At Afton, we think of community engagement as the process of collaborating with impacted groups on projects and ensuring they can influence the decisions that will ultimately affect them. It’s part of living out our values to center the human experience, collaborate inclusively, and prioritize justice. In fact, it’s the core of everything we do. 

We believe answers exist in the communities being served–it is our job to support our public sector partners in uplifting them. There is no “one-size-fits-all” fix to many of the issues we face, so successes must be driven by local champions who know the landscape and can commit to carrying out a vision, plus continuously improving it over time to strengthen its impact. In short, we have no doubt we can arrive at better answers and make more progress together as a community. 

In our community engagement work with partners, we prioritize eight key practices. All eight are summarized in the flyer below.

Download our Community Engagement Flyer

Here are some ways that we embody these practices across our work portfolio:

PRACTICE #1: Come into engagement activities curious, without assumptions or predetermined ideas.

As facilitators of the Governor’s Workforce Commission on Equity and Access in Illinois, we started by exploring the needs of users of the workforce development system to understand their challenges and pain points. With our colleagues at MDRC, we created job seeker personas and journey maps and conducted many focus groups with workforce providers and job seekers. Notably, we uncovered specific issues for undocumented workers who felt they could not access good jobs because of work authorization requirements and the feeling that the education, skills, and work experience gained in their home countries were not appreciated or valued in the U.S. This, in part, led to recommendations to expand supports for those interested in entrepreneurship and self-employment, like the undocumented job seekers we spoke with.

PRACTICE #2: Include the most impacted individuals, with particular focus on historically underrepresented voices.

Supported by Afton Partners and UPD Consulting, the ReImagine School Funding Project is a Boston Public Schools (BPS) initiative that is redesigning the school funding policy to ensure the district’s shared values are clearly communicated and upheld in the allocations to school budgets. A Community Steering Committee, made up of principals, families, students, and community members is empowered to recommend a school funding policy to the Superintendent, in alignment with the BPS Racial Equity Planning Tool. The Committee has worked collaboratively with district and school leaders throughout the project and at the culmination, the new funding priorities and policy recommendations shared with the Superintendent and School Committee will come directly from this group, helping to ensure the recommendations reflect the unique and diverse needs of all BPS students.

PRACTICE #3: Make engagement accessible for participants.

With the Colorado Early Childhood Compensation and Benefits Task Force, focus groups and surveys were offered in both English and Spanish and at afternoon and evening times in an attempt to accommodate most providers’ schedules and primary languages. Based on levels of participation, participants were offered incentives and professional development credit. Feedback from the focus groups and the survey was carefully considered in the development of the Task Force’s recommendations, alongside quantitative data gathered locally and nationally. In addition, Afton values extensive communication among partners in multiple formats, sign language, ADA accessibility of print and online materials, as well as use of plain language (or avoiding use of acronyms and technical terms).

PRACTICE #4: Set norms and expectations from the start.

Afton facilitated the Great Start for All Minnesota Task Force’s establishment of Guiding Principles that shaped its facilitation and the eventual development of recommendations. The Guiding Principles reflected the Task Force’s values and beliefs and laid a foundation for the work. The Task Force was also grounded in several supporting concepts and processes, especially prioritizing equity in decision-making.

Members co-developed and agreed to norms and expectations to guide their discussions, work towards productive conversations, and aim to have all voices heard. These were revisited at all meetings. The norms and expectations included 12 points. Here is a sampling of them:

  • Members attend meetings prepared and on time
  • Engage in respectful dialogue
  • Everyone’s input is important
  • Assume best intent
  • Listen with an open mind, and for commonalities
  • Don’t say or type anything you wouldn’t want to have shared in public
  • Don’t just disagree, offer a doable alternative idea

The Task Force, its two working groups, the co-chairs, and the members all had clearly defined roles. Together, they created and held to specific voting protocols including:

  • Formal votes included only voting members and were held regarding formal recommendations that would be included in the report. In accordance with open meeting law, votes were held with a roll call.
  • Informal voting (ex. thumbs up) were used to engage all Task Force members on items such as a matter of process, or an item necessary to get to a vision statement or recommendation.

PRACTICE #5: Demonstrate respect, transparency, honesty, and genuine appreciation for all perspectives shared.

In any community engagement activity, people want their input to be heard, valued, and impactful. In our work with the Colorado Department of Early Childhood, our engagement with early care and education professionals is doing just that. Through our facilitation of focus groups, we have clearly articulated why their input is needed, what it will be used for, who it will be shared with, and how it will influence final recommendations. We make it clear that there is “no wrong answer” and guarantee anonymity in our notetaking to encourage sharing and disclosure. Additionally, to honor participants’ time, we offer them monetary stipends and the option to receive professional development credit through Colorado’s state system. Finally, to ensure we close the feedback loop with participants, we will share the final report with our summary findings and results. This way, they can see the outcome and know their effort was worthwhile.

PRACTICE #6: Include the most impacted individuals, with particular focus on historically underrepresented voices.

Individual, structural, and institutional biases can emerge in community engagement work, and it’s also important to consider statistical bias. For example, in our data analysis and financial modeling work for school districts and charter school networks, Afton emphasizes the significance of looking at site-level financial, academic, and student data in work around school-level funding allocation policy and budgeting. This must accompany district-wide data analysis to make sure important details aren’t missed. For example, certain schools may have higher or changing needs of students, or student outcomes on an unwanted trajectory. Examining how funding is spent differently across all sites with distinct characteristics and forecasting future expenditures and investments at the school site level can reveal unintentional inequities and issues in the school plan. Therefore, it’s critical to ensure broad participation from education staff, community members, and students and families in interpretive/analytical activities that are meant to inform decisions, to ensure that those with lived experiences related to the data can explain what it means to them.

PRACTICE #7: Conduct iterative engagement activities at various points in the project; consider a variety of methods or approaches.

The goal of our work for the Office of the Deputy Mayor of Education in Washington DC is to develop a funding policy that provides equitable and adequate resources to serve each student well, and to make a clear case for policy change. In collaboration with our project partners, we have identified four primary groups to engage with through a variety of methods. These include district leaders, school personnel, families, students, and the community, along with citywide leadership. The strategies to engage with each of these groups vary to ensure we are providing space to meet individuals where they are while also clarifying the why of the engagement. For example, a survey may be used to capture straightforward financial data from district leaders who deal with the funding policy daily. However, a focus group is a more inclusive engagement strategy for parents and families to allow for a nuanced conversation on the resource needs of their students. Finally, key school personnel and leaders may be worth investing time to interview 1:1, based on their deep understandings of the implications of the work. Some groups will offer foundational information while others will offer reactions to proposals as they take shape. The engagement completed across all groups will be used to raise up the recurring themes we see across the district and inform our final policy recommendations.

PRACTICE #8: Ask for feedback along the way and at the end.

It’s pivotal to hear from all participants regarding whether your process is working for them. Do they feel they have adequate opportunity to share? Do they walk away from each encounter feeling informed? Empowered? Or something else? What could be improved for the next community engagement activity? In addition to gathering responses to make short-term adjustments, collecting feedback at the end of a journey offers teams a tremendous opportunity for reflection on both the outcomes of a process and how they were shaped by certain approaches.

There are many questions that could be asked in all phases of a project but everyone feels survey fatigue from time to time, so it’s important to hone in on the most important questions and use formats that make responding easy. Afton is striving to strike that balance so we can make sure our staff and client partners are having good experiences as they pursue strategic goals together. We also want to be sure that the outcomes meet or exceed everyone’s expectations. In this spirit, our client partners can expect to see more formalized surveys coming soon, to accompany all the informal ways we check in to hear your feedback. As this enhancement rolls out in late 2023, we appreciate your willingness to give a little bit of your time to help us be better at serving you and your communities.

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