Cooperative Planning, Intelligent Study and Group Action

At the core of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation’s (WKKF) mission is a dedication to thriving children, working families and equitable communities. In support of this mission, WKKF has defined a community engagement approach that empowers leaders to root themselves in an intentional process for engaging people in authentic and meaningful ways.

The community engagement approach is a continuum represented by an infinity loop, where cooperative planning, intelligent study and group action generate deep listening to community, data-informed decision making and collaborative impact.

Cooperative planning manifests through convening partners, residents and organizations to elevate community voices. In intelligent study, leaders collect data and community profiles to analyze policies, approaches and impact. Building on these learnings, leaders are prepared to facilitate group action by organizing multi-sector partnerships that implement community-inspired visions.

During the fellows’ gathering in Washington D.C., we had a group discussion with fellows from each priority place about how this community engagement approach has informed their leadership practices thus far. We spoke with empowerment architect Josue Olivares from New Mexico; workforce developer Shannon Brown Joseph from New Orleans; systems healer Ogla Osby of Mississippi; and arts advocate Adam Schumaker from Michigan.

How is the community engagement continuum showing up in your work?

Olga Osby, Kierre Rimmer and Tomika Bell (left to right) pose for a group picture at the D.C. gathering.

Olga: My organization, Clean Slate Behavioral Health Solutions, has been deeply engaged in intelligent study. We do a lot of research and focus groups on issues affecting Black women in Mississippi, and it’s been crucial to understanding the realities on the ground in both urban and rural communities. We heard a lot about the trauma many women carry around health care. We also brought together social workers involved in trauma-informed care to share their expertise.

Josue: Intelligent study has been fundamental to our work as well. At Rio Grande Community Development Corporation, we have found data collection to be an often underrated but essential piece of the work. One thing I have learned during this fellowship is how important it is to pause for this step. Sometimes that’s scary as leaders because we have so many goals we want to accomplish, but it’s essential to pause, to recognize that while we may be moving forward with our initial information and approach, we have to slow down and actively listen to the community on a continuous basis.

Josue Olivares claps for a fellow fellow.

Adam: As Josue mentioned, the listening piece of intelligent study and cooperative planning has been key for us. At Gilmore Piano Festival, we started from a position that could honestly be called “colonial,” more of a “here’s our music, come listen” approach. As the years have gone on, we have slowed down for more of that intentional listening. We started building relationships and having conversions that were truly a two-way street. Now, cooperative planning is truly central and organic in our work as we untangle the many needs of our communities and figure out points of collaboration, so we can serve our community in a truly holistic and community informed way.

Shannon: My experience in workforce development has also been informed through cooperative planning. In our work at Ascension, we have found that there are several entities operating in the same space that all have different definitions of what the work looks like. This often leads to inefficient programs that do not meet the entire needs required for whole families and whole people. Through cooperative planning, we bring everyone together and avoid siloed activity. We’re also able to truly understand what each of us are doing and where we can all work together to fill any gaps.

How does the community engagement approach ensure high levels of community trust?

Steven Randle, Keith Plessy, Adam Schumaker and Devon Wilson (left to right) reflect after a group activity.

Olga: In Mississippi, relationships are everything. The way you get things done is knowing how people are related to others. In doing our data collection this was essential to keep at the forefront; we were only able to reach folks through those connections.

Trust is key to this process, particularly because we were asking such delicate questions. It was important to nurture these relationships to build that trust. We are going into communities that have been burned. They have experienced folks telling them one thing and then doing another, or coming in, gathering all their personal information and then never checking in again.

It’s often a challenge to rebuild that trust and ensure people that we are working with them. We make sure that when we go into the community we let folks know exactly what we plan to do with their information and make sure everyone gets copies of the finished work. That way people really feel that they are involved in a genuinely collaborative process and that their contributions are valued.

Josue: I absolutely agree. For us, trust is at the center of the model. Similarly to what Olga shared, when collecting data we are always transparent about who owns the data and how it will be used. These questions must be addressed before people feel comfortable sharing and that comfort is essential.

We have changed our approach to one where the individual always owns their data. We’ve implemented software where they have full control and the ability to take back any information. We also really work to empower individuals to find ways to make personal use of the data they have shared.

Shannon: Josue has a great point, empowerment is key to trust building and that starts by investing in our participants. It helps folks understand that we are genuinely concerned about them and not interested in purely extracting information. It’s a gradual process, but one that begins with that initial commitment to investing in the individual.

Adam: In our experience, it’s been helpful, as Olga mentioned, to find partners who have established relationships and bring them into the collaborative planning process. That often helps support a “transfer of trust” by plugging into those existing ecosystems.

And on our part, we build on that trust through repetitive action. By consistently showing up in the ways we have promised, by continuing to come back for community feedback and actually incorporating that feedback, we can earn the trust of our collaborators and their constituents.

How does the community engagement continuum facilitate healing?

Shannon Brown Joseph (left) and Jourdan Barnes (right) laugh together.

Shannon: I think what happens a lot of times when we’re working with individuals, families, or communities that have dealt with trauma is that you don’t see the healing immediately. You have to begin to acknowledge that something really happened to cause hurt, whether at a granular level, or at a cultural or systemic level. There has to be that acknowledgement.

Then you have the opportunity to have a true conversation where healing can begin. It’s not something that happens overnight, we have to revisit the community engagement continuum repeatedly to get to a place where we can encourage healing and move forward together.

Olga: The acknowledgement and awareness are both major pieces, as is giving folks authority over their own stories. I also believe healing comes through in the group action piece. When organizations, communities and individuals are aligned in addressing and acknowledging harm, people feel heard, empowered and supported. That’s where healing starts.

Josue: One of the most powerful things that keeps me in this work is when I see an individual realize that they can move forward beyond a place of scarcity or trauma. Instead of asking “is this opportunity or resource for people like me?” to then thinking, “Ok, I’ve got what I need, what’s next?” It’s so meaningful because that’s healing in action.

Adam: I don’t think there’s a timeframe or formula for healing, but I am constantly brought back to the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s focus on children and families. If you can give a child the opportunity to thrive and shine, there’s a huge ripple effect in the community.

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WKKF Community Leadership Network