A few years ago, a handful of advocates might have gathered together to discuss the issue of health equity and best practices for engaging communities of color in policy campaigns. A few weeks ago at the Health Action conference hosted by Families USA, we packed a room with advocates, foundation staff and state officials from across the country who were eager to discuss this issue and go a step further to discuss meaningful engagement of communities of color in policy change. As more and more people begin to recognize the absolute necessity of having communities of color at the table throughout each stage of policy change the advocacy community needs to ensure this change happens in a respectful, effective, and meaningful way. During the roundtable discussion moderated by Community Catalyst, the participants in the room brainstormed a list of tips for building a strong multicultural coalition and meaningfully engaging communities of color in policy change. A Lot of great ideas were shared, but here’s a “top ten” list of tips:

  1. Practice basic etiquette Practicing basic etiquette and showing respect is a good idea when working with any individual or community, but when working with communities of color, it is important to think about how you are treating individuals you are working with and how your actions will be received by different cultures. To improve cross-cultural engagement, familiarize yourself with cultural etiquette and norms specific to the communities with whom you are working.
  2. Engage beyond education  People of color are often alienated at the policy table and used or tokenized when needed in policy campaigns. In addition, some define “engagement of communities of color” to mean education and outreach. It is important to go beyond education and to include, not use, communities of color as valued partners at all levels of policy change.
  3. Support meaningful engagement in policy change It is important to support communities of color to engage in policy change and to provide individuals in these communities with the tools and assistance to engage meaningfully. However, don’t forget about or underestimate the knowledge, skills, and tools these communities bring to the table.
  4. Don’t ignore or forget to address racism  Whether it is personal, internalized, or institutionalized, racism still exists. It is important to recognize there will be some racism in the policy arena and even more important to address racism during the initial stages of bringing a group together. Touch base with each member to see how he or she feels about this topic to provide a safe space for sharing feelings and to help build each person’s comfort level and confidence to address racism.
  5. Make a commitment Engaging communities of color is not a one-time thing that is done when convenient. It is about building a strong relationship. As is true for any relationship, this will take time, and it will be a long-term commitment.
  6. Find the right messenger  Find the right messenger from the communities you are working in. Sometimes the right messenger will be a grasstops leader that has been addressing health equity for a long time. Other times the right messenger will be a grassroots leader from a local church or school.
  7. Practice team-building  Consider this process of engaging communities of color as a team-building opportunity to provide a continuing growth of understanding on the health topics related to the Affordable Care Act. Think of this engagement as a partnership where all parties contribute. As the team-building process develops during the Affordable Care Act implementation campaign, a dynamic partnership that creates a strong base for future work together will emerge.
  8. Communicate effectively  Different populations and different cultures might have different preferences or abilities for communicating. Use tools for communicating that are inclusive and accepted. Think about the communications technology you will need to use for your campaigns and how you can make this technology an accessible tool for different populations.
  9. Provide financial support  Organizations that work with communities of color often have competing priorities and are often under-resourced. Think about investing in local organizations that represent and support communities of color or help these organizations identify potential funding sources.
  10. Celebrate wins At times it feels as if there is no end in sight for health reform implementation. That’s why it is important to celebrate small milestones as well as large victories. Yes, the vision of quality, affordable health care for all is enough to keep many in this fight, but cake and balloons along the way can’t hurt.

The rich discussion at the roundtable resulted in many great tips for engaging communities of color in policy change, but we know there are many more out there. Please share other tips, strategies, materials or insight and examples in the comments. For more information and resources on health equity, visit our Health Equity webpage.

— Angela Jenkins, State Advocacy Manager, Community Catalyst and Joe Martinez, Consumer Outreach Coordinator, Health Action New Mexico