African Immigrant Services

Report date
June 2017

What has been most instrumental to your progress?

Community education & engagement
We expanded our robust community engagement and improved our organizing strategies at every level and in almost every project area. Our engagement this year has been more robust and widely-praised than the last two years. Combined with our culturally responsive communication and education, our work has generated deeper community participation and support. As a result, we have now emerged as arguably the most effective and credible convener & facilitator around a long list of critical community and policy issues. As we secure more resources for our work, we engaged our communities and the public more deeply and more often than we could count.
Leadership training & development
Our goal has always been focused on change within our own immigrant communities and communities of color towards an understanding of our own power and solutions. Our expanded leadership development campaign equipped many new participants to contribute more effectively to their preferred cohorts, as well as align them with community and policy issues they care deeply about. Our leadership platform also provided new tools and context to move participants from the sidelines to the heart of the FOTL project. More broadly, we built and strengthened the capacities of groups and leaders to become more informed, more equipped, and more engaged.
Administrative infrastructure
One of the greatest drivers of our growth and impact is the expansion of our administrative capacities to support our work. First, this improved capacity has helped us support the work of our community engagement and systems change initiatives more effectively. Second, it has allowed participants to focus more on collective problem-solving than logistical and administrative work. Put simply, we wanted change agents to be more effective change-makers than cogs in an administrative bureaucracy. Although AIS has more than 100 volunteers, 13-member board of directors, 25-person community advisory board, and rapidly growing community support, AIS has always been a single-employee agency. But that changed in 2015. Today, AIS now has three paid staff (2 full time, and one paid consultant).

Key lessons learned

Reducing Our Cohorts from Five (5) to Three (3)
First, reducing the cohorts from five (economic, education, leadership, resources & elections) to three (leadership, education & economic) provided us the flexibility and discipline to manage participants and resources more prudently. The adjustment helped us to remain focus on manageable and winnable issues and to institutionalize impact and accelerate breakthroughs without being overwhelmed with too many competing & conflicting activities, meetings and processes---managing large groups/cohorts and relationships associated with each sub-project. Second, by resisting the temptation of taking on more than a single defining issues for each cohort--except the education and leadership cohorts--which require that we deal with at least two intersectional initiatives, we have increased and improved our chances of institutionalizing our impact. Third, this adjustment has also helped us to collaborate with many community groups more effectively without stretching our administrative resources to the brink of exhaustion.
Outcome-driven incentives
Outcome-driven incentives are the best tools to move historically disengaged people from the sidelines to the heart of problem-solving and the most sustainable inspiration to increase the consciousness of their own power and solutions. When people discover new solutions through their own participation, they are likely to work for change longer. 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. Our impact and breakthrough works on the leadership and education cohorts have been the most inspiring incentives to make a more compelling case, that communities have enough wisdom and leadership capacities to drive and sustain innovative change that accelerate our goals towards increased racial equity outcomes.

Other key elements of Community Innovation

Creating urgency on the need for community participation through public education, broader community engagement, and increased community feedback at every stage and through every medium possible. AIS perhaps convenes meetings, focus group sessions, and listening sessions than perhaps any community group in the Northwest suburbs. Combined with other innovation processes, they have all conspired to accelerate and expand our impact and deeply grounded our credibility in the community.

Understanding the problem

We think our work has most definitely helped us bring deeper clarity and consciousness around the need we collectively defined few years ago. First, it allowed us to see many different dimensions and layers related to those needs and how deeply entrenched are the problems we face as historically marginalized communities. Second, it helped us create urgency around our work in ways that remind us that deferring solutions to another moment in the future could only help maintain the status quo and produce a sense of hopelessness in our communities. Third, every time we break a barrier that perpetuates disparities, we are reminded of why our work is even critical.

If you could do it all over again...

First, we need to embed reporting regime in our daily work, instead of waiting for the end of the grant period to present a final report. We have now decided to produce a summary monthly report. That way, they are easy to be compiled as a detailed picture before the grant report deadlines. Second, we need to make sure we hire a full-time staff for every one of our three major projects, to help produce the most inspiring breakthroughs imaginable. Third, we need to figure out a more robust sustainability strategy to continue the work after the grant periods, especially given that we are among few African immigrant organizations focused primarily on systems change and authentic community engagement. For example, if our Osseo Education Equity runs out of resources, there is no community group in sight deeply invested in the project to help institutionalize or protect the impact of our work in the school district. This bothers us and often creates a myriad of anxieties and well-founded fears.