Insight: Building a Community Engagement Strategy for San José
By: Beatriz Aldereguia, Christopher Maximos, & Insha Momin
Christopher Maximos (Stanford ‘23) represented our summer community engagement fellows (Beatriz Aldereguia, MIT Sloan ’22; Insha Momin, Georgetown ‘23) in a recent presentation to Cities for Digital Rights (CC4DR), a global network of over 50 cities committed to promoting and defending digital rights. Members meet regularly to collaborate and learn from each other — we were honored to be invited to share our knowledge and engage with motivated civic leaders around the world.
The best policy analyses integrate the quantitative and qualitative to develop a holistic picture. Simply put, no amount of program data can compensate for the perspectives of community members.
This summer, our community engagement team was tasked with building up a community outreach arm for the City’s data equity initiative from scratch. Our three-person team brought backgrounds in strategic communications, education policy, social impact, and data analysis. Leveraging our skill sets, we built relationships with community stakeholders in San José and set the path for policy changes for the City’s programs — informed by community feedback.
In mid-June, we piloted our community engagement strategy with the San José Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services (PRNS) department’s Citywide Scholarship Program, data equity’s most mature project to date. PRNS offers financial help for low-income families in the form of scholarships to ensure that all residents have access to their programs, classes, and activities in community centers. Our outreach focused on scholarships that provide childcare subsidies for after school programs and summer camps.
Data equity’s analysis of the distribution for these scholarships over the last decade indicated that the program has both strengths and challenges, revealing improved retention of scholarship recipients over the past few years but also highlighting unequal allocation of scholarships across family size, geography, and income. Our engagement campaign sought to share our findings with stakeholders in San José and hear their perspectives on the quality of PRNS’ programs. We believed that these qualitative insights from residents who access City services every day would help us — and the City Departments we partner with — tackle blind spots in our technical analyses and facilitate solutions to reduce equity gaps in scholarship distribution.
Since launching our work in June 2021, our team has reached over 300 community partners and scheduled over 50 meetings, held three 90-minute virtual roundtables with more than 20 key community stakeholders, and distributed a survey in six languages through our community partners’ existing networks.
Identifying Partners and Making Contact
Our community engagement team came into this work recognizing that the voices of residents who rely on City services most are not always represented in City Hall. As we developed a list of partners who should learn about our work, we first turned to peer departments who had existing relationships with community stakeholders. But we also set out to alter the status quo, spending our first week doing extensive research to identify partner organizations who were not in the City’s contact list, yet served a critical role in supporting the diverse communities that call San José home.
We focused our outreach in five key groups:
- Peer youth programs and education administrators from the school to the district level who often hear directly from parents about the struggles of securing childcare
- Family resource centers
- Culturally-based community organizations
- Houses of worship like churches, synagogues, and mosques, all of which serve as critical resource hubs for families in financial need.
Community outreach experts shared with us that we could best make contact by reaching out to the leadership of these organizations, requesting a short meeting to tell them about our work and to bring them into the fold. Brevity here was key, since these stakeholders are often stretched in resources and time — and may be less receptive to a larger request. We sent out emails asking for no more than 10 or 15 minutes of their time. Within two weeks, we had over 50 meetings scheduled.
Engaging with Data
Following our email contact, we met individually with community organizations to introduce them to our data findings and to hear their reactions to the challenges we had identified. Our team put significant work into the content of these presentations. Before our arrival, the data equity team had only presented its work to more technocratic audiences: data scientists, academics, and decision-makers who engage with programs and services from a policy lens. We knew that for our presentation to be the most compelling to partners, it needed to be reframed for a mainstream audience.
We started off by changing the way we spoke about the work. We created a talking points library that laid out compelling and clear messaging about data equity, our partnership with PRNS, how the scholarship program worked and what it offered, and the findings from our scholarship distribution analyses. These talking points served as the basis for a quick seven to eight minute presentation we then shared with community stakeholders, with the remainder of our meeting going to their feedback, suggestions, and questions.
