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One community’s journey from a small local dialogue to becoming a national partner

Author: 
Rebecca Reynandez
June 14, 2017

Val and Carolyne from Everyday Democracy with Palm Beach County Anchor partners Barbara and Jaime-LeeFor the last 16 years, residents in Palm Beach County, Fla., have been using Everyday Democracy’s Dialogue-to-Change process to work on issues of race, early childhood education, and building strong neighborhoods.

Not only have they done great work in West Palm Beach and surrounding communities— Housing Partnership, Inc (dba Community Partners) is now one of Everyday Democracy’s anchor partners. Anchor partners help Everday Democracy carry out our work on a larger scale then we could alone, sharing a strong commitment to dialogue, engagement and racial equity, and committing to share knowledge and work together.  

Community Partners first used Dialogue-to-Change to address an issue in their community in 2002. In Belle Glade, Fla., a young black man was found hanging from a tree. Residents were split along racial lines – white residents believed it was a suicide and black residents believed he was hanged. The court ultimately deemed it a suicide, but that didn’t resolve the tension in the community surrounding this tragic event.

In addition to becoming an anchor partner, Community Partners has since grown to more than 10 ongoing projects across the county. Everyday Democracy and Community Partners were among several presenters to train organizers from around the country in authentic community dialogue and engagement, and inform them about our anchor partner program, at NeighborWorks America’s Community Building and Engagement annual meeting in May.

Back in 2002, Barbara Cheives had already organized and trained facilitators for other dialogues in the area as the Executive Director of a nonprofit called Toward a More Perfect Union, and was called in to do some racial reconciliation work. She used our Dialogue-to-Change process to engage small groups in a structured dialogue process that let participants share stories and build trust.

She recalled one night after the dialogues seeing an older white gentleman from a sugar cane family and a black woman talking to each other long after the dialogues had ended. They were exploring each other’s point of views and what they saw in the streets of the towns they grew up in. That was just one of many bridges that were built from the dialogue-to-change program.

“I’ve seen real change, real discussion, and real action,” said Cheives.

Another participant in the race dialogues was a white male president of a national bank. After talking with other residents and seeing different perspectives, he noticed his own staff wasn’t very diverse. He immediately started taking action to hire candidates from many backgrounds, and that spread throughout the bank.

Public engagement isn’t always easy, but it’s a necessary part of making communities work for everyone.  

Some challenges organizers often face when engaging community members include: burnout, people are too busy, follow-up, and no new people attend meetings or events.

So how do we truly engage a community in decision-making?

“The beauty of dialogue group is there’s no winning. It’s not a debate – we just have to listen to each other and come out with an action that works for the whole,” said Cheives.

In 2010, Palm Beach County residents joined across the county to discuss early childhood development, organized by a local organization called BRIDGES.

“We went into communities that have long been disenfranchised and they’re worried about food, safety, etc. – not necessarily getting their kids ready for kindergarten,” recalls Jaime-Lee Brown, Vice President of Community Services with Community Partners, one of the early organizers for the dialogues. “But everybody cares about their children. If we start with that conversation, then we can keep them engaged.”

Some of the actions that came out of that dialogue-to-change effort were kindergarten readiness toolkits and “kindergarten roundup” day where parents sat through a day of kindergarten so they could prepare their kids for the upcoming school year.

“The beauty of dialogue group is there’s no winning. It’s not a debate – we just have to listen to each other and come out with an action that works for the whole,” said Cheives.

Many people from different sectors and backgrounds were involved in these conversations. They weren’t just thinking about getting kids ready for school – they also wanted to improve their living conditions.

This led to dialogues and actions around building strong neighborhoods, which they are still working on today.

“What has really worked is to make sure that residents are gaining a voice, working toward a power balance, and engaging as a peer instead of speaking for the group,” says Brown.

Palm Beach County residents have put into practice the values Everyday Democracy looks for in anchor partners: commitment to relationships, incorporating an equity lens into the work, building local capacity for the community dialogue process, and creating sustainable change.

Everyday Democracy is looking for more local organizations interested in becoming anchor partners. Everyday Democracy helps to build the capacity of anchor partners to embed the work in their local communities and amplify the impact of our coaching and Dialogue-to-Change process, making sure everyone can have a voice and role in their community.

Learn more about Everyday Democracy’s anchor network, including how to become an anchor, or contact Valeriano Ramos at vramos@everyday-democracy.org.

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