By Dustyn Addington
In Part I, we used philosopher Carolyn McLeod’s framework of trust to further explore Jeannie Fox’s recent article on how democratic institutions, and therefore non-profit organizations, losing the trust of communities. But it’s important to then ask how that trust can be earned once again. To learn more about earning trust, I spoke to Andrea Lopez-Diaz, Community Connector at the Foundation for Healthy Generations.
DA: What would you say is important about trust in relation to non-profits? Is it just about being comfortable with other people?
DLD: I think trust goes beyond comfort. I think it’s about a level of safety that people feel. I think sometimes non-profits might group in comfort and safety together, but to me, they are two very different things. Non-profits often times want to elevate comfort levels versus the safety of the people most impacted.
DA: Tell me a little bit more about what you mean by safety in the context of a community and non-profits. Is it ‘not being harmed’ or is it something deeper than that?
DLD: I think it’s deeper than that. I think a lot of it is really psychological. I’ll even go back to the Red Apple, my community grocery store. There are youth of color riding their bikes around there all the time, and when you have new people come in that might not be from that community, they feel really uncomfortable. They might call the police or they might talk to security and say ‘I don’t feel comfortable with these kids riding their bikes around my car’ or ‘I don’t feel comfortable when they’re on the corner and I’m walking at night to the grocery store with my purse’. But then, when the cops or security are called, it totally intrudes on the safety of those youth. Those youths’ safety is put in danger when the cops or security are called because you don’t know when the situation can escalate. So when the comfort of an individual is prioritized over the safety of marginalized people, that’s when—and I hate to go to this extreme—but people can die.
DA: You mentioned that some organizations have prioritized comfort over safety?
DLD: I do feel that. I see that at the level of gentrification, for example. A non-profit or an organization might come in and build their new building and have a parking lot that’s built next to it [because] they want to ensure the comfort of their employees or they want to ensure the comfort of the people coming in to see them like their stakeholders or funders when they come in for a meeting—versus the safety that the people in community might not feel.
I worked at a non-profit where we had a building in a historically black neighborhood that was very low-income. We built a new building and right next to it was a community church. We didn’t have parking for our employees and we had a lot of new growth and a lot of new employees so our group bought out the lot where the church would park or where they would have their cookouts. There was a lot of anger in the community that we didn’t consult with the church and that we didn’t consult with the community. We were prioritizing our employees’ comfort and our own comfort and the comfort of the people coming from outside the community to meet with us so that they could park versus the safety that a church might bring to that community—the safety that the parking lot brought to the youth that rode their bikes around it or the safety people felt when they had their cookouts there. That created a huge level of distrust with our organization. When you prioritize your own comfort [over] the safety or needs of a community—I saw that as adding to gentrification because we wanted to make it prettier and we wanted to make the parking lot, but that wasn’t okay with the community.
DA: What are some other ways non-profits have or could motivate distrust for them?
DLD: I think there is a huge lack of transparency. When you think about non-profits and funding, communities that access non-profits for services don’t know where their funds are coming from. They’re not a part of that process. I think trust actually goes both ways in that situation. I don’t think non-profits trust the community enough to think that there are experts in their community they could ask to sit on their board or to come to a meeting where they’re making decisions that are going to impact [the community].
The organization I worked for back then didn’t trust the community’s expertise in that area to say ‘should we build a parking lot here or not?’ so they did it anyways. Then that creates the distrust with the community that says they don’t think about our needs. It’s very rare that we see regular community members on non-profit boards that make decisions that are going to impact them and their children. It’s very rare that, when non-profits are coming up with their strategic direction or work plan, they consult with a community member.
For example, a youth organization—do we have youth on the board? Do we have youth coming to those meetings? Do we use youth as consultants? That’s very rare. I see it sometimes, but even when we do do it, we don’t compensate. That, to me, is very exploitative. I have seen organizations that bring in youth when they’re planning a youth conference or an event, but then the youth isn’t paid. I think having that structure in place that doesn’t allow for community voice at every level with just compensation—that creates distrust.
DA: That’s the negative side—how organizations lose trust. So how can non-profits build trust—especially in the context where trust isn’t naturally there or there have even been activities or events that have generated distrust?
