By Dustyn Addington 

“It’s simple!” Lisa Miller, Salishan Community Health Advocate, said about organizing a Town Hall community event in Tacoma, WA. “We’re building a culture where voices can be heard…We’re so busy about the big things—we need to reel it into the one person in front of your face that you can do something for—that’s magic.”

On June 28th, 2017, over 30 members of the Salishan Housing Development showed up for the event to raise issues in the community, discuss solutions, and spend some time together. Many languages are spoken in Salishan, including Korean, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Ukrainian, which required the presence of interpreters for each language.

However, interpreters cannot always be around. As a result, Salishan residents were concerned about the language barriers between themselves and the security company which serves the community. The community members had needs, but couldn’t communicate them to the people who were meant to protect them. Calling 911 only ended in miscommunication, frustration, and no real help. It took a meeting in person for this problem to surface and a solution to be found: simple phrases like “Help! Salishan Garden” or “Fire! Lister Street!”

The difficulties of navigating complex systems were not only about language barriers. One community member revealed that she had two adult children in Western State Hospital, but did not know how to go about visiting them. This sparked several of her neighbors to get into a van and head to the hospital together, to make sure their fellow community member got to see her kids. The Town Hall allowed community members to care for each other, especially in the face of unfriendly systems.

Lisa referenced a Rudyard Kipling quote—“We’re all islands shouting lies to each other across seas of misunderstanding”—to help explain the gulf that must be bridged by community events like the Town Hall meeting she designed. Not only were community members and their interpreters present, but also representatives from the security company, the home owner’s association, and Tacoma Housing Authority, so that the voices of the community could be heard by those in a position to do something about their concerns.

How did Lisa get such a large number of community members in one place to make their voices heard? Bingo. “We asked everyone what they wanted and we kept hearing: bingo!” This is at the heart of authentic community engagement: asking, listening, and follow-through. While the Town Hall started with raising their issues, worries, and fears, it ended with smiling faces and a fun game. Following the Town Hall, Lisa said “there was a better sense of community, less ‘us’ and ‘them,’ [and being] heard and validated.”

Dustyn Addington is the Assistant Director of Learning and Strategy at the Foundation for Healthy Generations. He is also a graduate student in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Washington, researching bias, knowledge, and judgments.

Twitter: @dustynaddington