When Helping A Community, Follow Their Lead


Today’s post is from Caitlin Brooking, who recently attended a “Service in Mississippi” summit hosted by the ISJL, and then graciously offered to share her thoughts on community engagement.

Photo courtesy Caitlin Brooking

Photo courtesy Caitlin Brooking

When we view ourselves as a global community, it is impossible for us to stand by while our neighbors are hurting. Here in Mississippi, we seem to often be the ones in the spotlight as “hurting” – afflicted by persistent poverty, health disparities, and occasional natural disasters.

When Hurricane Katrina struck the coast of Mississippi almost 10 years ago, the images of decimated neighborhoods and people in pain lingered in the minds of many, and over the next few years, thousands headed South to assist with relief efforts, for days, months, even years.

For communities already dizzy with the seemingly insurmountable task of rebuilding individual lives as well as public institutions, the influx came with conflicting emotions. As the recovery dragged on, many long-term volunteer groups began struggling with the question, “How can we authentically include and respect the community in efforts that alter the appearance and composition of their community?”

The overwhelming majority of those who came from elsewhere to rebuild the Gulf Coast came out of compassion, with good intentions to use their own skills and resources to help residents get back on their feet. Many were socially conscious recent college graduates; many had been involved with community service efforts for years, were familiar with social justice tactics and were sensitive to and protective of residents’ privacy and self-agency. They made efforts to include community members in choices about housing design and community projects. Most were passionate and dedicated to their work, and wanted to leave the Gulf Coast “better than they found it.”

But for residents, long-held ideas about their community – what it looked like, who lived there, where their daily lives took place— gradually began to slip away. Some despaired they would never be able to truly return home, but felt unable to express these feelings without seeming ungrateful. Of course the efforts of volunteers were desperately needed, and many would be without homes at all without it. But while they were housed, they still remained “home”-less.

How can volunteers bring their best resources to address disparities in underserved communities, while respecting the community’s own vision? The answer seems simple: ask residents, listen to their responses, and engage them actively in project planning. However, projects can be complicated. Volunteers bring donor-specified outcomes, resource limitations, and specific skills that can’t always be well harnessed due to timing and context. Within communities, there can be political and ideological divides, competing visions for improvement, and in a disaster, there is often a sense of urgency as well as a heightened sense of vulnerability and loss of control that can fuel reluctance to let outside visions steer the projects. All communities want to feel empowered to create a place they can see themselves thriving in, not only a place to live but a platform for improving their own lives. Aligning volunteer group goals with community-led efforts from the project’s inception is crucial in managing expectations, ensuring sustainability for projects, and funneling volunteer energies and resources toward creating lasting change in the community.

Caitlin Brooking

Caitlin Brooking

Volunteer groups can work to embed themselves within the communities they serve, recognizing their role as outsiders and seeking out community-defined leaders to inform projects and guide planning processes. Planning processes should also include crafting a sustainability plan for projects, identifying specific local groups or residents who will steward projects after volunteer groups leave. Whether it is a one-day mural project or community garden, or a summer-long summer camp, projects should reflect the community’s priorities and values, and engage local residents in planning and implementation as leaders, volunteers and donors.

When volunteers travel to a community, the possibilities for idea exchange, innovation, and life-changing travel experiences are abundant. Intentional incorporation of community members in every stage of the project, from planning, investment, implementation and future preservation and usage of project results, can transform a project from a one-time experience for volunteers to a meaningful turning point in the ongoing development of a strong, vibrant community.

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