Community Learning - Lessons From the Field (2)

Shared Language to Align

Image of Rev. Stacey Mills from Racial Equity and Economic Mobility Initiative (REEM )Greenville, SC

If you have a lake in front of your house and one fish is floating belly-up dead, it makes sense to analyze the fish. What is wrong with it? Imagine the fish is one student failing in the education system. We'd ask: did they study hard enough? Are they getting the support needed at home? But if you come out to that same lake and half the fish are floating belly-up dead, what should you do? This time you've got to analyze the lake. Imagine the lake is the education system and half the students are failing. This time we'd ask: might the system itself be causing such consistent, unacceptable outcomes for students? If so, how? Now… picture five lakes around your house, and in each and every lake half the fish are floating belly-up dead! What is it time to do? We say it's time to analyze the groundwater. 

Adapted from Racial Equity Institute (REI) Groundwater Approach 

Creating Shared Language and Lens

Our local Racial Equity and Economic Mobility team attended the Groundwater Institute’s training, where they heard this story. I’ve now heard this same story from multiple people in my community, each in very different settings, across time. It has become part of our local DEI lexicon, our way of thinking, and a lens we use for seeing and talking about the current community situation and our work ahead. It is simple yet powerful. Creating shared language and a shared lens can help build a starting point from which to view and articulate our collective reality. From this shared starting point, we are then able to begin to build the change our community needs and imagine a path forward. 

Leveraging the Power of Language and Images

Sometimes you can find a metaphor, an analogy, an allegory, or a single image that is so powerful it does a lot of the heavy lifting for you. Test it in different situations and with different people across the community. With whom does it resonate? Does it teach or clarify? Does it serve you well? If it does, leverage it.

Making it Spread

Community Learning can involve typical methods of learning but also non-traditional methods of learning. Sometimes a social campaign is a way in, sometimes posters and flyers, sometimes well-placed interviews, videos, or even a billboard. Sometimes it is the same simple story spread person to person. When you find a great learning tool or lens that works for your community, be willing to push yourself and take some risks to help it spread. Ask yourself, how can you help more people hear and adopt it? 

Left alone, it's not going to get better on its own. We actually have to do something to help us get to better. – Rev. Stacey Mills, Racial Equity and Economic Mobility (REEM) Greenville

Learn more about REEMGVL.


Empathy Through Simulation

Quote: "The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend." -- Robertson Davies

I open the envelope and read the description of my role for the afternoon.

I am a young single mother with three young children and an elderly and disabled father living with us. I’m the only one in my family working and do not currently have a bank account. Per the instruction sheet, I must use the small collection of tokens provided for transportation whenever I go anywhere - to the grocery store, the drugstore, or the local check cashing office. My three children are young enough that they must always be supervised, or I am reminded that I risk being reported and having my children taken from me.

As the afternoon progresses through round after round of the simulation and envelope after challenging envelope, my tradeoffs become more and more difficult. Finding a way to balance competing demands of work, school for the children, and family support, all with no regard to my own needs, requires every bit of creativity we can muster. Yes, we. My young children should not have to worry over the challenges of survival, but we are a team, and survival requires all of us to pull together, and a wrong step by any one of us can send things spinning out of control.

At some point in the afternoon, I am nearly broken, and things have become virtually impossible. My heart is racing; I’m sweating and feeling near panic. I realize I don’t have enough cash to pay our rent and purchase my father’s medicine. One child has been suspended and taken by juvenile justice for being involved in a disruption at school. I have one last transportation token to go and attempt to extricate him from the justice system, but no transportation tokens to use for our return trip. To even try this, I will have to leave the two smallest ones at home with my father, who is in no shape to care for the children. I was more than grateful when the facilitator blew the whistle bringing my role in the poverty simulation to an end.

Beyond Stereotypes

Sometimes, we may have trouble seeing and relating to our neighbors’ lived experiences. Stereotypes and social messaging can be so strong that we cannot suspend judgment and cynicism enough to understand and recognize the challenges many face, even those close to us. We do not understand how barriers, scarcity, and daily struggles can alter decision-making and priorities. One way to achieve a deeper level of understanding and awareness is through participating in simulations. Whenever I engage in one of these simulation sessions, I’m surprised by how quickly we all step into our new roles and begin to feel and behave in ways we think we might never do. Through these experiences, we have a small moment to better empathize with our neighbors and move beyond stereotypes.

Words of Caution

When well-designed and well-facilitated, the ah-ha moments keep coming throughout these kinds of sessions. Organizations across the country are skilled at leading poverty simulations, simulations of community re-entry experiences for those returning from prison, and other simulation techniques such as SIMSOC (simulated society). Because of their potential for harm or to act as triggers for some, simulations should always be optional for participants as well as carefully designed, tested, and facilitated. Still, they offer powerful learning opportunities and help develop empathy.

Learn more simulations at Our Eyes Were Opened.


