Setting the stage for authentic community engagement in Paterson

Sustainability, Part 4

August 24, 2021

To delve deeper into the topic of driving and sustaining community change by giving residents decision-making power, we connected with the project team in Paterson, New Jersey. Mary Celis is the Director of Health Initiatives at United Way of Passaic County, and Darryl Jackson is a community organizer. 

In the ethnically diverse city of Paterson nestled in northern New Jersey, limited green space and access to healthy food and fitness activities have caused local health conditions to decline. 

The Paterson project team is working to actively engage community members through their resident advisory board to get feedback on their local food policy council strategies and implementation. 

Getting input from community members through the advisory board not only means better results for the community they are living in, but also has helped to provide a renewed sense of social responsibility for some residents. 

“I've been directly impacted by efforts [from organizations like Paterson Habitat for Humanity and United Way] through the work they do,” Jackson said. “I accepted their assistance to be strengthened and now, having the ability to turn around and give that energy back to my community is a great feeling. The fact of the matter is sometimes you don’t get those opportunities to give back. We were always struggling to get stability on our own.” 

This principle of shared stewardship is a key reason opportunities to authentically engage community members are so vital. Giving residents support to move beyond a place of individual struggle to a place of shared responsibility can contribute to improved health outcomes in a community.

In Paterson, developing the advisory board was no cake walk. The process required diligent logistical planning from project team members and candid discussions with partners. 

Celis and her team had to ask such questions as:

  • What will the geographic criteria be for the advisory board? 
  • Should members of the board be compensated? If so, what will compensation look like? 

Once the logistical pieces of their opportunity were secure, the team also had to think about how to build trust with their local residents. A solution: being more transparent. 

“I had the roles or responsibilities for the advisory board be co-designed with residents so that we were deciding together what should be included and what it’d look like,” Celis said. “We also have a resident advisory board member description page on our website where we’ve articulated the overarching goal of the resident advisory board members, the initiative itself, and roles and responsibilities.”

Celis emphasized that she consistently revisits, clarifies and even sometimes redefines this information with residents as the pilot program progresses. 

According to Jackson, another strategy to build trust is empathy. 

“Empathy provokes a different type of action, a different type of motivation,” he said. “It comes from a different place that I believe might be more within the heart.”

Jackson believes residents don’t want to just be seen; they want to feel like the opportunities they engage in let them be heard. 

“Keeping focus on what the community needs first versus what is convenient for the organization is a way to show your community that you care,” Jackson said. “When something isn't as convenient, a little bit of sacrifice actually goes a long way.”

While the Paterson project team has made plenty of progress in their community, they acknowledge that there is still room for improvement. Opportunities for residents to engage must evolve and improve over time, particularly for pilot programs.

“We need to have better processes in place to ask for feedback and for accountability,” Celis said. 

The final piece of authentically engaging your community: continually learning how you can do it better. 

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