In February 2023, the PHL Service Design Studio established the Community Advisory Council (“CAC”) to support the development of the Equitable Community Engagement Toolkit project (“Engagement Toolkit”). The CAC was funded by the Operations Transformation Fund and administered by the City of Philadelphia’s Office of the Chief Administrative Officer (“CAO”) and the Philadelphia City Fund.
In this three-part series, we share details about the goals of the Community Advisory Council (“CAC”), how the Council was created, what the collaboration process looked like, and what we learned together.
This is the second story in the series. The goal of this series is to provide practical guidance and tips you may use in your engagement efforts. We also hope it inspires you to connect with members of your community in deeper, more meaningful ways.
How we worked together
“I have never been part of a group that shares lived experiences as the content–lived experiences [usually] just become kind of peripheral. And you know, you put your little spin on things because you are who you are. So I love that you centered lived experiences as the source.”
– Meliza Reynoso
The Community Advisory Council (“CAC”) met bi-weekly from February to June 2023 to review and edit guidance from the Toolkit’s Radical Inclusion section. On the weeks that the council did not meet, advisors asynchronously reviewed and infused guidance with their lived experiences.
To kickstart the council, the facilitators developed a baseline plan which proposed how the council could work together. The plan served as a sketch that advisors could respond to and inform. In the initial plan, advisors were meant to choose working groups (e.g., racial equity, language access, disability access, and digital access) related to their specific lived experiences and interests. The smaller working groups would then meet to work through their respective guides. The facilitators initially thought this would encourage deeper conversations and a more focused effort to revise each of the Radical Inclusion guides.
However, during the first meeting, advisors offered suggestions. To the facilitators’ surprise, advisors wanted to review guidance as a full group. Advisors pointed out that the original plan reflected a common challenge communities face when working with the City—dividing people into silos fails to account for the intersecting experiences each person holds. Advisors expressed that they had perspectives and experiences that couldn’t be contained in a category. Everyone wanted to both share and learn from each other.
After taking in this feedback, the facilitators made the following changes:
- They revised the timeline and plan to prioritize staying together. Instead of meeting weekly as four separate groups, two bi-weekly meetings were created (on Monday evening and Tuesday afternoon) to accommodate everyone’s work and school schedules.
- To ensure everyone stayed aligned as a group, sessions were recorded with everyone’s consent. Notes and reading materials were shared in collaborative documents. And all session materials were kept in a shared digital folder to allow everyone to work asynchronously.
- And to support advisors’ preferences and needs, the facilitators welcomed individual requests like scheduling additional calls in between meetings and sharing individual documents upon request.
Collaborating to establish community agreements
To build rapport and to help establish fruitful working relationships, the group drafted community agreements. The agreements below helped ensure that each member could feel understood, affirmed, and valued throughout all interactions.
- Mutual respect and inclusion: Respect all other participants’ pronouns, preferred names, and access needs.
- Take time to listen and understand what people need. Learn how to accommodate each other’s preferences rather than forcing people to advocate for fair treatment.
- State your name before you speak and recognize when someone’s hand is raised.
- Be open-minded and considerate of others’ needs. When in doubt, ask!
- To create an inviting space for everyone, including members of the disability community, familiarize yourselves with ableist language to avoid. Read this helpful primer!
- Celebrate differences and shared experiences: Take time to learn about each other’s lived experiences and wisdom. Respect that everyone is an expert of their own experience and remember that our goal is to find common ground.
- No assumptions, except for best intentions: As humans, we are bound to make mistakes. Let’s give each other grace, assume good intent, and work to speak from our own lived experiences and not for others.
- Speak from the “I” instead of the “we.”
- Avoid making generalized claims or speaking for other people.
- Step up, step back: Be mindful of how much time you are taking to share. Pause and allow room for quieter folks to finish their thoughts and to speak during group discussions.
- Accessibility and shared understanding: Prioritize ensuring that whatever is shared can be equally accessed by all.
- Avoid jargon and/or be ready to explain words, phrases, or ideas to ensure everyone has a clear understanding.
- Clearly communicate the process, request, and/or personal needs to set reasonable expectations for our work together.
- Consent: We see consent as an ongoing practice of respect for each other’s lived wisdom and right to making choices for ourselves.
- Anything shared within the CAC space should remain confidential unless consent is explicitly given.
- Active listening and engagement: Be present by actively and respectfully listening and participating at each session. Encouragingly respond to others and respectfully acknowledge what was shared.
- Consider validating and/or repeating back what was shared in your own words to ensure everyone is on the same page.
- Share edited documents before considering them final. Note: we will do this with guides you have reviewed.
- Be “for” one another: Personally and collectively share when there are areas where growth needs to happen and be willing to be transformed through the learning process. We can practice this by:
- Following up with a peer to offer words of encouragement or support.
- Providing generative feedback when invited. Do this by centering the goals of the person you’re giving feedback to and not your own agenda.
- Looking out for each other and not trying to outdo each other.
- Mutual care: Care for yourself and each other by asking for help when you need it and extending support when you have it to give. Be accountable to each other by clearly and honestly communicating capacity and needs. Avoid assumptions by checking in early and often to ensure that you and your peers are aligned and consenting to deliverables.
Each working session began with highlighting 2-3 agreements to focus on throughout the meeting. Practicing this consistently helped ensure everyone remained grounded in being kind and patient with each other. It helped everyone remain open to listening and learning from each other, which reflected the advisors’ initial hope to move through content as a larger group.
Key takeaways from the collaboration process
The following are key learnings for future facilitators to consider as well as reflections from advisors:
- Prioritize learning and vulnerability. Advisors were brought together to make collective decisions on how to improve the Radical Inclusion guides. The content in each of the guides touched on topics that were deeply personal and often complex. Leaning into the community agreements helped create space for meaningful listening and exchange.
“I appreciate the sessions because they allow for us to all contribute and thoughtfully discuss topics as they arise organically.”
– Tyrell Brown
“I’ve gained the perspective [of] others’ perspectives. It’s opened me up to learning new things and hearing things.”
– Brenda Mosley
“It’s nice to know that your lived experiences, and what you think, and your words and ideas and perspective can be valued in both non-material and material ways. This is a really nice model.”
– Shimaa Eid
- Facilitators must balance being planful with being flexible and firm. Facilitating is both an art and a science. It requires having a concrete plan to follow to ensure you’re building in enough time within the plan to allow conversations and interactions to unfold. It also requires trusting the individuals to be partners in guiding discussions where they need to go.
“The moderator has to be strong and keep the pace. Everyone’s experiences are valid but it’s a two-hour meeting. We are all passionate about change and that can get carried away. The moderators of this council were textbook case on how to do that. They made everyone feel listened to, yet kept the working group on pace and focused with the task at hand.”
– Vicki Landers
“Our facilitators, Andrea and Danita, exemplified the epitome of a collaborative leadership style. They not only worked extremely well together, they were exceptionally skilled, gifted, and talented – consummate professionals of the highest degree. They are phenomenal women who possess the rare combinations of being altruistic, having selfless concern for the well-being of the group; being benevolent, compassionate, and caring, while also being attentive, flexible, patient, and validating. They gave detailed, yet inspiring instructions, asked open-ended questions, and then disappeared into the background. This leadership style allowed us to open up, feel safe, and supported enough to make genuine contributions to an already incomparable project. These gifted leaders were able to do what few leaders can do, and have done in my experience, and that is, inspire with compassion and selflessness.
Since this was such a rare and beautiful experience for me, I became certain that they had to have a powerful team working with them behind the scenes – a power base that in turn, encouraged and anchored them. I’ve learned that great leaders usually tend to have great leaders who serve as inspiration to them. I had the pleasure of briefly meeting some of those “behind the scenes” leaders (first, Anthony Procik, then Liana Dragoman, and later, several others), and all of them were as I expected – powerfully inspiring, compassionate, and gifted.
To sum up our facilitators, Andrea and Danita, and the entire PHL Service Design Studio team, I’d like to share a quote from one of my favorite philosophers,
‘A leader is best when people barely know he (they) exists. When his (their) work is done, they will all say: ‘We did it ourselves.’’’ – Lao Tzu
– Jazmin Banks
We hope this information and these takeaways will be useful for you. If you have questions or specific feedback about the CAC’s collaboration process, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We also encourage you to explore the related guides below. They provide deeper guidance and additional recommendations which can help your engagement facilitation efforts. Stay tuned for the next and final story in this series which will highlight what members of the CAC learned and experienced together.