DLD: When I organize with Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR) and Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC), we asked that question. That was a question we thought would be good to ask at the very beginning of our organizing. We would ask the community ‘what meetings should we be going to?’ instead of [saying] ‘you should be coming to our meetings to learn about what we’re doing’. What community meetings are going on? What church meetings? What events? What food banks should we be attending to get to know you and to get to know the needs of the community? I think that’s something that non-profits can do as well. That’s something that seems very small, but would mean a lot to a community. If you see an executive director or if you see [someone] of any staff level coming to a meeting that’s about the local food bank or if the community is meeting to talk about gentrification in their area or planning a community barbeque—if they see [someone] from a non-profit coming and just sitting there and listening, maybe even contributing, you start to build those relationships with the community. They see you and you see them. Often times, we can sit behind a desk and we don’t actually see the community that we’re impacting. So when you see someone, it creates a different level of trust.
DA: When you’re attending an even like that—let’s say a non-profit sends a staff member or the executive director even—how should you show up to them? Does it matter how you act? Will that affect the trust involved?
DLD: Definitely. I think you need to show up as a student, as a learner. There is a level of humility that you need to bring. Just as a lot of people need to do code-switching when they go into a job interview or they go into an organization, there should be a level of code-switching that you should be able to do at the community level. People aren’t going to speak non-profit jargon. People aren’t going to speak that language. So just meeting people where they’re at, being in a listening space, and also going in recognizing the access and privilege you might have when you work at a non-profit. I think we should come in with a mindset—how can I leverage my resources? If a community is saying ‘we need someone to fundraise for XYZ’ or ‘we need someone to staff the parking lot’—just seeing where you could be of service.
DA: How do you balance this idea of code-switching as you are going into a community space, on one hand, and being authentic on the other? If you come from the non-profit or philanthropic world, you likely have a different background from the people you’re meeting. How do you meet someone where they are without pretending you’re something you’re not?
DLD: That’s a really good question. I think it’s always good to call it out. You say, ‘I’m new to this community. I work at a non-profit but I want to learn from you. How can I help you? Where should I go to learn more about the community?’ Acknowledge you are not from the community. Honesty breeds a lot of trust.
I’m not from Seattle. When I first moved to Seattle, I moved into a historically black neighborhood. I started attending community events and a lot of times I had to say ‘I’m not from here. I don’t know what your needs are.’ So I just listen and I ask questions. I think code-switching doesn’t mean you have to fake it (or fake the funk). You just have to be really transparent and say ‘is what I’m saying making sense?’ Just asking questions.
DA: So there’s honesty and humility. You’re being yourself, you acknowledge your position, but you’re not bringing your status to bear. I have been at events where you feel the money and power in the room. It’s usually the executive director or someone on the board of directors that wield their power, without even knowing it.
If you had to give advice to someone like that who is not just a member of a non-profit, but also wields power within their organization and the broader philanthropic world, what would you say to them to make them more conscious of their status and the power they wield at these sort of events?
DLD: I think it starts really simply. How do you dress at these sorts of events? Do you come in with your business attire? Do you come in with a suit and tie? Do you come in with your professional notebook and laptop? I’ve done that, and then had to check myself. I’ve had to say [to myself] ‘you can’t show up to a community health worker network meeting looking like [you’re] running the meeting when [you’re] actually here to listen and let the CHWs run the meeting’, so I come in with my regular clothes.
I think also work really well—and this is an organizing principle as well—the best organizers aren’t people that have the mic all the time. The best organizers are the people that are willing to do the childcare, they’re willing to bring the food, they’re willing to clean up, set up, take down, take notes and not just take up air in the room and talk. If you’re someone who wields that power, [think about saying] ‘I have time to provide childcare and maybe not listen to the entire meeting’ or ‘I can come in thirty minutes before the meeting and help you guys set up food’ or ‘I can help you print’ or ‘I can help you take meeting minutes’, ‘I can help you take down and clean up after’ and just build that level of trust. How are you doing the behind the scenes, the ‘dirty work’? (I don’t want to say ‘come down to their level’ because that’s not what it is.) People see that. People notice that. When people just come and listen, take notes and talk versus when they want to be engaged at every level of the community event.
DA: Are there other actions a non-profit could take to earn trust besides showing up to the events and taking part in that work?
