To increase civic engagement within communities of color in the Northwest suburbs of the Twin Cities
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.
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 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. Second, this adjustment has also helped us to collaborate with many community groups more effectively without stretching our administrative resources to the brink of exhaustion.
We failed to fully recognize that, despite our huge community support and volunteer power, each cohort still requires a minimum of a full-time staff to be more effective and sustainable. This is particularly true because the work of each cohort often generates growing participation and unexpected increase in operational activities. Even with an increase in staff capacity, the need for each cohort having a full-time staff couldn’t be more critical. This is one of the reasons we decided to reduce our cohorts from five to three, and incorporated the other two (resources & elections) into the leadership and economic cohorts.
Reflections on the community innovation process:
Inclusive: In every cohort we have carefully and strategically drew the support, participation, and leadership of those directly affected by the issue. Our education cohort is led by a parent of the Osseo Area Schools, and predominately comprised of parents. This model of engagement speaks to the nature of our work across all of our projects.
Collaboration or Resourceful: As our previous report highlighted, we have built an inclusive and practical infrastructure of community collaboration, connecting the project to ideas and assets both within and outside our region. 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.
This approach is effective for three reasons. First, 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 deeply care about. Second, to sustain our work we had to engage those who have major stakes in the outcomes of the problem-solving process.
Progress toward an innovation:
On education, we have built collective consciousness and commitment towards increased racial equity outcomes in the Osseo Areas School. Our work has produced the district’s first racial equity and community-driven health and wellness policies in 30 years. These policies, along with the deep cultural shifts within the community and the district towards racial equity, represents an inspiring model of innovation. Additionally, AIS has long been committed to education as a critical area for advancing structural and systems change. We are now a statewide leader on education equity. From co-creating a statewide asset-building coalition to producing economic policy wins and elevating community solutions to addressing disparities, AIS economic development work marks a turning point for producing a breakthrough towards an innovation. Through AIS From Leaders to Observers (FOTL) model, AIS has developed hundreds of leaders with the consciousness of their own solutions, who have shaped systems change and created collective urgencies. FOTL activated countless community observers into powerful and connected leaders who are able to steward complex campaigns and initiatives.
What it will take to reach an innovation?:
In the two cohorts—education and leadership—we can say without any equivocation that we achieved very impressive models of innovation. On the economic front, we believe we achieved enough breakthroughs that allow us to inch ever close to innovation. What is required to achieve complete innovation at this level is simply deepening the impact of the work while sustaining community interest and strengthening partnerships in a deeper and more intentional way. Additionally, securing additional resources to accelerate towards innovation will help us prevent the undoing of the current progress we have already achieved.
We believe that we have proven how much we can accomplish when we have an anchor resource-partner willing to invest in the vision and creativity of our vibrant community. This is why the support of the Bush Foundation has been transformational—providing the foundational strength and security we need to do our deepest and most innovative work. Now we are building an even more ambitious, community-driven agenda. Over the next few years, we will protect and preserve the investment and impact by continuing to leverage our existing resources and new opportunities needed to turn rich soil into an abundant crop. This includes expanding the capacity and skills of team in the areas of fund development and communication.
It took decades for the racial disparities we face to get pervasive. Expecting community groups to solve those disparities without continued support only serves to deepen those disparities by placing the burden of investment and resource-anxiety on the communities most harmed. While
AIS knows that our people carry profound wisdom and knowledge about how to drive solutions to achieve racial equity, we cannot do it without resources, and we cannot do it alone.
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 project 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. (PRIVATE/DON’T PUBLISH)
One last thought:
AIS has grown into a respected thought leader and an accomplished intersectional systems change and grassroots leadership development hub. AIS has now pioneered a model of leadership development Model – From Observers to Leaders (FOTL) – that develops countless leaders with the consciousness of their own solutions to shape systems change and inform public policy priorities. At its core, AIS believes that the people most impacted by those disparities have the wisdom, experience, and expertise to build solutions together. Grounded in practices of authentic engagement and systems change, AIS is now a leader in each of its campaign areas – community organizing, civic and community engagement, leadership development, public and community education, policy change, economic development, and education equity. AIS now provides critical source of culturally responsive knowledge and tools on authentic engagement for many public institutions, including conferences, seminars, forums, studies, etc. The impact of our work are also featured in local, national, and international media. AIS work is widely celebrated and recognized--with more than 15 awards in the last two years.