Michelle Obama and The Art of Community Engagement

The other night when I couldn't sleep I turned to Netflix and the wisdom of Michelle Obama. One of the many wise things she said really stood out to me "we focus too much on stats and not story". In her book she expands this "sometimes we as women miss out on good brothers because we're too busy looking at the stats and we're not looking at their story."  Whilst the second quote is on the surface about dating, I think it also applies to good community engagement. Sometimes we're so busy looking at the numbers that we lose sight of what we can learn from the reasons behind those numbers. 

Every day, with every conversation, I am learning new ways to engage with people and learn from their stories. Approaches such as the most significant change model use storytelling as an evaluation mechanism. Most significant change "is not just about collecting and reporting stories but about having processes to learn from these stories – in particular, to learn about the similarities and differences in what different groups and individuals value." In recent projects I have learnt so much from people's stories that have helped shape projects, from the recently single mother who explained "what I love about my local park is if I take the kids to the play area, they'll be another mother there I can have a chat with. Get advice from. It makes me feel less alone." This story and others like it encouraged us to explore how we could develop park based projects to address social isolation. 

Or the father who explained that "I felt left out of the conversation, it is all very focused on the mother which I understand but it left me wondering what my role was. I think it would be better if there were more groups or projects for dads. Do you know how scary it is to be the only dad at parent and toddlers group!" Which opened up a stakeholder dialogue around an approach for supporting fathers during the first 1000 days of their child's life for another project. 

COVID-19 is impacting all our lives and the stories we are sharing will be key to understanding its impact and the mythical new normal. We've been using online techniques including zoom focus groups to enable people to carry on sharing their stories during this time and the take up has been great. From the comfort of their own sofa people have been sharing with us stories on a range of subjects from parks and open spaces to support for children and families around play, health and learning.  These stories are important and will help shape the strategies that will shape their local communities.

Don't get me wrong I love a good spreadsheet, understanding demographics and questionnaire results are always important and useful mechanisms. But for me the value of a story shared cannot be under estimated.  For me good engagement is about the conversation; good engagement comes from listening .