Literacy Volunteers of Southwest Minnesota
What has been most instrumental to your progress?
Borrowing from our application, our process built upon and continued dialogue among our community stakeholders (families, parents, students, school and university staff, tutors, partners…) to increase collective understanding of the issues we planned to address, first by exploring models of family engagement that were equitable and respected families’ strengths that can contribute to their children’s successes. Our original plan was to work early with consultants who had promising ideas for family engagement and academic success. They were still in the piloting phase and were not ready to work with us. Partners also had new staff members and new families were continuing to move to Marshall, so we decided to spend more time “increasing collective understanding of the issue(s)” we wanted to address. This allowed stronger relationships to form, which led us to new individuals and organizations who shared our purpose. A staff member in our office said she never thought she would be allowed to read, discuss, and reflect on ideas as part of her work. She shared recently that she has learned and grown as an individual and has seen that with the families she works with as well.
Taking time to gather people together in small and large group settings was part of our original plan. We had a vision of creating new opportunities to meet and talk, but we realized that was NOT being resourceful. All families are busy and adding more expectations, especially early on as we were seeking to share with families our purpose, was not going to work. Instead, we looked for existing events and gathering options and helped address barriers that had previously limited participation for some families, including transportation, location, time of day, and communication. We have had some new events, especially for smaller groups, but we also have looked for new ways to partner with one another that can involve families. The result is that we have seen an increase in family participation in the “usual” activities, but they have also shared with us what activities they would like. As a result, we have partnered with health experts to help us share with families health and wellness information in their primary languages and to offer tools they can use to build self-efficacy in this area.
Key lessons learned
A major lesson we have learned as a small organization is that the capacity needed to attempt a major community innovation was greater than we anticipated, especially in terms of staff and volunteer time for partners, adequate resources, and concurrent continuation of other programs. We lost one staff member for a period of several months, and her supervisor was reluctant to hire a replacement as he hoped she could return, which she eventually did. This put an additional burden on others who worked to continue the relationship building she was doing with various groups and departments at our local university and with high school students. Losing a key leader among any of our stakeholders creates a hole that can be difficult to fill. We needed to anticipate this possibility.
We have been worried that we have not reached certain stakeholders equally well, particularly families in specific language/cultural communities. We have spoken with people we identified as community leaders and had some success with using small group wellness programs for outreach this summer, but we want to engage these parenting adults and their children in middle and high school in our pilot program. Our response to this as we begin year 2 of the grant is to plan some targeted focus groups facilitated by trusted and skilled community members to ask questions and seek feedback about our proposed plans. We need to examine often our outreach and marketing efforts, and wish we could have done this better earlier in year one.
Reflections on inclusive, collaborative or resourceful problem-solving
This a tough choice because all three have been essential. I think being inclusive is the most important. We included in our grant application the following quotation: “…too many family engagement efforts focus on getting families to help the institution achieve its priorities … rather than on supporting families in working toward shared goals and aspirations for their children” (Pekel et al., Don’t Forget the Families 8). When Literacy Volunteers formed as an organization, we believed it was essential to recognize all our learners have strengths that can enhance their families and our community, but too often adults with low literacy and/or limited English skills and their children are viewed as deficits on our society. This has been especially true in today’s current political climate. We found like views in our initial partners (SMSU and Marshall Public Schools) and have worked to build meaningful relationships with families. One of our learners said to me, “we trust you,” with the “you” being our organization. We need families to be engaged in ways that make sense to them and build on their strengths and to know they can support their young people.
Other key elements of Community Innovation
Two come to mind. The first is accountability, which perhaps is a component of collaboration. People have described our work as having many moving pieces, which is true. Having each individual or organization within our partnerships strive to be accountable for our pieces within the collaboration has been crucial. We also need to agree what being accountable means. The second is perseverance, which we think is related to resourcefulness. Any major project will not go exactly as planned, and setbacks and changes in direction happen. Persevering is a positive response to setbacks, such as when we lost a significant staff member for several months. We all need to acknowledge, however, that perseverance can lead to an unwillingness to change and a chorus of, “But we’ve always done it this way.” Following the community innovation process and revisiting stages can help communities get moving again.
Understanding the problem
Our community is growing and thriving in part because of new immigrant and refugee families that are coming here, yet the political leanings of our community and comments we have heard as the school district worked to pass a referendum reveal some version of the negativity about the “other” that fails to see possibility and focuses only on difference. One of our staff members said to me the other day that soccer is the great unifier, and she is not incorrect in her assertion. At the age group and high school soccer matches, we see families together on the sidelines cheering the diverse teams often led by coaches who once were EL learners themselves. Barriers and gaps in participation have fallen on the soccer field, and we still believe this can happen by engaging with families to identify their strengths and see all they can offer their children.
If you could do it all over again...
As director of our organization, I would have worked harder to keep our current board members engaged in this process and been more involved in board development. We lost two key board members as they left for other jobs, one right after we learned we had the opportunity to move to step 2 in the application process, the interview, and one in our first summer. They both were immigrants to the U.S., highly educated when they came here, and active in adult education. They also helped write the grant. I was busy with multiple tasks (what director of a non-profit isn’t?), and I thought the board would take care of itself. I mentioned earlier that having sufficient capacity is essential, and this includes for one’s governing body. I shared my concerns with the board recently, and several acknowledged that they need to be more informed and advocate actively in support of the purpose of the grant in year 2. Keep your board on board!