Community Engagement is Key Ingredient in Casey Recipe for Results

Posted May 1, 2007
Martina Ventura

Vis­it any com­mu­ni­ty where the Casey Foun­da­tion sup­ports a major ini­tia­tive, and you’ll find a com­mon denom­i­na­tor: tal­ent­ed, pas­sion­ate res­i­dents deeply involved and assum­ing leadership.

Take Dreema Jack­son, for exam­ple, who recruits neigh­bors to join a grass­roots net­work striv­ing to improve their Louisville, Ky., com­mu­ni­ty. The work, she says, pro­vides form to a func­tion she was already serv­ing: I was always talk­ing to peo­ple, try­ing to get them to real­ize that they had more power.”

Help­ing res­i­dents become mean­ing­ful­ly involved in efforts to address com­mu­ni­ty chal­lenges has become a crit­i­cal, dis­tin­guish­ing fea­ture of Casey’s efforts to improve out­comes for vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren and families.

Com­mu­ni­ty engage­ment has become increas­ing­ly inte­gral to Casey’s mis­sion since the mid-1990s, when it got res­i­dents involved in shap­ing and direct­ing an ini­tia­tive known as Plain Talk. The ini­tia­tive was aimed at pro­tect­ing sex­u­al­ly active youth from preg­nan­cy and sex­u­al­ly trans­mit­ted dis­ease in five U.S. cities.

After sev­er­al years, an inde­pen­dent cross-site eval­u­a­tion found the approach worked. Young peo­ple were less like­ly to have an unwant­ed preg­nan­cy or sex­u­al­ly trans­mit­ted dis­ease if they talked with knowl­edge­able adults in their neigh­bor­hoods who learned to com­mu­ni­cate effec­tive­ly about reduc­ing risky sex­u­al behav­ior and had more access to contraceptives.

The eval­u­a­tion by Public/​Private Ven­tures, a nation­al non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tion, tracked changes in young people’s atti­tudes and behav­iors in three Plain Talk com­mu­ni­ties. It found that the per­cent­age of sex­u­al­ly expe­ri­enced youth who had been preg­nant or caused a preg­nan­cy went from 33 per­cent in 1994, when Plain Talk began, to 27 per­cent in 1998

With­out Plain Talk, the preg­nan­cy rate in 1998 would have been 38 per­cent, accord­ing to pro­jec­tions based on increas­es in oth­er sim­i­lar com­mu­ni­ties dur­ing the same four years. Most of the 11 per­cent decrease was due to bet­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tion, the data analy­sis suggested.

As a Walk­er and Talk­er” first for Plain Talk in the neigh­bor­hood where she grew up in New Orleans and now for the Health Care for All pro­gram, Peo­la Trum­ble-McK­in­nis shares infor­ma­tion about health issues.

You try to help peo­ple become self-suf­fi­cient by giv­ing them infor­ma­tion. Some­times all peo­ple need is just a lit­tle hand to get them up and going.”

Prac­ticed in a vari­ety of forms and for­mats, com­mu­ni­ty engage­ment cuts across and shapes every major area of the Foundation’s work, includ­ing fam­i­ly strength­en­ing, com­mu­ni­ty and urban devel­op­ment, health, men­tal health, hous­ing, child wel­fare, edu­ca­tion, sys­tem reform and lead­er­ship development.

Pay­ing atten­tion to the voic­es and view­points of com­mu­ni­ty res­i­dents is an essen­tial com­po­nent of any strat­e­gy to achieve and sus­tain improved out­comes,” says Ralph Smith, the Foundation’s senior vice pres­i­dent. We are at our best when we see our­selves help­ing peo­ple to help themselves.”

Engag­ing res­i­dents means more than ensur­ing that their voic­es are heard. Our com­mit­ment to authen­tic engage­ment means ensur­ing that res­i­dents have a seat at the table, a voice in the debate and the infor­ma­tion to par­tic­i­pate in the deci­sion,” says Smith. Authen­tic engage­ment means hav­ing a mean­ing­ful oppor­tu­ni­ty to change your own or some­one else’s action and behav­ior in order to pro­duce improved results.”

Address­ing Health and Social Behavior

Plain Talk worked to build grass­roots con­sen­sus on a sen­si­tive top­ic — the need to encour­age the use of con­tra­cep­tion to pro­tect sex­u­al­ly active youth. A core group of res­i­dents and com­mu­ni­ty agency staff gath­ered to devel­op a shared vision about the need to act and spread impor­tant infor­ma­tion in the community.

Res­i­dents were recruit­ed and trained to col­lect data on neigh­bor­hood beliefs and behav­ior regard­ing teen sex­u­al behav­ior. This com­mu­ni­ty map­ping” often pro­duced telling data that helped direct efforts to pre­vent teen preg­nan­cy and sex­u­al­ly trans­mit­ted dis­ease. At one site, 65 per­cent of the teens sur­veyed said a girl didn’t need birth con­trol if she had sex only occasionally.

Res­i­dents shared valu­able infor­ma­tion about teenage sex­u­al activ­i­ty and repro­duc­tive health with oth­er com­mu­ni­ty adults and gave them skills to dis­cuss sex­u­al­i­ty with ado­les­cents. This shar­ing was done by Walk­ers and Talk­ers” — trust­ed res­i­dents trained as peer out­reach work­ers — who went door-to-door in neigh­bor­hoods and held small work­shops in res­i­dents’ homes called Home Health Parties.”

The Plain Talk eval­u­a­tion found that the two sites using Walk­ers and Talk­ers in con­junc­tion with Home Health Par­ties edu­cat­ed larg­er num­bers of com­mu­ni­ty adults — 800 in New Orleans and 1,350 in San Diego. They also deliv­ered train­ing with more explic­it information.

Hav­ing res­i­dents, includ­ing par­ents, work­ing in part­ner­ship with health pro­fes­sion­als pro­vid­ed a greater lev­el of moral author­i­ty, and that’s what made the huge dif­fer­ence,” says Debra Del­ga­do, a for­mer Casey senior asso­ciate who man­aged the Plain Talk ini­tia­tive until 2006. The reach into neigh­bor­hoods also became even deep­er. Res­i­dents became ambas­sadors for the health organizations.”

This cre­at­ed the net­work of sup­port young peo­ple need. There’s no oth­er way of address­ing social behav­ior than by engag­ing direct­ly the peo­ple for whom this prob­lem is sig­nif­i­cant,” says Del­ga­do, now a pro­gram exec­u­tive at The Atlantic Phil­an­thropies in New York City. Res­i­dents took own­er­ship of the prob­lem and the solution.”

Oth­er Casey-sup­port­ed pub­lic health work relies heav­i­ly on engag­ing respect­ed com­mu­ni­ty res­i­dents to build rela­tion­ships, trust and cred­i­bil­i­ty. In Wash­ing­ton, D.C., para­pro­fes­sion­als help post­par­tum women with health and depres­sion issues. Sim­i­lar work is being done in San Diego with the East African com­mu­ni­ty. In Boston, vol­un­teer health edu­ca­tors do pre­ven­tive health work with the Hait­ian com­mu­ni­ty, address­ing AIDS, tuber­cu­lo­sis, dia­betes and obesity.

Most low-income folks and immi­grants real­ly are not trust­ing of pub­lic sys­tems,” says Dr. Patrick Chaulk, the Foundation’s senior asso­ciate for health. If you real­ly work with the com­mu­ni­ty and use com­mu­ni­ty res­i­dents to do the work, they’re more like­ly to be trust­ed and believed.”

Help­ing Res­i­dents Col­lect and Use Data

Com­mu­ni­ty engage­ment is a key fea­ture of Mak­ing Con­nec­tions, a 10-site Casey ini­tia­tive to improve out­comes for chil­dren in tough or iso­lat­ed neigh­bor­hoods by con­nect­ing fam­i­lies and neigh­bor­hoods to eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ties, social sup­port and high-qual­i­ty ser­vices. From the begin­ning, there was a com­mit­ment to res­i­dents play­ing a cen­tral role in this work,” says Frank Far­row, the Foundation’s direc­tor of com­mu­ni­ty change ini­tia­tives. Now the sites have made a direct link between engag­ing res­i­dents and achiev­ing and sus­tain­ing bet­ter results.”

In fact, res­i­dents have played an impor­tant role in col­lect­ing and using data to doc­u­ment prob­lems, design pol­i­cy, advo­cate for change and mea­sure results. When a major cross-site sur­vey was launched to gain a more in-depth under­stand­ing of neigh­bor­hood strengths, needs and pri­or­i­ties, res­i­dents helped design the sur­vey, col­lect data, real­i­ty-check the find­ings, dis­sem­i­nate the data and set the agen­da for future surveys.

There was more invest­ment on the part of the com­mu­ni­ty,” says Cindy Guy, the Foundation’s research man­ag­er over­see­ing the cross-site research. We want­ed the sur­vey to speak to local pri­or­i­ties and val­ues and to reflect res­i­dents’ interests.”

Sup­port­ing Res­i­dent Leaders

Hav­ing res­i­dents involved in the sur­vey process helps pro­duce more rel­e­vant ques­tions, more enthu­si­as­tic respons­es and more reli­able answers to bet­ter inform pol­i­cy­mak­ing. These com­mu­ni­ties have been stud­ied to death. Some­times they’re down­right hos­tile to more data col­lec­tion,” says Smith. But they’re more like­ly to respond if they see res­i­dents involved and if they see the rela­tion­ship between the data they’re pro­vid­ing and stuff that will impact pos­i­tive­ly on their lives.”

Casey’s Lead­er­ship Devel­op­ment unit also works with Mak­ing Con­nec­tions and oth­er ini­tia­tives to devel­op res­i­dent lead­ers. Work­ing at indi­vid­ual Mak­ing Con­nec­tions sites, a spe­cial­ly trained coach­ing team presents a two-day pro­gram teach­ing res­i­dents skills need­ed to chair meet­ings and to encour­age con­struc­tive par­tic­i­pa­tion in group deci­sion-mak­ing. This Res­i­dent Lead­er­ship and Facil­i­ta­tion train­ing is a
col­lab­o­ra­tion between the Lead­er­ship Devel­op­ment unit and Casey’s Tech­ni­cal Assis­tance Resource Center.

Com­mu­ni­ty engage­ment is piv­otal not only in Casey’s efforts to pre­vent poor out­comes but also in sup­port­ing fam­i­lies already in cri­sis who need inter­ven­tion and ser­vices. The goal is to get the par­ents, fam­i­lies and oth­er res­i­dents involved in design­ing approach­es that best serve their needs and to help them build the for­mal and infor­mal net­works they need to access oppor­tu­ni­ties and support.

Hear­ing Fam­i­ly and Com­mu­ni­ty Voices

In its work to pro­vide all chil­dren with a per­ma­nent and car­ing con­nec­tion to a fam­i­ly, Casey Fam­i­ly Ser­vices, the Foundation’s direct ser­vices agency, makes sure that deci­sions about a child’s wel­fare involve fam­i­ly, com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers and oth­er car­ing adults con­nect­ed to the child as well as the young peo­ple them­selves. In seek­ing a per­ma­nent fam­i­ly con­nec­tion, Casey Fam­i­ly Ser­vices taps into and involves the child’s extend­ed net­work of fam­i­ly, friends and sig­nif­i­cant adults.

The Foundation’s Fam­i­ly to Fam­i­ly ini­tia­tive also uses sev­er­al meth­ods to engage par­ents and oth­er res­i­dents to gen­er­ate bet­ter infor­ma­tion and options for chil­dren. This includes a Team Deci­sion-Mak­ing process where­by major play­ers from the com­mu­ni­ty involved in a child’s life — par­ents, rel­a­tives, friends, per­haps a favorite teacher — meet with social ser­vices staff to devel­op a plan that best pro­vides a safe, nur­tur­ing and sta­ble envi­ron­ment for the child.

Casey efforts increas­ing­ly have worked to make sure young com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers’ voic­es are heard in deci­sions that affect them and oth­er young peo­ple. Kids need to know what they’re get­ting into,” notes Glo­ryan­na Ren­shaw of Oma­ha, Neb., whose life changed for the bet­ter when she had the chance to speak out in court hear­ings about her future after grow­ing up in mul­ti­ple fos­ter care settings.

The Jim Casey Youth Oppor­tu­ni­ties Ini­tia­tive seeks to expand oppor­tu­ni­ties for fos­ter care youth tran­si­tion­ing into adult­hood by engag­ing the youth. Formed by the Casey Foun­da­tion and Casey Fam­i­ly Pro­grams, a nation­al child wel­fare agency head­quar­tered in Seat­tle, the Jim Casey ini­tia­tive offers young peo­ple in fos­ter care a voice and role in forg­ing pol­i­cy to improve the ser­vices and oppor­tu­ni­ties when they age out of the system.

While the Casey Foun­da­tion has devel­oped a rich body of knowl­edge about com­mu­ni­ty engage­ment, the search con­tin­ues for new ways to empow­er and mobi­lize res­i­dents to pro­duce bet­ter results for chil­dren and fam­i­lies. The bedrock of the work…is res­i­dent engage­ment, con­nec­tions, involve­ment,” says Dana Jack­son, site coor­di­na­tor of Mak­ing Con­nec­tions in Louisville. We have gone through sev­er­al iter­a­tions of what that looks like. With each one, the work has got­ten clear­er and bet­ter, more deeply root­ed and much broader.”

This strat­e­gy is con­sid­ered key to empow­er­ing the most vul­ner­a­ble, dis­con­nect­ed res­i­dents of very tough neigh­bor­hoods — and to sus­tain­ing improve­ments once out­side help leaves. If you don’t start engag­ing peo­ple at the grass­roots who are the recip­i­ents of ser­vices and sup­ports, you’re not going to make durable change hap­pen,” says Audrey Jor­dan, a Foun­da­tion senior asso­ciate who works in com­mu­ni­ty change initiatives. 

Many peo­ple from the com­mu­ni­ty have ideas, but they don’t have ways to achieve them, and peo­ple are afraid of the big insti­tu­tions,” notes Ramona Obaez, a res­i­dent of the Frog Hol­low neigh­bor­hood in Hart­ford, Conn., who has served on the deci­sion-mak­ing pan­el of a local grants pro­gram sup­port­ed by Mak­ing Con­nec­tions. Here, peo­ple come to us, and it’s more per­son­al. This is a way to make a difference.”

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