One of the things I enjoy the most about my work is the chance to act as bridge between my university and communities across our state. Often, immigrants and minorities haven't had the opportunity to engage and participate in what Extension has to offer. Engaging them is different than what happens when working with communities who have had long-lasting, positive relationships with us.
Extension work extends beyond our program participants; it permeates individuals' lives, families, organizations, and entire communities. In the social environments in which we do our work, including demographic changes and economic turmoil, it is crucial that we establish, maintain and nurture positive relationships with diverse communities. Along with some of my colleagues across Extension, we put together a "Top 10 List" for engaging diverse audiences.
- It takes time. You will need time before, during, and after your "project" to build the relationship and maintain it. Organizations and people in these communities need to be at the table from the beginning to foster positive, long-lasting working relationships.
- You are never done! At the end of a workshop, participants may connect with you about community resources or a personal matter. Be ready with culturally appropriate materials, translated into appropriate languages if needed.
- Understand that in certain cultures is an offense to disagree with you.
- Don't take things personally. It is not about you! Others may have urgent issues than than you realize. Community members will let you know what issues should be addressed and how you can work with them to address them in a positive and constructive way. They are tired of being seen from a deficit model approach; they know they have assets, they bring skills and knowledge to the table and our work should include them.
- Have a spirit of exploration! Approach diverse audiences with a willingness to learn. It's OK to ask questions, and it is OK to listen. The more you work across difference, the more comfortable you will become, and you will get a better sense of the community's "Way of Knowing.">
- Relationship ethic is more important than work ethic! Don't come to meetings with an agenda--you'll be disappointed. You might have to collect data at a fiesta!
- Never take words, concepts, or objectives at face value ... these things are loaded with multiple meanings. Words such as success, resource or poverty (and many others) have multiple meanings. Make a genuine effort to know and appreciate different ways of understanding the world.
- Be where it happens. Engaging with communities requires flexibility. A comfortable place for them to meet might not be the same as yours.
- Develop a cross-cultural capacity. You will need intercultural skills -- communication, maybe a language, experience working cross-culturally, key contacts in the community. Get some training, experience differences to get out of your comfort zone. Use resources (trainings, co-workers, events, literature, art, etc.) to build these skills that you will have to put into practice.
- Ask yourself "what is my commitment level?" If you intend to be in and out of a community quickly, it might be best to ask someone who has an existing relationship with the community if they would be willing to partner with you on the project.
I am not the first in the country to consider the question of how university-community collaborations work best. Nor am I the first in Minnesota Extension to think about it. But this is our latest take.
What would you add to our list? Can we make it a "Top 15?" What has worked when you engage diverse communities in your work? What are some lessons learned you would like to share with others? Chime in!