by Hilary Clark
In a few weeks I will be co-facilitating a Community Circle at UML as part of Your Voice Matters (www.yourvoicematterslowell.org), a coalition of Lowell Public School representatives, students and parents and many local community-based organizations and non-profits who are interested in engaging additional community members to work together in new and different ways to improve Lowellâ€™s schools.
After almost a year of planning and working with coaches from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, the grant awarding agency supporting this work, approximately thirty people are trained to facilitate circles around the city in an attempt to create engaging and safe spaces for community conversations about education in Lowell, identify strengths, clarify themes and areas for improvement and to ultimately work collaboratively to set priorities for future work.
This approach is different from others that the city may have seen in the past and is in line with the guiding principles and intervention methods used in community psychology where it is assumed that community members know what they need and should be active and central participants in the process of identifying what is and is not working in the community. Who else, but the members of the community can help others to better understand why students do, or do not succeed in Lowell schools. The objectives of these circles is to build trust and connect a variety of people, help people respect each other and listen to different ideas and help people find common ground for solutions and action when it comes to education.
Lowell’s rich history as an immigrant community creates a unique challenge in that there are so many different cultures represented within the city. Julian Rappaport (1977) identified the value of cultural relativity and diversity as a central theme to community psychology, so as not to compare people to a single standard. Now that registration for the circles has launched the real work begins because while all voices are important the goal is to hear from members of the community who are often times underrepresented and sometimes not represented at all. It is so important for those that may not have had an opportunity to speak up in the past are included in these conversations. Following the community psychology belief that people cannot be understood apart from their environment, the only way to know about the experiences of these community members is directly from them. How do we access all of these different voices?
Community Circles are being held at different times throughout the day, at different locations around the city and will include food. Interpreters and childcare will be provided as needed. Facebook and social media is being used to spread the word and encourage folks to register for a Community Circle, a flier will hopefully be heading home next week with every Lowell Public School student, 14,416 to be exact, community organizations involved in the coalition are spreading the word to their members and posters advertising the events are going up throughout the city, but what else can be done to reach the people that need a seat at the table and their voices to be heard? And how do we know if we have reached them all?
Hopefully as this work continues and more community members become involved, the word will spread and more people from different cultural pockets around the city will engage, so that one day all voices are heard. By engaging these community members, better understanding the environment these folks are living in and the experiences they have had with Lowell schools, the hope is that the community can continue to develop and strengthen resources that will enable all Lowell students to succeed.
Hilary Clark is a graduate student in the Community Social Psychology department at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.