DLD: I think about hiring practices too. For example, I don’t have a degree. I feel like I am where I am today because of my lived experience and my touch on community. We don’t often elevate that and I’m lucky to be a part of an organization that does, but often we have to have a fancy degree or look a certain way or talk a certain way. But there are gems and experts in communities that operate very differently. We need to shift our narrative and we need a really deep paradigm shift when it comes to hiring practices and decision-making practices. How are you keeping community informed as to what you’re doing? [Are you] saying ‘here is a report on our year’? I’m not going to want to look through a forty-page report if I’m a community member.
DA: What does it mean to really, authentically involve the community in the decision making processes?
DLD: We need to include people that have different perspectives, [people] that are going to challenge you. That’s what is going to breed trust and really center community need—when you are challenged by community and really listen versus feeling uncomfortable or only centering those that are going to give you what you want. Bringing in different perspectives. What I see often time during [for example] a town hall event where you get community input or community voice for one event and then you use that to put in a report or to use in a strategy meeting but then you never talk to them again. They don’t see the outcome of that report; they don’t see the outcome of that new program you’re developing. They’re not compensated for their input or time. [Compensation] doesn’t always mean a stipend or money, but food…
DA: Compensation could mean the information itself.
DLD: Exactly. There needs to be a feedback loop and different mechanisms put in place so the community doesn’t feel like they gave you input and voice at one level, and then, two years down the road, you have never talked to them again.
DA: So you’re not in and out? You’re not just taking the resources of this community in the form of knowledge and perspective and then getting out of town.
DLD: Exactly. That’s also exploitative—and that’s why people do it once and then they never come back again. Why would you want to if you gave two hours of your time and… Often times what organizations don’t understand is that, when you ask certain questions—when you ask for certain feedback, when you go to really tough places—it can be really traumatizing and very triggering for people. For example, when YUIR and EPIC were meeting to talk about the community and the impact that a new youth jail might have, there were people up there giving really hard testimony about how the prison system has impacted their life. How do we, afterwards, check in with them? How do we maintain that relationship?
You shared a really deep part of your life with me that we’re going to use to talk to Dow Constantine; we’re going to quote you; we’re going to use you in this report; we’re going to use the ideas you gave us to think about solutions, but then how do we keep them in a relationship? One thing that I was taught at the very beginning of organizing was [the difference between] transactional relationships versus transformational relationships. When you are including community in your processes, how are you asking yourself ‘is this transactional right now? Am I going to get something from them? Or maybe they get something from me. But how are we having a transformational relationship where it’s a sustainable relationship?’ It’s a relationship that builds trust. It’s a relationship that can transform either at an individual level or even create systems change.
That’s something I feel non-profits need to ask themselves when they’re engaging with communities. ‘Is it transactional or is it going to create transformation within the community or within my organization?’
DA: Are there any other strategies you would recommend to make relationships transformational rather than transactional?
DLD: I feel like this is also really simple, but just centering those most impacted by whatever mission you are trying to achieve.
At the Foundation for Healthy Generations, there is CHW [Community Health Workers] integration project where six clinics are working with our team here at Healthy Gen to integrate CHWs into their care coordination system or their clinic system. We’re working with supervisors on how to supervise a CHW and with CHWs on how to work within their clinic and engage community.
So something I saw that was really interesting was in Omak. [It’s] a very rural area that has a lot of migrant workers and a lot of Latino community members. The clinic there had a lot of Latino clients. The CHWs that worked there were also Latino. [However], what they asked was ‘who is struggling the most? Who is being most impacted by how far away this clinic is? Who is being most impacted by a lack of health care?’ And they looked at the data, they asked around, and the lived experience collected said that a lot of white folks were actually the ones that weren’t coming to the clinic. A lot of white folks were the ones having trouble with accessing health care in this region.
So they actually decided to center that outreach on white folks despite the fact that they’re very Latino-oriented and they’re Latinos themselves. What they did there was center the people most impacted, despite maybe their own self-interest. That’s something I think organizations need to do—[ask] who’s being most impacted right now? If we’re a non-profit that works on youth development issues around incarceration. Let’s look at the data. Let’s ask the community who is being most impacted by that. Let’s center that when making decisions. Let’s center that when we’re thinking about access. Let’s center that when we’re thinking about the program we’re creating and the curriculum we’re creating versus listening to just what researchers are saying or just what data is saying, but including a holistic view of who is being impacted most right now.
That’s something that will also build trust and equity.
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.