Allen County, Kansas, with more than 500 square miles of rural farmland and small towns, has experienced declining population and poverty for decades. But the community has banded together to foster a sense of belonging and enhance the livelihoods of all residents, and in 2017 the county was awarded the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Prize. This honor recognizes Allen County’s commitment to pursuing innovative ideas and authentically engaging and partnering with the community to improve health and quality of life.
Thrive Allen County, a local nonprofit, has been a key player in Allen County’s efforts to bring residents to the table. The organization hosts regular Community Conversations, a kind of public forum or listening session, across the county to provide a place where residents can connect with one another, identify challenges, and set priorities to help create a community where everyone can live their healthiest life. Deputy Director for Community Engagement Damaris Kunkler shared some of her tips on how others can organize successful Conversations:
- Bringing the right people to the table means bringing everybody. Making sure residents with diverse perspectives and experiences are part of the conversation is important for identifying challenges and opportunities across the community.
- Be strategic about how you reach out to residents. When you’re spreading the word about an upcoming Community Conversation, think beyond email invitations. Consider residents without access to technology. Town halls, community centers, places of worship, retirement centers, and door-to-door outreach are effective places to find and invite residents to a Conversation. A personal ask can be the key to getting residents to join.
- Make meetings easier and more fun to attend. Providing rides to and childcare during events makes it easier for residents to join. Offering healthy food from local farmers or restaurants models healthy eating habits, supports the local economy, and builds trust and connections with even more community members. Using icebreakers to start off a meeting can help people relax.
- Listen. The less you say, the more you hear. Start a Conversation with a big question like, “What would make your community a healthier place to live, work, play or pray?” Then listen. Give residents the space and power to lead the way and identify solutions based on their own experiences.
- Use small group discussion to create room for more conversation. Small groups make it easier for people to share their thoughts. It’s also a welcome relief for anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable talking in front of crowds. Consider bringing in scribes – members of your staff or non-resident volunteers – to take notes so all community members can participate fully. If conversation stalls, scribes can ask prodding questions like, “What do you dream about for your community?”
- Lean on democracy. Once community members have shared what they would like to see changed in their community, let members “vote” to identify priorities. Damaris gives each resident 3 sticker dots and asks them to place one dot on each challenge or dream that is most important to them.
- Embrace the little wins. The community should dream big, but success isn’t just about the big wins. Having a new voice join the conversation, creating a space where someone feels comfortable sharing a new idea, and identifying a promising next step are all small wins that can have huge benefits. When the bigger wins do come along, invite community members to be part of the celebration!
- Follow up! Community Conversations are a helpful starting point to move toward action and a great place to meet people who can help lead the way. “Whenever I meet a new resident, I always ask for their name, phone number, email address, whether they are on Facebook, and for their talent. Then when the community is ready to take action, I already have a list of community members with unique skills and interests to play key roles,” says Damaris.
Learn more about how Thrive Allen County has used Community Conversations and other strategies to help Allen County reach a shared vision and make strides in their journey to improved health and equity. Watch our archived webinar now: http://www.countyhealthrankings.org/learn-from-others/webinars/partnering-with-community.