteers standing on street corners handing out cash. However, this crisis may help the Red Cross identify innovative ways to distribute funds to help expedite funding to families. Currently, funds are being distributed to local centers like Wal-Mart for a more orderly disbursement. However, each disbursement center in affected areas is also still dealing with their own infrastructure issues.
— American Red Cross (@RedCross) September 18, 2017
At the end of the day, the American Red Cross is an organization run by 90% plus volunteers working at least 15 hours per day in harsh conditions because they want to help others. More paid employees would help with consistency and efficiency (deployments are only weeks long), but it would also create higher overhead in which donors don’t want.
With all of the disaster pile-ons we are experiencing with even more looming in the distance, we need to take a good look at our charities and how we expect them to function like a governmental agency or corporation while relying on donor support. How does the Red Cross run operations that cover a million people in a single disaster without the funding to hire people at salaries that will attract those with the talent and the willingness to risk such public scrutiny?
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