Hey, What’s that Buzzing Sound?

A buzzing sound can mean many things. When I was a kid growing up on an Iowa farm, Bumble Beea buzzing sound usually meant bees were near by…typically a scary thing since I was pretty sure they had me in their tiny stinger sights. Ah, but there are buzzing sounds that are not at all scary and indicate good things are happening. I heard one just like that last week in Buffalo, New York.

It intrigues me that I can almost immediately distinguish the type of buzzing that is happening, even before I know the source or the cause. Last week in Buffalo there was definitely a strong, positive buzzing sound. It was the buzz of genuine participation.

For the past few months I have been working with a group of volunteers in the community who have come together to see what can be done about teen pregnancy in Buffalo. Last year the community was funded through the Office of Adolescent Health (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) to replicate prevention programs and facilitate referrals to youth friendly health centers in an effort to reduce the teen pregnancy rate by 30% over the next five years. That is a tall order. The effort, known as the Buffalo Collaborative Community Initiative to Reduce Teen Pregnancy (BCC), is led by Cicatelli Associates Inc. (CAI Global). The BCC includes partnerships with key organizations and groups throughout the community, including the Erie County Department of Health, numerous community based organizations (CBOs), the faith community, and “just plain folks.”

The group, known as the Community Action Team or CAT, was originally convened about six months ago and I had my first meeting with it in December 2015. I was asked to help the group get a better understanding of its community mobilization work and how it relates to the overall project. In that meeting the group was still new and forming and there was not much to buzz about…except for just a little bit of confusion about its role. This is pretty typical for new groups in the early stages of development.

Last week I returned to Buffalo to work with the group again. This time there was a different kind of buzzing. Early in the meeting I led the group through a series of exercises that were designed to get them moving about, meeting other CAT members, and having substantive conversations with one another. There was a buzz at that time because the members really put themselves into the exercises and, yes, they were participating.

But the real buzz of participation was the one I heard after the exercises were completed, and the CAT divided into its five different “action groups” and went to work. Now, overall, the CAT has responsibility to lead effort to mobilize the community in support of the teen pregnancy prevention work. I decided to sit in with a group that was working on a survey for new and recent parenting teens. As part of their contribution to community mobilization, members felt it would be motivational for the community to know more about what it was like to be a parenting teen today compared with “back then” (10 or more years ago). Mostly I listened in to the conversation and only occasionally asked questions or offered ideas.

There was this moment when my ears and mind, though, were pulled away from my action group by a buzzing sound. The room was alive with buzzing, and not a bee was in sight. All five groups were meeting in the same large groom and the sound that had arisen in the space was the strong, positive buzzing of engaged people working together in genuine participation. Wow! What a sound! What a moment!

How is that groups come to make this kind of sound together?

I believe it happens when we, the “experts” who are often asked to lead such groups, allow it to happen. To allow it, though, we have to let people actually participate meaningfully. Meaningful participation is, in part, what I mean by genuine participation.

The temptation we often face in leading community change is to be in charge, set the agenda, make the decisions, and “demonstrate” collaboration by recruiting members to a group like the CAT, yet without really allowing them to have a meaningful role. That is, we create the appearance of community participation without actually having community participation.

Look, I know just how tempting it is to do that. We often work with tight deadlines, and too few staff, so we feel pressure to shortcut the process by convening groups and, mostly, having them “rubber stamp” our ideas and plans so we can “check the box” of community involvement for the annual report to the funder. I have observed a lot of that and research I have recently published with a colleague supports that observation. (See the contact box below to request more information on this research.) Also, frankly, I have experience doing the same darn thing…much to my embarrassment and shame.

We can do better though, right? Of course! We will know we are doing better by the kind of buzzing we hear. Listen carefully. Token participation creates a buzzing from discontent, disappointment, frustration, and irritation as people grow to feel ignored, over-ruled and used. Genuine participation generates the buzz of excitement, enthusiasm, hope, and empowerment that comes from having a meaningful role in community change. I know which kind I want to hear.

Be greater. Do good. Everyday.

Tom Klaus

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