African Immigrant Services will use community education and engagement to change the roles of African immigrants and other underrepresented groups in the northwest suburbs of Hennepin County from observers to active leaders. They will also identify and match new leaders with positions in public decision-making bodies in which their roles will help advance racial equity.
What has been most instrumental to your progress?:
. Cohort development:
The commitment of participants is best sustained when they are aligned with issues they care most about. Second, when
participants develop interest in the work of a cohort, they tend to increase their knowledge and invite other new participants.
Narrowing the focus of cohorts to a single winnable issue—or at least two defining projects—was very helpful, despite the
temptations to take on more than a couple of popular issues. This allowed each cohort to build its capacity and accelerate
the process of producing tangible outcomes without feeling overwhelmed.
Community education and engagement:
We built an infrastructure that educates and engages the community at every stage of the project. This helped us keep the
issues in the public psyche and created a deeper community ownership and accountability. It also gauged the intensity of
community interest and passion, especially some of the instructive feedback that informed critical adjustments.
Our leadership training sessions equipped many participants to contribute more effectively to their preferred cohorts. They
also provided new tools and context to move participants from the sidelines to the heart of the project. More broadly, our
leadership training built the capacity of groups and leaders to become more informed, more equipped and more engaged.
Key lessons learned:
Outcome-driven incentives are the best tools to move historically disengaged people from the sidelines to the heart of
problem-solving. When people discover new solutions through their own participation, they are likely to work for change
longer. The impact of participation is the best case for increased participation. Participants feel invested when they are
driving systemic change, as opposed to being lectured on what change looks like. In short, they want to touch, see, feel,
smell, and internalize change as only they know best.
An effective model of community-driven solutions is contagious. We have been invited to more than 30 panels and forums to
share our model; we’ve received more than 10 community awards; we’ve been honored at more than 8 public gatherings;
more than 15 organizations replicated many of our strategies; the impact of our work has been featured in many media
organizations (both local and nationally).
. Failure—we failed to capture the depth of administrative support needed for the cohorts--especially paid staff, logistics, and
other volunteer management tools.
Failure—we failed to recognize that some cohorts will require lot more resources and time commitment than others. We
originally allocated resources to cohorts equally, only to painfully learn the folly of that strategy.
Progress toward an innovation:
Progress towards innovation---for the first time, more than 275 parents of color have shared and tested their ideas in our
educational equity cohort. A cohort of about 30 parent leaders are now engaged in major decision making in the Osseo
School district: interview panels, designing proposal for board adoption, and co-creating measurable changes.
Progress towards innovation—more than 30 people of color are now placed on strategic boards and relevant institutions. We
provided leadership trainings for more than 300 community leaders and groups. More than 150 people of color are actively
involved in our cohorts. We achieved the largest and most recognized electoral participation and voter turnout of people of
color ever recorded in the NW suburbs (2014 elections). We built the largest and most inclusive collaboration for any single
project in NW suburbs, racking up more than 50,000 volunteer hours.
What it will take to reach an innovation?:
Although we produced innovations and some breakthroughs in three of our five cohorts (education, leadership & elections),
there are two others (resource and business) that require additional work to keep match the impact of the other cohorts
For the first three cohorts (education, leadership & elections), it’s important to build on those innovations, institutionalize
them, and work towards more sustainable breakthroughs. As to the second two cohorts (resource and business), it’s critical
to reinforce the foundational outcomes before moving into real innovations, as both are in still in the test and implementation
The impact of our work has evidently put so many possibilities within our reach in ways that were never unimaginable few years ago. Our next step, then, is to build on our successes and breakthroughs, facilitate a broader and deeper community
ownership and respond more effectively to overcome our identified blindspots.
Part of our next step is build a more robust administrative support system with paid staff, improve and expand our communication tools, engage in more organized follow ups, and creatively help organizations and communities replicate and
integrate our model more easily.
In the first phase, we spent considerable amount of time building processes, systems, and administrative infrastructures with limited resources, all of which required a lot more tools than we initially predicted. Even so, we felt this strategy was critical because we wanted to build a resilient process to withstand critical adjustments and emerging needs, as well as to assure participants that we were equipped and committed to producing the outcomes of a project historically undertaken only by heavily funded organizations.
If you could do it all over again...:
Sign partnership agreements with all collaborating organizations. As a convener, African Immigrant Services did not sign a formal agreement with our partners, which resulted into some misunderstandings regarding boundaries between our project and theirs. Some partners carelessly referenced some of the outcomes of our project in their reports and media publications without giving due credit or enough context to the convener, African Immigrant Services. Even after course corrections, some volunteers and participants felt deprived of their deserving credits and great contributions.
Don’t underestimate the intensity of interest in a project. Prepare for expansion. Some of the cohorts grew bigger and ignited a rapidly growing following beyond our best projections. As a result, we panicked and began to overreact—even tamping down expectations—often at the very expense of the goals.
We can’t wait to have all the administrative tools and structures before beginning our work. The work of some of the cohorts was delayed because we wanted to make sure they had all the tools, participants, and systems in place, as the rest of the cohorts.
One last thought:
We began our journey on a simple premise: those most affected by structural and systemic barriers should lead the change
they want to see. We also know that when we expand the space for engagement and increase opportunities for leadership,
those most affected will discover their own solutions and make change. In a practical sense, we know that we can only move
people from the sidelines to the heart of community-driven solutions by aligning them with issues they are passionate about,
especially in small groups of 10 to 20.
But we also knew that we couldn’t do it alone. We, therefore, built an inclusive and practical infrastructure of community
collaboration, connecting the project to ideas and assets both within and outside our region. We had a total of 21 major
collaborating partners, with some partners working on two or more cohorts. For efficiency, collaborating partners were
aligned with cohorts where their assets and resources are most impactful and where our shared goals intersected in a
mutually reinforcing manner.
Our impact has been nothing short of amazing.