Engage For Change: Community Engagement in Education During the Double Pandemic

To explore how to better engage with communities, especially under-represented families, FrazierHeiby recently hosted a Curious Minds session with Adriana Martinez.

To explore how to better engage with communities, especially under-represented families, FrazierHeiby recently hosted a Curious Minds session with Adriana Martinez. Adriana has served in policy and communications roles with Battelle for Kids and the Council of Chief State School Officers. In her work, she has collaborated with state education agencies, small to large school districts, parents and families, community partners, and allies for educators and students.

Adriana has experience helping leaders implement policy and communicate about complex issues, making common-sense and meaningful intersections between partners and education sector clients. As she joined us for (*yes, another*) virtual meeting and video call, the topic was on point since so many children are in the process of returning to school. FrazierHeiby asked Adriana a series of questions about what it means to be a smart communicator, pandemic or not. This is the first of two posts highlighting key learnings about engaging community in education.

The landscape has changed in community engagement during our current double pandemic. What are you seeing?

“In today’s world, we are rethinking and reimagining what education looks like,” said Martinez. “We have to become more intentional about our focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion.’

Adriana described how so many human service and cultural institutions are willing to partner with schools, so the possibilities can bring both benefits and challenges. One school district made a quick pivot to include hundreds in the process, from the art museum to the zoo, along with private sector nonprofits in the area. Technology can bring more people together, safely, and Martinez notes that districts have already been livestreaming board sessions, so doing this for community sessions also made sense. Another school district with a series of in-person events scheduled right before local shutdowns is also working with a documentary filmmaker to chronicle the journey of its Portrait of a Graduate, a community engagement process led by Battelle for Kids. The process frames up student success at the center of the community’s conversation, to further involve those not able to be there in person for the live stream and tell the story over time.

“Community trust takes time to build, and we are living in a context where there is great need for urgency—both to actively listen and to act,” noted Martinez.

COVID has brought an array of expanded responsibilities for schools. “Prioritizing meals for children has already been a top need, but doing so for their families has become even bigger priority than the original goal for the engagement, so it’s important to give districts space to do this,” said Martinez. “If we are getting traction with positive engagement but lose our focus on meeting basic needs, we lose momentum and positivity for the bigger change we are seeking. So sometimes we have to slow things down.”

What are the biggest differences in your approach to engaging with a larger district audience in comparison to a smaller district?

“For a large district, there are more complexities, including attention from the media,” explained Martinez. “Smaller districts engage more at an individual and group relationship level.”

In some community discussions, smaller districts may have a vocal leader with very strong opinions. If everyone in the community knows this individual, they can defer and give them ample air time, but others with important things to share may not be as inclined to speak up.

“While we consider all voices and all conversation valuable, letting the discussion continue without clear intention may not always take us in the right direction,” said Martinez. One way to manage this is to have more opportunities for “offline” conversation with those who have more to share, so they know the partners care about them but also want to give others a chance to be heard. “We had one situation like this where a community member who had been a significant detractor to the district actually became a great ambassador for them, just because we took the time to listen.”

You’ve said that from a diversity, equity and inclusion perspective, as a communicator, it’s important to do no harm. Give me an example of what you mean by that.

“It’s hard, messy, complex work,” said Martinez. “This is about addressing your own privilege and how that unconsciously affects your opinion. It’s an uncomfortable feeling. It’s natural to feel defensive. For those who have not been heard, it’s a burden they carry that we don’t. It’s critical to hit pause, educate yourself, and see what is out there. Think about ways you can use your voice to advocate, without drowning out others’ voices. We don’t want to create noise or competition in this space. Sometimes it means we need to step out of the way to let others speak up.”

For example, with some of the conversations Adriana has helped facilitate, it has been hard for populations coming from poverty and violence to think about innovations like artificial intelligence and robotics, when they may be too distracted by meeting daily needs to focus on what’s going on in the business and technology worlds.

“Sometimes we take for granted that a basic education, even if traditional, is something that has been out of reach for many people,” said Martinez. “Think about our immigrants from Somalia or Nepal or Latin America, who may not have access to the basic essentials of an education. Just being able to read, write, graduate is a big deal.” Martinez emphasized that before jumping into lofty topics, listen and learn from where the audience is at, in this moment.

Watch for the next post featuring Adriana’s discussion about strategic partnerships, building consensus vs. convergence, and how to make lasting change in schools.

Recommended Resources and Further Reading: