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Being Present

Growing up in Ghana, a recurring complaint I heard was about how organizations, foundations, investors, and other immigrant groups never really interacted with the country. They arrived at the airport to be picked up in luxury air-conditioned vehicles and chauffeured to the most expensive hotels. The only point at which they might leave their cocoons of cool would be to visit a beach at a luxury resort or to go sightseeing in tourist spots like the castle. The odds they’d meet anyone whose job wasn’t specifically designed around their comfort was negligible. With that approach it didn’t seem there was much reason to bother with the long flights; why not find a beach somewhere more convenient and imagine exotic natives in the background?

Entering the nonprofit world, I remembered how often that complaint would come up, especially about charities and NGO’s, and I promised myself to take time to actually know the people I serve. For me, the first obvious solutions was to live in the community and meet the people where they are. That plan got off to a bumpy start. Seattle housing prices and specifically gentrification in Columbia City cut that off as a short-term goal. Next was public transit; (it didn’t hurt that RVC has a great transit benefit) since I don’t own a car.

As a new Seattleite who does not live in the 98118 zip code, the bus grounds me in the reality of life in the Rainier Valley. I see some of the diversity of the people who live and work here. I witness connections between and across communities. I hear the conversations people have, often about places and things that fly over my head, and am always inordinately excited and proud when I catch one. Conversations about work, life, family, gentrification, drugs, homelessness, race, safety, and fear. I see construction workers who pay individual fares. I think about how much more it costs to buy tickets each work day than a month pass, and recognize that its likely folks can’t afford the upfront cost.

At the RVC Leadership Institute, we talked about evaluation, and it was framed through the lens of the exchange of information and how we handle the power of knowing. We talked about the need not only to listen deeply to learn and understand each other’s stories but also to determine what to do with them in a way that does right by the community we serve.

A large weakness in working with communities of colour and vulnerable communities is that often, we fail to meet them where they are. This is especially true when the leadership doesn’t match the community and may have only a superficial knowledge of it.

How are you holding yourself accountable to the communities you serve?

It’s vitally important to know the people’s whose interests we represent, for many reasons; being in a position to serve means being in a position of power relative to those who need or benefit from our programs and services. When our voice is amplified above theirs, we need to be accountable to them for what we say.

How do you involve your community into your decision-making processes?

We can’t create effective solutions without deep nuanced understanding of the issues, and that information has to come from communities. Solutions that ignore the community often fail because they require too drastic a change from established patterns of behavior or are not actually feasible for those on the ground.

How do you revisit the “why” of your work?

Success in nonprofit work is a matter of honouring our values and serving our communities. It is impossible to have true success when we don’t really know how to serve them. We often can’t measure success in terms as straightforward as a profit margin, but even when our successes are difficult to see knowing who we serve and why our work matters as a source of motivation to keep going.

How are you present in the community?

My first trip to Columbia City before I even came to find the RVC office, I spent time walking through the streets trying to get a sense of the area and the people in it. Building at least cordial relationships of acknowledgment with the security guard outside the Bank, or the one-man show of Senegalese Restaurant La Teranga, who wants to try my Jolloff rice. I try to put my money towards local-owned, POC-owned small businesses. Other opportunities and events have had me in the community: the Umoja Festival, the Rainier Valley Heritage Parade, and trying to do what shopping I can in Rainier Valley on my way home.

People sometimes choose to tell me stories; about their life experiences, like about how they were treated when they married a black woman, and how racism impacted their family and relationships. Or about how they dedicate all their time outside of work to making sure their child is set up for success academically and socially as a black male. I hear about the impact of drugs and sex work, or who’s had to close up shop and move out to Tacoma. I see homelessness, especially at the freeway overpass. I see community within and across obvious lines like race, age, and ethnicity. I see people pay off other people’s bus fare when they can’t find their tickets or they are stuck a long way from home.

I think taking the time to be present where people are, if that means taking a walk in your neighborhood, conversing with the wait staff, or riding the bus (even, or especially if you don’t need to), is a powerful way to engage with the reality of the majority of the people around you. Doubly so if we have the privilege of being able to step away from it. I think it informs everything about how you handle issues related to the people.  It’s how I found a sense of place studying in Beijing, and how I reconnect when I go back home to Ghana.

I’d love to know what other approaches people take to getting to know a place and its people. I invite you to add suggestions in the comments.

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