This month, we return to our series of tips and advice we’ve gathered in over a decade of New Orleans-based cultural organizing and advocacy. For this second edition, here are some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from nearly seven years of doing community engagement work for the organization. So what exactly is community engagement? Some people call it “outreach,” while others describe it as “community organizing.” Whether it’s the way an ordinance can potentially affect a specific group of cultural community members, or helping our city’s busking community develop a working knowledge of the laws that govern their cultural and artistic expression, it’s always been about how to provide the most accurate, clear, and concise information to arguably the most overworked and underpaid laborers in our city.
NEVER Over Promise & Under Deliver
In this line of work, your word is everything. It’s how you build trust and deepen relationships with the community members you serve. One of the reasons MaCCNO was initially created was to provide clarity and demystify various policies due to the spread of unfortunate misinformation and half-truths. With the way word travels around New Orleans (six degrees of separation is nonexistent here) you get one shot (no Marshall Mathers) to do right by somebody. If you’ve said that you can make something happen for them, the absolute worst thing you can do is not follow through, thus losing all legitimacy. People would rather you tell them what you can do than promise them the world, followed by radio silence after you missed the mark. Let’s be honest, we’re all holding and balancing a lot these days. It’s important to know your limitations and be transparent with the people you’re attempting to help and advocate for. They rarely need a savior, just someone who’s truthful, listening, and reliable.
The Importance of Active Listening
Listening is a lost art—unfortunately there’s not much of it taking place during this age of viral hits, misinformation, and comment section mudslinging. Both on and offline, it feels like we as a society are talking at and not to each other. Active listening requires you to cut through that tension and focus more on comprehension than your response. This can be achieved by asking open-ended questions—which begin with these types of phrases: tell me more about…, describe to me…, can you explain…, etc.—and also reflecting what someone may be feeling back to them to learn more details about what they’re experiencing. For example, if a person states, “Being a musician looks like it’s all glitz and glam, but it’s a lot of hard work. I have to book all of my own gigs, schedule rehearsals, promote these shows, and then actually perform!” A reflection might be: “It sounds like you’re feeling overwhelmed with the day-to-day operations of being a musician, and possibly feel under-appreciated for all of your hard work to make your shows a success; did I get that right (don’t forget the check-in phrase)?” These skills have paid dividends for me within my role (shoutout to Community Mediation Maryland)!
Extend Grace, Exude Empathy
One of the first things we learn as mediators is to be “our most humble selves” or “like Columbo” as our trainer would say. Though I’ve never been a fan of the old-school detective shows, all of those years watching the trenchcoat-clad Peter Falk with my grandmother paid off. When mediating, we use humility to learn more about the situation that brought people to the table. This same approach can be applied when learning more about and listening to the lived experiences of marginalized and vulnerable community members. As I said earlier, we’re all dealing with a lot during these unprecedented times. Allowing folks to be their truest and most authentic selves in a conversation sans judgment and criticism will help you assess the type of assistance they need and get them to open up to you. Regardless of your level of expertise, the degrees you’ve acquired, and what you think, no one likes a know-it-all. This is your time to really work on being your most compassionate self and allowing others to see that as well.
You’re Only as Good as Your Rolodex
I’ve lost count of the amount of cold calls I’ve made that began with the shortest and most frigid of responses from cultural community members ending with several minutes of small talk and an invitation to an upcoming event, gig, or performance and ultimately, a new connection made. This is because as much as New Orleans is a city firmly cemented in the importance of place, in many ways, it’s also one built on people. Those tundra-like conditions swiftly melt away when simply mentioning not how I got that person’s number but who I got it from. Those connections (folks I refer to as “community levers”) are invaluable because they provide a point of access for the community they represent and in this instance, give me, the work I do, and MaCCNO as an organization credibility.
Contingency, Contingency, Did I Say “Contingency?”
It’s corny as hell, but the five P’s (proper preparation prevents poor performance) reign supreme and will never let you down. Despite your best efforts to dot every i and cross every t, Murphy’s Law is bound to make an appearance at some point. This is where those P’s show up to decrease any stress or anxiety you may feel, and put your back-up plan into action. The venue’s DJ equipment not working for the event you painstakingly curated? Don’t forget about your aux cord and playlist you made just in case. Someone being disruptive during your hybrid teach-in? You asked a colleague to be an online moderator if things got a bit spicy in the chat. You can never have too many back-ups. It’s a good practice to explore multiple scenarios to see how you can adapt and adjust to your surroundings. Continuously flexing that muscle will help you panic less and allow you to pivot with confidence when needed. Slightly overkill, but I sometimes develop a contingency for my original contingency.
Community engagement is so much more than flyering some public spaces and hoping people read it. To a degree, it can be achieved online, but is way more effective in person. This work is relationship building; it’s the creation of an interdependent network that can yield results through collective action; it’s solidarity. So what have we learned?
- Don’t talk about it, be about it. And when that fails, be clear with others about your capabilities.
- Listening and hearing are two very different actions. Knowing the difference and implementing the former will serve you immensely.
- Everyone’s going through something, even you. It’s important to be patient with one’s self and others.
- Certainly in New Orleans, it’s not what you know but who you know. Make those connections, foster them, and lean on them when the time is right.
- Plotting, planning, and strategizing is the name of the game. Never be too cool to have a back-up plan. It’ll likely save you several grays in the future.
In the end, community engagement is only real if you keep it real with the people you’re serving.
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The Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO) is a broad-based coalition and registered 501c3 non-profit corporation that collaborates with, organizes, and empowers the New Orleans music and cultural community to preserve and nurture the city’s culture, to translate community vision into policy change, and to create positive economic impact.
This space is provided to MaCCNO as a community service and does not necessarily reflect the opinions or editorial policies of ANTIGRAVITY.