By Jessica M. Pearce, Projects Coordinator, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges
Engaging the local community to build resources has become imperative for most juvenile and family courts. With local, state, and federal resources disappearing, many courts are hoping to find help for children, youth, and families in other areas of their communities. But “community engagement” is an elusive and potentially unattainable goal. If you want to be successful in your efforts to engage your community you need to determine who you want to engage and why, then create a concrete plan with measurable goals. Here are some common-sense tips to get you started.
1) Make Community Engagement and Resource Development a Priority
Community engagement and resource development cannot happen overnight. You’ll work to build on existing relationships and create new ones, which will take time. If you’ve decided you’d like to undertake this challenge, make it a priority, and plan to spend twelve to eighteen months on the project. Conduct regular monthly meetings at which the only agenda items are community engagement and resource development.
2) Create a Community Engagement and Resource Development Team
A team approach can be helpful in identifying and cultivating new community resources. With that in mind, create a community engagement and resource development team. Your team may be an off-shoot of an already existing steering committee or development group, but make sure that your team works exclusively on the task of community outreach and resource development. Be sure to include court staff who are interested in community engagement – they are usually the people that are already involved in engaging the community as individuals (i.e., belong to a civic organization, volunteer at the local animal shelter, etc).
3) Establish Measurable Goals and Objectives
Once you’ve put together your team, spend time during first meeting or two to decide on a group vision and determine goals. Many courts have been successful using the SMART method (See Wikipedia for one explanation of SMART).
SMART goals are
- Relevant, and
Below are some samples:
- Invite at least one new community contact to each of our community outreach and resource development meetings in the months of October, November, and December.
- Over the next three months, develop an incentive program for staff at the juvenile court and social services for either identifying or outreaching to a new community linkage.
4) Inventory Your Needs
There is nothing more frustrating in community engagement and resource development than creating a new linkage and finding that you’re not ready to use their services. This can damage the newly developed relationship and can make your new linkage wary of working with the court. So, first take an inventory of needs. Survey staff and the children, youth, and families who are coming to court to find out what services they need. Ask your veteran staff about programs that existed in the past, but may have been eliminated due to budget cuts. Use the Community Map on the NCJFCJ website to create a wish list for programs under each of the different domains. For example, under the domain of education, you may want to find tutoring services and GED programs.
5) Inventory Your Community Resources
Your community is not one single entity but rather a collection of different domains, each with their own resources, goals, and concerns. The Community Map is a great visual tool to help your team identify all of the different domains in the community and begin to create a list of specific programs within each domain that may be helpful to children, youth, and families involved in the court system. As you explore the resources in your community, try to find not only natural allies, but also seek out community groups and members that share the court’s concerns; they can become excellent allies in systems change. Here’s a tip: use the local Yellow Pages or a similar directory – a compendium of community resources! Once you’ve created a list of the local programs within each domain, match up your wishes and needs with the different groups that could be approached about partnering with the team.
6) Develop Marketing Tools
It will be helpful to first identify existing services, organizations, groups, and individuals who have an investment in the same outcomes you are seeking to achieve. Determine who wants to reach out to the population of children, youth, and families you are planning to serve. Build on areas of common interest to create marketing materials. Marketing materials should include the team’s vision; an overview of the children, youth, and families; and a brief overview of some of the things these court users need (i.e., housing, tutoring, transportation assistance, etc).
7) Engage Your Community
Once the team is formed, measurable goals have been developed, needs and wishes have been inventoried, and marketing materials have been crafted, you and your team are ready to engage the community. Continue working with your team to determine the best path to collaboration, to making existing connections work better, and to finding new partnerships. Here are some strategies that have been successful for other courts:
- exploring existing partnerships to see if there are new ways for you to collaborate
- look to your “sister” systems (social services, probation, etc) to find ways to share resources
- host a roundtable meeting with community leaders to discuss your areas of mutual interest
- reach out to universities, United Way organizations, and other entities whose business is to gather information about resources, create directories, and conduct research
It is no coincidence that a synonym for community is kinship. In the end successful community engagement is based on relationships. Work to form a cooperative spirit among those with whom you wish to collaborate.