Creating a community of inclusion can be a real challenge. It may mean stepping out of your comfort zone, creating new alliances, working with people you never considered working with before. It may mean ceding authority to others, backing out of the spotlight to give them credit and negotiating to find common ground. For all of us, it means working to overcome the prejudice and the misunderstanding that for decades have divided Americans from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

What are the rewards of working with diverse partners? The more groups and individuals you work with, the more you're able to create community-wide support for your organization and its goals. And that can mean more volunteers, more members and more resources for your organization's programs, plus more of an impact on the issues you care about. Equally important, by reaching out you can show people that you're shaping solutions for the whole community—and not just for your members or for those who traditionally have been involved.

Here are some of the key things to keep in mind as you work to make your community a community of inclusion:

Know Your Community

It's hard to build a stronger community for the future without an intimate understanding of the kind of community you have today. A basic knowledge about local neighborhoods, community organizations, and the racial, ethnic and socioeconomic breakdown of the local population isn't enough. To succeed, you'll need to find out what people really think — What issues do they care about? What kinds of community activities are they involved in? What organizations do they belong to? Whom in the community do they trust most?

You'll also need to find out what individuals and organizations are already working on some of the issues you might want to address. Who's doing what? Are they effective? What problems have they run into? Were they able to overcome them? Are there any conflicts between different individuals and/or organizations that you should know about?

The best way to find answers to these questions is to get out and talk to people. Reading the local newspaper, as well as the community newspapers from the neighborhoods you want to reach, is an important step but it's not enough. In order to truly know your community, you'll need to get beyond the headlines to the people themselves. And that means building a network of neighborhood contacts, one by one.

Start out with your own members and board. Whom do they know in the community? What other organizations are they involved in? Use their understanding and their contacts to open doors. Then think about individuals with a special perspective on the communities you want to target—community center and social service agency staff, clergy, school officials and teachers, community group leaders.

Although it always helps to have an “in,” don't be afraid to call people cold. Tell them you want to meet with them—face to face—to get their advice. Tell them you want to know how you and your organization can become more involved in the community and how you can work together with them on issues you both care deeply about.

DON'T WAIT FOR THEM TO COME TO YOU! Attend meetings of one or more organizations in your targeted communities to learn more about their top concerns. What issues are they working on? Where do their agendas meet with yours? Call leaders of these groups about upcoming meetings, or look in the paper for meeting times and places. Let people know you're interested in learning from them and working together.

Choose Issues With Legs

Age, race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status don't matter when it comes to what kind of community people want. No matter who they are or where the live, people want a community that is healthy and safe and that offers good jobs, good schools and good services.

Once you're able to identify the values and concerns that people and organizations in your community hold in common, then you'll be able to select issues everyone cares about—“issues with legs.” And by selecting issues that transcend demographics—issues that unite rather than divide your community—you'll help break down the barriers of fear and mistrust that too often keep people and organizations apart.

So many issues cry out for attention in any community. The challenge is to select issues that are a priority both for your organization's members and for the community as a whole. The following questions will help you narrow the list of possible issues while identifying those that pose the greatest opportunity for community-wide involvement:

  • What are the most urgent issues facing your community as a whole,—i.e., what issues demand attention NOW?
  • What are the issues that most concern members of the groups you want to target—e.g., underserved citizens, youth?
  • What issues offer your organization the greatest chance to collaborate with diverse groups or individuals in the community?
  • What issues present opportunities for people to bring about real change and make the community a better place to live?
  • What issues will benefit from your organization's special expertise or perspective?
  • What issues offer the greatest chances to gain additional members, visibility or clout for your organization?

To find out what issues are of greatest concern to different groups in your community, you'll need to follow the steps outlined above for reaching out and initiating conversations with diverse audiences (see “Know Your Community”). Remember: new issues and new opportunities for collaboration will surface all the time, so it's essential to make your “issue outreach” a continuing priority, not a one-time event. In fact, you might want to organize a monthly or quarterly meeting with diverse groups in your community so you can identify shared concerns as they arise.

Form Partnerships

Joining with other groups often is the best way to broaden your organization's impact on issues that matter to the whole community. Choose partner organizations that are active in the neighborhoods and among the audiences you want to reach. If African Americans are a target, then a likely partner might be the local NAACP chapter. But don't stick only with the “usual suspects.” Find out what organizations are active in the community, and explore their willingness to join together in a coalition.

Any group whose mission is directly related to the focus of your issue campaign is a logical choice. Working with organizations that represent your target audience is another important strategy. The key is to THINK BROADLY and to explore partnerships with groups that come at the issue from different angles and perspectives. Partners can come from all sectors of the community and can include civic groups, businesses, government agencies, colleges, universities and individual citizens. Some questions to consider in identifying potential partners:

  • What individuals and organizations can help define the problem we want to address? Who has unique expertise or perspective on the issue?
  • What population groups are affected by the problem? What organizations represent the interests of these groups? Which individuals have special credibility with these groups?
  • What individuals and organizations can help develop solutions? Who will be responsible for implementing these solutions?
  • Whose support will we need to address the issue effectively? What individuals and organizations might stand in the way of solutions?
  • What organizations are known for achieving results in the community? Who has a track record of taking on important issues and getting things done?

Coalitions can be difficult to manage. Be sure not to spread responsibility and accountability too thin, but do involve a large enough group to get things done. Too often, important projects ride on the shoulders of just one or two people or organizations. Make it a TRUE COLLABORATION, but make sure all partners understand and are able to live up to their responsibilities. Member organizations of the coalition should be groups you can work with effectively; make sure you know they are organized for results.

