When thinking about how to advance equity, Meyer believes that the voices of people most impacted by a given program or service should be heard and understood. Responses to complex social, economic and political issues created and carried out without meaningful participation run the risk of being irrelevant, inappropriate or even counterproductive.
Although the idea of raising up community voices is not new, we have been learning that putting it into practice requires commitment and a willingness to experiment. Many of Meyer's grantees take this idea to heart and are intentional about learning from those they serve and then acting on this information. Some create formal mechanisms, like surveys, for regularly collecting feedback. Others try to create an organizational culture that places a high value on learning from those they serve and integrating this knowledge at all levels of the organization.
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with two of our grantees, Verde and the Oregon Community Health Worker Association (ORCHWA), that are raising up community voices. Although they describe this work as an ongoing process, what they shared gave me an appreciation for the importance of raising up community voices and how this happens.
Verde was created out of a desire to build environmental wealth through social enterprise, community engagement and advocacy. From its start in 2005, Verde was intentional about designing programs that were responsive to people of color and people living on low incomes. As Deputy Director Tony DeFalco described it, they did this to ensure that "programs were relevant and that benefits of environmental sustainability could be realized by those traditionally left out."
Verde's first paid employee was a community outreach worker, which highlighted the importance of investing in relationships and building trust. Before installing its first bioswale (a drainage system that handles stormwater naturally) in the neighborhood, DeFalco explained that "the outreach worker engaged the community in a dialogue about the environmental and economic benefits of bioswales, including potential jobs for community members." Through direct community engagement and in related ways (e.g., conducting surveys of community needs), Verde prioritizes regular and ongoing communication and relationship building.
Verde has also made long-term investments in the community, like the Living Cully project, which started eight years ago. A neighborhood representing the most diverse census tract in Oregon, Cully has long lacked basic infrastructure, facilities and services. A collaborative, Living Cully strives to create a thriving neighborhood where investments in areas like housing and employment are designed to benefit the people who call Cully home.
Another way Verde focuses on long-term benefits is an annual training program called "Lideres Verdes" (Green Leaders). Lideres Verdes aims to build the capacity of community members to become advocates and offers participants 100 hours of paid training, transportation and childcare. Of the 25 participants who have gone through the program during the past five years, 18 still live in the neighborhood and are involved in community activities, including serving on Verde's board.
With investments in projects like Living Cully and Lideres Verdes, community members increasingly take ownership of issues and know that their insights can create change. DeFalco notes that as a result, "The work can take us to places we didn't always anticipate. With the election of Donald Trump, for example, Verde pivoted and addressed the immigration and racial hatred issues facing our community directly." Although it needs to be responsive to community-identified priorities, Verde also has to figure out how these might connect back to its mission. As part of its commitment to raising up community voice, Verde has had to be adaptable and open to being influenced by those it serves.
The Oregon Community Health Worker Association
The Oregon Community Health Worker Association (ORCHWA) is a statewide professional association that seeks to support and advocate for community health workers in Oregon.
Community health workers are frontline public health workers who have the trust and deep understanding of the communities they serve. This trusting relationship enables community health workers to serve as a liaison between health/social services and the community to facilitate access to services and improve the quality and cultural competence of service delivery.
ORCHWA provides training and networking opportunities for community health workers, educates public health and health system professionals about the value they provide and addresses relevant policy issues.
The association has created a culture that values the "lived experience" of its members. Some of this has been done through the creation of policies and procedures. ORCHWA's bylaws, for example, specify that at least 80 percent of its board must be community health workers. As part of its hiring process, ORCHWA does not have formal education requirements (e.g., a bachelor's degree) and an emphasis is placed on candidates who have significant experience in community-based work. In addition and similar to Verde, ORCHWA tries to remove barriers to participation by providing food, transportation support or childcare for key meetings or events.
More than policies, the association is conscious of the ways in which community health workers feel power and ownership of the organization and the work. This consciousness is a constant. As Executive Director Alise Marie Sanchez explained, "How we talk about our work and how we make it relatable is ongoing. You can't be effective if you can't relate to those you serve."
This consciousness is not without challenges. Compared with traditional, dominant-culture organizations, Sanchez notes that process at ORCHWA might be perceived as requiring more time. As so many board and staff are shaped by the realities of doing this work on the ground, stepping back and taking in a broader, "30,000-foot view can also sometimes be hard," she said.
Another dimension to ORCHWA's work and often a challenge, is helping health systems and institutions see the value of community health workers. Sanchez pointed out that in an area like medicine, "People have been told for a long time what an 'expert' looks like and what experience they should have." ORCHWA has been working to expand the understanding of community health workers expertise and also to expand their influence in the system. A collaborative project called "Warriors of Wellness" (WOW) moves in this direction by creating a model for health-systems providers to contract with community-based community health workers services to improve health in communities of color and decrease health disparities. Service providers in the WOW Collaborative will receive funding for a full-time community health worker supervision and associated program costs. Working with the community health workers, the providers will be better able to bridge the gap between these key communities and their services.
In both Verde and ORCHWA, community voice is a value that has been integrated into a combination of specific policies and programs and in other ways that influence the culture of the organization. On one side, this relates to helping community members be powerful self advocates who feel recognized for their skills and experiences. On the other side, this involves helping dominant-culture systems and institutions shift toward hearing from the community and ensuring that they have a meaningful role in the decisions that impact them. As Meyer begins this new year of funding focused on, among other things, creating equitable outcomes for traditionally marginalized communities, we look forward to learning how other groups place a value on community voice. Let us know what this looks like in your work!