Blog Post | June 14, 2023

A Seat at the Table: How can we better include community in the policymaking process? Building Connections & Sharing Information

Author: Manon Steel

Summary

The TICAS Michigan team has spent the last year building stronger relationships with Michigan’s diverse and unique communities. We have been able to learn more about the particular barriers – from the shores of Lake Superior to the Ambassador Bridge – for students to be college ready, pay for a postsecondary education, and graduate from college with a degree or credential that leads to sustainable employment. While we have been working to build better bridges between these communities and the decision-making table, there remain hundreds of new opportunities to be better partners.

When we asked our partners how we can better include them in the policymaking process, they responded that they needed TICAS and other organizations to build stronger connections between them and policymakers as well as provide them with the critical information to be effective policy advocates. “For organizations who influence policy, working to include community in the policymaking process starts with including the community into our own org structures and leadership!” In short, being better partners and getting community members to place where decisions are made takes modeling the structure of our work on better collaboration.

Unless we continue to restructure our work for better partnerships, communities will continue to feel isolated from decisions and the policies we create will be less effective, hurting students most of all.

Building Connections

Building connections means elevating the work and voice of our partners to the individuals and departments that can help them do the work more effectively. Truly achieving this takes moving beyond simply connecting folks to each other; the work of our organizations must be restructured to have communities at the center, directing our work, and then simultaneously building up community to be effective in the policymaking arena and advocating for needs as well as inclusion of the community in the policymaking process.

To center community in our work, we must start with going out and listening rather than speaking. Terrell Topps an Educational Transition Coordinator recommends, “Having multiple roundtable discussions throughout the community. Speak with clergy leadership and hold community meetings at middle and high schools”. Meeting people where they are at, both physically and emotionally, can help to foster real trust and comfort in a partnership.

As an organization committed to equity and inclusion, this may also mean taking extra care and steps to including groups that are both regularly excluded and potentially wary of the policy process. For example, one submission suggests that organizations, “Invite adults with low literacy to the table. Addressing low literacy rates in our state will help to increase our talent pipeline.” Creating a safe, supportive environment for letting their voices be heard, their needs supported, and following through on commitments for that support are critical for truly building equitable policies and a more equitable society.

Wherever and to whoever you go to connect with community, listening allows us to hear what the needs are, to identify connections between barriers and opportunities, and to determine potential solutions.

Bridget Hermann with the United Way of Washtenaw County summarizes how we connect hearing from the community with policy work, “Ask students, families and educators directly about the things that stand in the way of them reaching their full potential. Then design policy interventions based on removing those barriers.” As policy experts, it is our job to really and truly be that: to use our expertise in the changemaking process, take what we hear from the community and to help them identify the root problem, the best potential solution, move that solution forward, and evaluate its effects.

Sharing Information

Sharing information means providing clear and easy to understand materials on the policy process, how certain policies work, and recent updates on policy in Michigan and potentially nationally. Community members may be the experts on their respective neighborhoods, business areas, and school systems, but they also have busy jobs and lives, which may limit their ability to keep track of the policy world tucked away in Lansing, especially if the status quo has not fostered their involvement. A lack of understanding and comfort with policy often prevents these experts from weighing in. Therefore, sharing information consistently and clearly is critical for recentering policy work around community.

Sharing information, like building connections, can take several forms. One contributor outlines the following examples: “Hosting more community education events, sharing online information (one-pagers), and attending community meetings regarding [education].” Another contributor, Nancy Peters Lewis the Executive Director of the College and Career Access Center of Jackson proposes, “Having consistent monthly/quarterly professional development as it relates to advocacy in higher education would be beneficial. Additionally, keeping stakeholders abreast of what is, and what is not working in the post-secondary world will assist us with innovation and rethinking/remaking our ecosystem”.

Both specify clear traits as to what characterizes the most effective information sharing. The information must be consistent (monthly/quarterly); it must be accessible physically and easily comprehendible; and it must have some variation in form which allows for different learning styles and types of interaction (an education session or fact sheet). Inconsistent, hard to read or find, long reports are not conducive to helping community members learn about policy, help identify solutions to policy problems, provide feedback on policy, and/or advocate for better policies.

Jeffrey Thornton, the Academic Director of the Keweenaw Learning Center, LLC summarizes how restructuring our policy work around building connections and sharing information will better allow him to be a part of the policymaking process. “It would be very helpful to hear more from both the legislature, the governor’s office, and MDE as to how local tutoring companies can gain access to educational resources for student improvement. Currently, those resources are earmarked for intermediate school districts and higher ed institutions with little to no access at ‘street level’ to directly meet student academic needs. Providing direct access to MDE representatives for local tutoring agencies would be a welcome step forward.” If organizations want more community members like Jeffrey to weigh in, then we must do better to ensure that they have a seat at the table and the appropriate information to feel safe, listened to, supported, and like the experts they already are.