A village approach to community engagement

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On Sunday afternoons, a group of tutors, students and parents meet at the SEE Science Center in Manchester. They are there for a tutoring initiative organized by the Manchester Community Action Coalition, an organization dedicated to serving black, indigenous, immigrant and other marginalized communities in Manchester.

Most of the faces in the room are brown and black, and the voices have a variety of accents. Many people there would never have set foot in the SEE Science Center if it weren’t for the partnership with the MCAC that invited them, said Kile Adumene, executive director of the MCAC.

“They would not have had the courage to be there. In the United States, certain spaces are considered white spaces,” she said.

In this way, the tutoring scheme not only provides educational support, it also strengthens the social fabric in Manchester by fostering trust between communities who may view each other with fear or prejudice, Adumene said.

“We are breaking ground,” she said.

A village within a city

The tutoring program, which is available to students of color and immigrant students in Manchester, is MCAC’s flagship program, serving over 70 students. This program was born out of a need expressed by the community, Adumene said, and is emblematic of MCAC’s broader mission: to strengthen connections and provide community solutions within immigrant communities of color in Manchester.

“The mission of the MCAC is [to create] an encouraging space where people of color can have the opportunity to develop team-based, community-led leadership, with a chance to build lasting legacies on the issues that affect us,” says Adumene.

Since its launch in 2020, the MCAC has spearheaded other initiatives, including efforts to increase vaccination and voter registration among communities of color in Manchester. Currently, the organization is working on a youth initiative to involve teenagers and young adults. Grace Kindeke, project coordinator for MCAC, describes the organization’s approach as a village model, based on the social structure of communities in Africa, from where both Adumene and Kindeke immigrated.

“In the village model, your family is an extended family: your community members, relatives, friends, neighbors,” Kindeke said. “[This approach] tries to break the individualistic nuclear family mindset that you can only rely on [a] small group of people. »

This approach is especially needed in New Hampshire. Immigrants and people of color who were new to the state had no existing community to go to, Adumene said. Because of this, many people felt disconnected. They could not use and share the skills and expertise they had, as they had little connection to their local communities. Often people found they needed more support than they had access to, Kindeke said.

MCAC aims to fill this void by building connections and emphasizing the value of people of color and immigrants.

“Each of us is an asset to our environment,” Adumeme said. “You belong and you have something to offer.”

The organization invites all members of the community to contribute their expertise, passions and concerns to their community.

“We have put in place a structure where people can come into the MCAC Village and bring all the hats they wear, their own hearts and minds,” Kindeke said. “It becomes a hub to bring people together and incubate building solutions.”

The leadership of MCAC will be led by village members, Adumene said.

“Not everyone has a passion for children or education,” she said. “Some people have a passion for health. We also have these rooms available; MCAC is well positioned to support any of these interests.

The basic organization challenge

Grassroots organizations like the MCAC are key to creating social change, said Michele Holt-Shannon, director of New Hampshire Listens, a civic engagement initiative through the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire.

“Grassroots organizations are most in touch with people’s lives,” she said. These groups work more closely on the ground, navigating the realities of daily life for the people they serve.

At the same time, “they have been chronically underfunded and undervalued in the broader realm of philanthropy,” Holt-Shannon added.

Small community organizations are often criticized for not being organized or for not measuring their impact at the quantitative level that larger organizations do. And yet, it’s flexibility and low overhead that allow community initiatives to have the most impact in their communities, Holt-Shannon said.

“When groups come to us and say ‘we’re trying to build something’, we help them set up things that can be useful, but without erasing the stamp they have with the local community by making it so formal. that they are not in touch with their communities,” she said.

MCAC must meet this challenge head-on, Kindeke said.

“It’s not easy work, but we find it much more rewarding and we’re addressing some of the systemic challenges that a BIPOC-led organization will continue to face,” she said, using an acronym for the black and indigenous people of color. “Support for healing can be performative or superficial, and doesn’t help support the solutions we’re actually trying to find.”

At the same time, genuine partnerships with larger community organizations have been essential for MCAC. Last year the YWCA stepped in as a fiscal sponsor. This partnership gave MCAC time to put financial structures in place, without delaying its mission, Adumene said. Through formal and informal relationships, MCAC also works with Manchester Public Schools, SEE Science Center, NAACP, American Friends Service Committee and others.

“We consider them as members of the village,” Adumene said.

More mainstream organizations are recognizing the value of groups like MCAC, Holt-Shannon said. She saw a pattern of people seeking out grassroots organizations that are most closely connected to the people they serve.

“We are trying to better focus on the people most affected by a decision or policy and listen to them,” she said.

Evaluate success

Anyone who invests time, money or resources in a cause wants to know they are having an impact. For nonprofits, this often requires expensive quantitative analysis that can undermine an organization’s actual work, Holt-Shannon said. This is starting to change as institutions realize that smaller organizations might need a different, less expansive approach to measuring their impact.

“There is a lot more work that has been done for people [conduct] right size assessment, so it’s not the dog’s tail wagging,” she said.

In small ways, MCAC sees quantitative measures of impact, like when the school system shares that a student’s academics have improved since they started the tutoring program. But much more often, they see qualitative indications that they are making a difference.

“We measure it by a change in narrative,” Kindeke said.

She heard from people of color and immigrants frustrated and demoralized by life in Manchester, she said. It’s starting to change.

“What I want to see – and how I measure our success – is a shift in those conversations; what people say is possible for themselves and their children, while living in Manchester,” she said. She is also looking to see people maintain a long-term relationship with MCAC. This demonstrates that MCAC benefits them and accomplishes their mission, she said.

When the tutoring program started, families were reluctant to get involved, Adumene said. Now they are looking for MCAC.

“They want to be involved, not just on the receiving side. They want to participate,” she said.

The same thing happens with large traditional state organizations.

“When people reach out and say ‘we heard about your work,’ that’s a result,” Adumene said.

MCAC follows the line that many small organizations face, according to Holt-Shannon. They think about evaluating their success and shaping future policies, without taking anything away from the work they do in their communities.

“We are building and learning at the same time,” Kindeke said.

Currently, MCAC is entering a period of strategic planning, where it will focus on distilling its mission into a clear and cohesive plan. That could mean activity slows down temporarily, Kindeke said, but it’s important for building a sustainable long-term organization.

“As we grow and meet the needs of the community, it’s good organizational practice,” she said.

At the same time, the model followed by MCAC allows village members to design their own solutions. This ensures that the work of the organization can continue even when Kindeke and Adumene are focused on organizational tasks. The MCAC is currently supporting a group of young people who want to see more youth engagement at the grassroots level.

“They are the ones taking charge of their needs, moving from ‘give me give me’ to active participants in their lives and in civic affairs,” Adumene said. “This year, we really want to promote this intergenerational bond and develop it.”

With this in mind, Adumene and Kindeke hope to attract more people to the village and continue to strengthen community relations in Manchester. The MCAC will always center the voices of immigrants, people of color and other marginalized groups, but everyone is welcome to participate, Kindeke said.

“In New Hampshire, we’re such a small state,” she said. “When you start doing community work, you realize how close we are to each other.”

These articles are shared by partners of The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information, visit collaborativenh.org.


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