Giving voice and power to historically excluded community is complex work. How do you build trust? How do you keep individuals engaged? How do you ensure that the work is authentic every step of the way? How do you provide access to those who make policy decisions? If only there were a guide! Thanks to the West Marion Community Forum (WMCF), there is.
For the past three years, Executive Director Paula Swepson- Avery and consultant Mary Snow have collaborated to share the success of this organization. Their new toolkit, Shift Happens in Community: A Toolkit to Build Power & Ignite Change, will be available soon.
WMCF started as a grassroots organization in 2016, as part of the Healthy Places initiative of the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, which included a focus on elevating the voices of historically excluded community members. From the very first meeting, Marion native Swepson-Avery knew that this approach was different.
“Mary was facilitating, and she asked, ‘What is your vision for your community?’ and I thought, ‘We have a choice?’ I was so excited about hearing that we had a power; that’s what ignited me to want to be involved.”
Snow says the “secret sauce” to the WMCH approach is relationships formed among a circle of women of different backgrounds, races, ethnicity. “We created a safe and brave space to grow together as leaders, and built a sense of trust among ourselves that allowed us to push back when institutions weren’t taking us seriously,” she says. That relationship also extends to youth who now feel empowered to set their own goals and to speak out for their community.
Some big wins for WMCF have come in the form of policy changes, including a citywide adoption of a minimal housing standard, and a new county public transportation system.
The idea for the toolkit came from neighboring communities. “People began to see what a powerful vehicle it was to engage residents and result in community changes,” says Snow. “ Other communities asked how they could do it, too, so we replicated the approach in Old Fort and East Marion.”
An ION grant from Dogwood Health Trust provided funds for a coach to help take the toolkit from idea to publication, including professional design, copyright and online promotion. A portion of the funds was also intended to pay travel expenses for Swepson-Avery and Snow to present the toolkit at the 2020 International Society for Social Justice Research conference in Portugal, now postponed until 2021.
“Being able to speak our truth without fear of retaliation is one of our biggest things,” says Swepson-Avery. “Working for my people, my community, has given me strength and boldness. My community now feels empowered to talk to institutional leaders instead of being scared to ask.”
The Shift Happens toolkit will give many other communities the power and courage to find their voices as well.
“Being able to speak our truth without fear of retaliation is one of our biggest things. Working for my people, my community, has given me strength and boldness. My community now feels empowered to talk to institutional leaders instead of being scared to ask.”
Three McDowell County communities.
Dogwood Partner in:
Dogwood 2020 Funding: