Listening in the Coastal Bend

By Tim Barr, collective impact strategy manager

"If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together." – Australian Aboriginal Collective

For years, I have really appreciated this quote because it speaks to a fundamental truth of community engagement. In the long-run, communities do not need outsiders to come offer help and salvation. At Methodist Healthcare Ministries, we believe in the power of asset-based community development (ABCD), which recognizes that each community has immeasurable resources and untapped potential.

If we hope to see communities grow healthier and stronger, the role of an outsider is not to come with answers and solutions. Instead, outsiders must listen well, especially to those who are most familiar with the challenges. Truly liberating community engagement acknowledges that we are all interconnected and that liberation only happens when there is mutual respect and trust.

Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, an organization that advances smarter grant-making practices to enable nonprofits to grow stronger and achieve better results, underscores this conviction:

Effective stakeholder engagement starts and ends with respect — respect for the expertise that those on the front lines bring to the problems affecting their community, and respect for their capacity to develop solutions if given the chance. Assessing whether stakeholder engagement strategies have truly taken hold requires a shift in our traditional approach to evaluation and learning processes and the factors that constitute success.

Methodist Healthcare Ministries' board of directors prioritized the Coastal Bend region for increased investment, including staff time, grant-making and coordination of efforts. For several months, we've been listening in Corpus Christi and the Coastal Bend regions and have conducted:

–  13 interviews with Methodist Healthcare Ministries staff (Wesley Nurses and Community Health Workers)
–  5 interviews with Methodist Healthcare Ministries funded partners
–  17 interviews with community organizations
–  7 coalition meetings

To add more detail, 23 of the 35 interviews were with people or organizations based in Corpus Christi, and the remaining 12 were in rural areas outside the city. In addition to interviews, Methodist Healthcare Ministries is also conducting research on South Texas health concerns, following health-related stories in local newspapers, and contacting chambers of commerce to learn about upcoming events. Every piece of information is an opportunity to see a bigger picture and enhance the alignment of resources, stakeholders and plans.

While Methodist Healthcare Ministries is not conducting a formal Health Impact Assessment, the same principles and practices are being followed. Consistent with the methodology of the World Health Organization, we are relying on a mixture of quantitative, qualitative and participatory techniques to understand current health disparities and illuminate large-scale choices that will improve health and well-being for the working poor throughout this region.

While this might seem like a lot of listening – and not much doing – the truth of the matter is that we are only beginning to hear and understand what might be possible. Decision making will be significantly stronger and more effective if we are both patient and purposeful – building trust with community leaders, and discerning how best to work collectively. It is critical that we hear from a diverse pool of cross-sector partners such as nonprofits, churches, funders, and government to align efforts and address complex social problems. It is particularly important that we hear from leaders who look like and are accountable to the communities they are leading.

As our work evolves in the Coastal Bend, we will continue to prioritize relationship-building, research, and alignment of resources. Listening for common concerns and hopes, we know that a strengths-based, relational approach holds the most potential for effective and long-term system change. Indeed, let us recognize how our liberation is bound up together, and let us work together to improve the health of all who live in the Coastal Bend.

Tim Barr is the Collective Impact Strategy Manger for Methodist Healthcare Ministries and he supports, develops, and facilitates collaborative efforts in the Coastal Bend region.