Partnerships for Scale and Reach

Tiffane Davis, Chief Diversity Equity & Inclusion Officer at Michelin North America

Employers as Community Change Agents

Employers have played and continue to play essential roles in helping many in our communities on their individual journeys and with their practice of self work. If we look across our community, our major employers may have already provided DEI learning opportunities and experiences (good and bad) for thousands of employees and managers, perhaps over decades. They have provided space to learn but also to practice and be in community with individuals with whom their employees might otherwise not have the opportunity to engage. In addition, employers can use different accountability structures and levers than communities. As they work to build a more inclusive and equitable company culture, employers also act as community change agents.

Employers as Partners

While communities are not the same as companies, understanding and reflecting on the DEI journey many companies have traveled is helpful. It hints at what is required to sustain this work across time and a large and diverse population. The best part is that it can also serve as a rich source of mutual support. In the end, our local employers are comprised of our neighbors. And, after all, a more inclusive community will also help them with their goal of creating a more inclusive company.

  • If you’re a community change agent, are you working with the businesses in your community who might already be very far down the road of DEI, and be motivated to work within the community and to partner with you? Are you also partnering with some of the business conveners like the Chamber of Commerce?
  • If you’re focused on DEI at work, is your organization also showing up in the community? Are they thinking about how to support DEI outside the four walls of the organization? Are you encouraging them to do that?
  • Are you ready to articulate why building a more inclusive and equitable community isn't just the right thing to do, but also makes good business sense?

Tiffane Davis

In a 2023 podcast episode, Tiffane Davis brought a perspective from inside Michelin, N.A. where DEI has been a way of life for decades. Where their approach to DEI is an outgrowth of the company values, and where they are also intentional about reaching out into the community.

If the community is successful, then it creates a thriving environment for employees to live in every day. – Tiffane Davis, Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer, Michelin North America

Nika White

Early in 2022, we also had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Nika White about how and why companies across the country are thinking outside the four walls of the corporation when it comes to DEI. She also brings practical experience from leading DEI at a local Chamber of Commerce and the role they can also play in a community.

What happens outside of the four walls of organizations certainly impacts the way in which its employees show up to the organization, how they perform, how they interact. – Dr. Nika White, Nika White Consulting

Learning By Doing

Juan Johnson Facilitator of The Riley Institute's Diversity Leaders Initiative congratulating a participant

Diversity Leaders Initiative

Furman University's Riley Institute hosts the Diversity Leaders Initiative (DLI) in for leaders across the state of South Carolina. The program sounds simple enough. Mix 20-40 diverse community leaders in a room, add a skilled facilitator, put them through an orientation session to get to know one another, and then lead them through 5 full-day work sessions across a semester with plenty of time to reflect in between sessions. One more thing — the participants form teams, and each team self-selects, funds, develops, and tackles a project within the community aimed at improving diversity and inclusion. Repeat in local settings across the state multiple times a year for years.

While the process seems simple, the results are amazing.  Each DLI class puts diversity and inclusion to work in their community in a unique, and very often lasting, way.  Each of these projects become seeds within the community to grow over the years.

Those of you who know a little of my story, know that the decision to begin my professional work in diversity and inclusion followed my experience of attending our local DLI program. I didn’t have an epiphany there. I didn’t learn something I honestly didn’t already know about diversity or inclusion. So what did happen?

The DLI experience enabled me to contextualize diversity and inclusion in a community setting.  Even more importantly, it made me think about putting what I knew into action in the community.

Since 2003, they Riley Institute DLI team has graduated over 2500 leaders who have completed hundreds of projects, across all 46 counties in the state of South Carolina.  Some of the projects are specific, one-time actions.  Others are longer term commitments that find permanent and sustaining homes.  You can read about their past projects here.

Often, I join the most recent DLI class of the Upstate and sit in on their capstone project presentations.  As they wrap up their experience, I’m always inspired by their vision, their energy, and their actions.  I’m there to offer encouragement and recognition, while taking away a little of their motivation and energy, their spark.

As I pursue my work in diversity and inclusion, I often encounter other DLI graduates across our state.  I know instantly when I do that I’ve found a colleague, friend, and supporter for this journey towards inclusion.  

Learn more about the Riley Institute Diversity Leadership Initiative.

A Word About Service Projects

It is important to provide a word of caution about service projects. A recent article:  Community Service Learning: Pedagogy at the Interface of Poverty, Inequality, and Privilege, asks whether service projects in learning settings drive social change, could be considered charity, or are potentially even harmful and extractive. When considering projects, we must have clear guidelines of what is acceptable and what is not. From this article, we can distill several recommended practices:

  • Choice of projects - Projects should avoid unequal payoff (avoid a focus on learner benefit) and unsustainable solutions. The chosen projects should mainly benefit the affected community, build their autonomy community agency, and address underlying systemic issues.
  • Attitudes and Styles - Leaders should check their attitudes and styles as they work to develop and implement projects. They should not foster further paternalism or represent attitudes of superiority or privilege. 
  • Free prior informed consent - affected community members should be adequately and truthfully informed, in advance, of the aims of the service project along with potential benefits, risks, and costs to them.
  • Democratic and participative development - Ensuring that the affected community is part of a collaborative design process and shares the definitions of the goals and solutions. It means a deeply participative approach in both design and implementation.

With these cautions in mind, service projects can be a vital part of planting seeds of equity and inclusion across the community. As a learning tool, they can serve as both a means and an end.

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