One of the first questions I ever asked Erin was, “What exactly does Southeast Seattle Education Coalition (SESEC) do?” It was a question that I, quite honestly, struggled to answer for the first few months of my fellowship. My mind had not completely wrapped itself around the idea of working for a coalition and what it meant to be at a non-profit that did not provide direct services, had no programs, and was made up of a staff of three.
A month into the fellowship, SESEC, in partnership with University of Washington (UW), brought together a design team for the SESEC Equitable Family Engagement Survey. This survey project, for me, was the first real-life experience that affirmed beliefs that had always just been based on the theoretical. I had read endless articles and textbooks in college alluding to the failure and exploitation of “community” surveys designed by outsiders with no connections to the people they were “helping.” I sought summer work experiences abroad—purposely researching small, grassroots organizations—with the hopes of participating in truly community-based projects, only to find myself conducting the very surveys and focus groups that I wasn’t certain were benefiting the communities that I had come to help. This is why SESEC’s Equitable Family Engagement Survey was so fascinating to me.
The survey design team was composed of community partners, school administrators and parents from Graham Hill Elementary, Chinese Information Service Center (CISC), Powerful Schools YMCA, East African Community Services (EACS), and Maple Elementary. Bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders was intentional. Whatever this survey project culminated to be, it would be centered on the experiences of people and communities of color in SE Seattle. Since September, our team has labored over survey design, survey distribution and collection, data entry, data analysis, report-outs and sharing of the findings, and taking action.
We collected 639 surveys. 639! I don’t know about you, but that’s pretty amazing if I may say so myself. Someone asked me the other day, “What about the project made it so successful? What was the magic bullet?” I looked at them, confused. “Magic bullet? What magic bullet?” There was no single survey collection tactic that we pursued, and we certainly didn’t do all of that work alone.
Graham Hill asked for online surveys to be available so families could be routed to the computer lab after parent-teacher fall conferences. Partners volunteered at school events to help families complete the surveys. Powerful Schools YMCA handed out paper copies of the survey and stamped envelopes for families to take home and mail back. CISC ran focus groups where they talked through the survey with their families and explained the survey to parents. SESEC recruited and provided a stipend to a multi-lingual Somali parent in the New Holly neighborhood to recruit East African parents to complete the survey. Emerson Elementary collected surveys in conjunction with the school’s data summit.
There was no magic bullet.
We included English on our translated surveys so that when sitting down with parents to fill them out, our partners could read the questions in English and clarify if the written translations were not clear—this suggestion was brought to us by a community partner and was implemented across all translated versions when other partners echoed the same ask. We trusted our CBO partners, our schools and our community members to do what they do best and supported them in whatever capacity that we could to do it. It was important to us (SESEC) to reach deeply into the community and use different vehicles of survey collection to ensure we had a diverse and representative pool of respondents. I suppose you could say that the “magic bullet” is that every project is multi-faceted and that, particularly when working with communities of color, no single tactic can drive the entirety of a project if you want to be effective, inclusive and representative.
The approaches our different CBOs and schools may not work for yours or others elsewhere. That means you just have to find another one that does, not try to shove your constituents into a box and force it. Relationships don’t work that way. Humans do not work that way. Our communities have not survived and thrived under these conditions by trying to live that way. To be culturally competent and live true to our values of community, we strive to find and understand the nuances that each and every individual and group brings to the table.
To many of us in this work, this revelation is not new—and this survey project was just the first of many that allowed me to understand that this is what we (SESEC) do. SESEC puts relationships first; we are intentional in talking about race and equity; and we do not work alone in isolation from and without input from the coalition and the communities they represent. We are held accountable by and to our coalition. The work that we do cannot be done without each other and the network that has been maintained and only continues to grow—and the breadth of community knowledge and experience that comes with that trust.
Now, I will shamelessly direct your web traffic to our blog posts about the project if you are interested (click them, you know you want to): 82% of the respondents were primarily people of color. 25 different primary home languages were present. 62% were primarily members of immigrant families. 65% of families were eligible for free and reduced price lunch. You can find the overall findings and disaggregated data here.