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Top 10 ways to engage diverse communities

By Josey Landrieu

What does it take to build relationships with diverse audiences? I have thought a lot about this question in my work with University of Minnesota Extension.

One of the things I enjoy the most about my work is the chance to act as bridge between my university and communities across our state. Often, immigrants and minorities haven't had the opportunity to engage and participate in what Extension has to offer. Engaging them is different than what happens when working with communities who have had long-lasting, positive relationships with us.

Extension work extends beyond our program participants; it permeates  individuals' lives, families, organizations, and entire communities. In the social environments in which we do our work, including demographic changes and economic turmoil, it is crucial that we establish, maintain and nurture positive relationships with diverse communities. Along with some of my colleagues across Extension, we put together a "Top 10 List" for engaging diverse audiences.

  1. It takes time. You will need time before, during, and after your "project" to build the relationship and maintain it. Organizations and people in these communities need to be at the table from the beginning to foster positive, long-lasting working relationships.
  2. You are never done! At the end of a workshop, participants may connect with you about community resources or a personal matter. Be ready with culturally appropriate materials, translated into appropriate languages if needed.
  3. Understand that in certain cultures is an offense to disagree with you.
  4. Don't take things personally. It is not about you! Others may have urgent issues than than you realize. Community members will let you know what issues should be addressed and how you can work with them to address them in a positive and constructive way. They are tired of being seen from a deficit model approach; they know they have assets, they bring skills and knowledge to the table and our work should include them.
  5. Have a spirit of exploration! Approach diverse audiences with a willingness to learn. It's OK to ask questions, and it is OK to listen. The more you work across difference, the more comfortable you will become, and you will get a better sense of the community's "Way of Knowing.">
  6. Relationship ethic is more important than work ethic! Don't come to meetings with an agenda--you'll be disappointed. You might have to collect data at a fiesta!
  7. Never take words, concepts, or objectives at face value ... these things are loaded with multiple meanings. Words such as success, resource or poverty (and many others) have multiple meanings. Make a genuine effort to know and appreciate different ways of understanding the world.
  8. Be where it happens. Engaging with communities requires flexibility. A comfortable place for them to meet might not be the same as yours.
  9. Develop a cross-cultural capacity. You will need intercultural skills -- communication, maybe a language, experience working cross-culturally, key contacts in the community. Get some training, experience differences to get out of your comfort zone. Use resources (trainings, co-workers, events, literature, art, etc.) to build these skills that you will have to put into practice.
  10. Ask yourself "what is my commitment level?" If you intend to be in and out of a community quickly, it might be best to ask someone who has an existing relationship with the community if they would be willing to partner with you on the project.

I am not the first in the country to consider the question of how university-community collaborations work best. Nor am I the first in Minnesota Extension to think about it. But this is our latest take.

What would you add to our list? Can we make it a "Top 15?" What has worked when you engage diverse communities in your work? What are some lessons learned you would like to share with others? Chime in!

-- Josey Landrieu, former assistant Extension professor, program evaluation

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech - any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc. -- as well as spam.
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  1. Thanks for getting this conversation rolling, Josey! And what an important one it is indeed. I would add:
    11. Show up even when it is not for your program. Being present in that community for their celebrations, griefs, ceremonies and parties is important--it shows that you care about them as whole people and a whole community, not only as participants in your program. This also is the best way to build relationships and the nuanced cultural understanding that will enrich both you and your Extension work.

  2. Thanks for adding number 11 Kathryn! I completely agree with you...more often than not we find ourselves at those events, ceremonies, celebrations, etc. in order to build and maintain an authentic relationship. You also point out that these can be seen as opportunities to learn about other communities, cultures, and groups that make the work that much more meaningful for those involved.

  3. Very powerful points i should say.
    Understaking community maping helps us to appreciate the community we intend to work in. Or in other words, take a picture before and after!!!

  4. Thanks for your comment Andrew...I love the idea of community mapping and considering the before and after component of our work. What kinds of changes have you observed by doing this type of mapping and comparing the before and after?
    The community can also play a key role throughout the entire mapping process and in turn be present since the inception of the work. Have a wonderful day!

  5. 12-Collaborate on identifying goals. Have a shared vision of what is to be accomplished is important...and those goals may change...

  6. Hi Mark! Thanks for your's crucial that collaborating and negotiating goals happens throughout in our work. Sometimes goals can changed or be adapted but it's good be able to have open and honest discussions about everyone's agenda :)

  7. Some come to listen and learn not to participate and this is good. Don't put people on the spot if they don't want to contribute. Listen to their body language and non-verbal language. It can be looked on as good enough if they have chosen to be present, but they might not have reached the comfort level to provide input at this time. Not pushing your desire for contribution on them is best. And at the same time be sure you are inclusive of all present. It is a unique dance of contribution and inclusiveness with diverse audiences.

  8. Dawn, thanks for the insightful comment; I think you hit the nail right on the head...we can't assume people will be ready to collaborate and work with us when we are ready or when our work calls for it. I also love the idea of collaboration and inclusiveness, a dance that we must we willing to learn and do. Thanks again for joining the conversation.

  9. Build the trust of the public is a very important and strategic. Need to understand what is necessary and useful for the community that will be formed a solid partnership.

  10. Hi Josey -
    I am just catching up with your blog now. Thanks for the thoughtful list of tips on working across cultures.
    I want to focus on a couple of your points. You mentioned the importance of relationships and intercultural communication skills. I share in your view that these are important factors to consider when doing cultural work. Implied in these factors is the importance of interpersonal skills. Too often the practice of "interpersonal communication" is missed ... which, of course, may likely hamper the hope of developing relationships. So for example, when attempting to work across cultures, get to know people individually and be open about your who you are. It seems so simple - but so often it gets overlooked when engaging in cultural work.
    Also, I want to add to your resources. Here is a website for the Intercultural Communication Institute
    Thanks again for your blog.

  11. Thanks Jen for your comment and for sharing the resource on intercultural communication! You bring up a crucial component of the work and one that if overlooked can set us back and make our efforts more difficult. Your insight also makes me think about ways and opportunities for staff to use and develop interpersonal and intercultural communication skills.

  12. Great insights - very practical and realistic. Thanks for summarizing so many important points.

  13. Thanks Mitch for your comment...I'm glad that you found the post practical and realistic. Best, Josey.

  14. Hi Josey, I worked for 6+ years with people with disabilities, both mental and physical disabilities and I learned a LOT about working with a diverse community. I provided a lot of information, resources and referral to other agencies where they may find more answers or assistance. I can really relate to and agree with your list above! I can't think of anything to add except, "Be patient" and "Take your time". What do you think about these two?

  15. Best place to sell gold in los angelesJanuary 6, 2014 at 7:52 AM

    Great list! I can't think of anything to add to it and I know a LOT about interacting with diverse populations.