We quickly learned that leaders had different priorities and comfort with data and the content of our work. This motivated us to be flexible and nimble in how we conveyed our message. Despite relying on the same presentation, we adapted our language and customized talking points based on the audience we spoke with. We dove into numbers on federal poverty and income eligibility guidelines in one call and heard the personal experiences of a parent in another. We also adjusted to account for comfort with technology, learning to forgo our powerpoint for partners who preferred the phone to Zoom, or simply wanted a more conversational meeting.
Most important to our process, however, was ensuring that our newly formed relationship with partners would translate into tangible results and ongoing partnerships. Our community stakeholders made this easy for us. Through our conversations, they were always ready with valuable insights about childcare — sharing not only problems and concerns, but also offering solutions that would help lessen barriers to access for these programs. Partners enthusiastically gave ideas on areas ranging from literacy barriers to application reform to transportation, and our team developed a tracker to keep a record of this feedback and proposals. After each call we followed up with our partners to re-share our presentation, recap our discussion, and lay out next steps each of us had committed to.
Bringing Community Voices to City Hall
Our next step was to create a space where community partners could voice their thoughts directly to PRNS. Every one of the community partners we met showed interest in attending a roundtable. We sent out a Google Form to assess availability and choose convening times, and partners were able to RSVP using Calendly. Then, we facilitated three roundtables over Zoom with these organizations’ leaders and department employees to assess policy changes.
Each of our roundtables reviewed five issues that were repeatedly mentioned in our individual conversations with partners: scholarship marketing, the application process, the financial structure of scholarships, transportation access, and these organizations’ individual relationships with Parks & Recreation. We developed guiding questions for each of these issues that asked partners to consider both concrete fixes that had been previously proposed in the individual meetings and PRNS’ logistical constraints. This approach allowed participants to freely contribute to the conversation in the areas most relevant to them, while maintaining a solutions focus.
In total, our roundtable conversations brought together twenty partners from educational, faith-based, and culturally-affiliated organizations across San José. Each session was incredibly dynamic and rich with information. Some community partners shared personal stories with PRNS affirming their opinions on different policy proposals, while others offered specific leads and advice to make solutions implementable. These conversations perfectly embodied the “community spirit” of our engagement aims. Each session united partners with different perspectives and interests to forge solutions that would make Citywide Scholarships more accessible, efficient, and responsive to the needs of San José families.
Additionally, we gathered direct feedback from parents familiar with childcare programs. Our team developed a twelve question digital Qualtrics survey — mostly multiple choice questions with the option of some write-in answers — that we distributed to stakeholders to share with their community. We asked about the challenges they face in accessing childcare and addressed the same key policy areas that we had reviewed in our roundtables. The survey was translated into Spanish, Vietnamese, Traditional Chinese, Punjabi, and Korean by members on the data equity team and people in our network. We thought this survey would offer parents an opportunity to provide candid feedback on their experiences with childcare to help shape scholarship changes.
When our team first launched its community engagement efforts, our main goal was to bring the findings of our work to the community. After all, information about how government can do better should not stay within City Hall; it also belongs to our residents. We were heartened to see that the community didn’t just want to learn, but wanted to take action: giving us 16 tangible policy proposals and actionable solutions to make PRNS programming accessible to the San José residents who need them most. The proposals ranged from allocating scholarships directly to community organizations to increasing the department’s presence at community events. Our team has presented these proposals to department leadership and the Mayor, and look forward to our colleagues integrating these solutions into the scholarship program.
Building this community engagement arm from the ground up — from design to execution — has been a challenging, yet rewarding, experience. Our work is a stepping stone for subsequent MOTI projects to engage the community in advancing equity in San José. Forging strong, collaborative relationships helps solidify trust with often overlooked communities, and we hope that we can continue to engage in conversations with the people we are here to serve.
Illustration by Taylor Dubose, San José-based designer and illustrator.