ORGANIZE FOR ACTION! It's always best to assign responsibilities as part of the initial planning process, when everyone is committed and the sense of mission is fresh. Get people to state their level of commitment up front, and make it something they can always raise but never lower. Hold all partners to their commitments by distributing meeting minutes and/or assignment lists and by following up on everyone's progress at future meetings.

Recognize Why Others Get Involved

No matter how worthy your organization's cause, there's no guarantee that others will rally to your side. Other organizations in the community have competing priorities and only so much money and so many volunteers to go around. At the same time, people in the community may be stretched by work and family demands, as well as commitments to other organizations and other causes, that keep them from becoming more involved.

The key is to be flexible, to welcome any level of participation and assistance people can give, and then to try to hold people to their commitments. Equally important, to make sure people stay involved, try to create a sense of belonging for individuals and groups so they feel they're playing an important part in what you're doing. Good organizers, according to researcher Trena M. Cleland, focus not only on the political but the personal.

“To be effective, we must feel that involvement is meeting our needs to enjoy ourselves, to add more skills to our personal tool kits, to be valued for our contributions, to have 'kindred spirits' in our lives, and to be directly involved in tangible change,” Cleland wrote in an article for the quarterly, In Context, “People who are not otherwise attracted to political life will stay with a group if they experience it as a support and friendship network—in short, as a community.”

The best way to reward people's involvement? CELEBRATE SUCCESS. Make a habit of thanking people and organizations for their participation. Throw a party. Alert the media about your coalition's achievements. And, by all means, don't forget to share the spotlight by giving credit to your partners and directing the media to them. Making people feel good about their participation now will prepare the way for continued involvement in the future.

Working in coalition with other organizations inevitably means you'll be sharing the spotlight, so it's important to accept that you won't always be the top dog. As long as you are getting your share of the credit and your coalition is achieving results, that's what counts.

Check Your Sparkplugs

No organization can expect to walk into a community where it hasn't had a presence before and instantly earn the people's trust and respect. What you need are “sparkplugs”—a term organizing experts use to refer to people with the credibility, the energy and the motivation needed to get others in their community to bring about change.

Sparkplugs aren't necessarily the same people you'll approach to find out more about the community you want to target (see “Know Your Community,” above). They can be anyone people trust, anyone they see as “one of their own.” That can include local business executives, politicians, radio and TV personalities, professional athletes, ministers and more. Sparkplugs don't have to be well known in the community, however. If you want to reach young people in your area, for example, it's best to have students making your case. And, if you're talking about children's issues, you'll want energetic parents and teachers on your side.

Your coalition partners should be able to help you identify and recruit sparkplugs who can help with your outreach. Whatever you do, get input from the communities you want to target. You don't want to go in assuming you have the right person and then learn that people in the community think he or she is a sellout or just plain dull.

Find The Right Forums

Just as important as the partners and the sparkplugs you choose are the forums you use to get your message out. When you're thinking about using the media, for example, it's essential to look beyond the mainstream outlets and to consider the many media organizations that cater specifically to diverse segments of the population. These include Spanish-language media and other broadcast and print organizations targeting specific groups, including radio stations, cable TV channels and community newspapers.

Other forums to consider in reaching out to diverse groups include college and university campuses, churches, community centers, social service agencies, neighborhood fairs and festivals, and more. Organize events in the community you want to target and not across town. To make people comfortable about coming out and being a part of your campaign, you'll need to go to your target audiences instead of making them come to you.

Watch Your Language!

Words matter. Whether targeting your outreach to minority groups, youth or other segments of the population, language is critically important. Make sure you translate your message and/or materials into the appropriate language for your target audience. If you are working with youth, you've got to make things hip and conversational or kids won't listen. You might also want to consider printing your materials in Braille or using sign-language interpreters at your events.

Of course, what you say to your target groups is as important as how you say it. And again, the message may vary based on who you're talking to. No matter the issue, your goal should be to address your audience's chief concerns. If you're talking about the importance of voting, for example, you might want to remind young people about the government's role in education and student financial aid. And if the issue is the environment, your message in an inner-city community might focus on the location of polluting industries.

The best way to make sure you're using the right language and the right messages for your audiences? Test everything. Convene a focus group of the people you want to target so you can get their reactions and their input. If that's not doable, circulate drafts of your materials and messages for people in the community to respond to. With this kind of input up front, you'll know you have the materials and the messages you need to make things happen.

DON'T WAIT. EVALUATE!! At the end of your coalition project, be sure to take time with your partners to assess how things went. Think about both your successes and your failures. Consider these questions: How effective was your coalition? What mediums of communication worked best? Did you encounter any cultural barriers? What event formats were most effective? What did you gain from the experience? Put your answers on paper so you're able to shape future efforts that are even more successful.

Don't Give Up

Building a community of inclusion doesn't happen overnight. Over the years, too many of us have grown too accustomed to working in our own worlds, on our own issues and according to our own customs and rules. As a result, it's going to take time to get people in our organizations to adapt and to accept once and for all that we can't do everything on our own. And it's going to take time to build trust in minority communities after so many years of isolation and prejudice.

The best way to view your outreach to diverse partners in your community is not as an end point but as an ongoing process. You may need to approach a community several times before you develop enough credibility as someone people feel they can work with. You need to stay involved, week in and week out.

Your efforts may be rebuffed at first, but persistence will help you succeed. It is when you stay involved in a community over the long term that people will begin to believe you're sincere in your intentions to work with them. As one member of a minority community told a League of Women Voters audience: “We want to touch, see and feel you after the election is gone.”