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Collective Capacity

When it comes to community engagement, focusing efforts at the individual level can help parents advocate on behalf of their own child or support educators in shifting their personal mental models. However, these strategies place the onus for change on individuals, ignoring the impact that systems and structures have on causing and perpetuating collective challenges. 

Connecting in Community

Traditional systems change efforts are often characterized by the belief that practices that have been proven effective in one district or state can transcend time, space, and place. This belief neglects to take into account the role that relationships between staff, students, administrators, and more play in ensuring that any practice can work. Best practices in one context can be ineffective – or actively harmful – in another. As CPSC sees students, parents, and educators as the foremost experts of their experiences, efforts to design and implement change should start at the level of communities, classrooms, and schools. The following case story illustrates one school leader’s attempt to design school priorities, strategies, and traditions in partnership with community members in spite of encountering distrust early on.

Building Relational Trust Case Story:

EnCompass Academy

Principal Minh-Tram Nguyen founded Oakland’s EnCompass Academy with a commitment to building relational trust. Before the school opened, she led a door-knocking campaign to learn about local assets, priorities, and opportunities in the community while recruiting parents and caregivers to participate on a school design team. 

Principal Nguyen ensured the design team was representative of the community, though she was mindful of power imbalances that can result in marginalized groups feeling tokenized or manipulated in these situations. She incorporated a diversity of perspectives into the school’s design so that community voices were given equal influence in decision-making. The initial design process led to the school’s integration of familial and cultural knowledge into common educational frameworks, e.g. adapting the Responsive Classroom framework to feature affirming and culturally relevant traditions of poetry, song, and dance. Listen to the embedded clip to hear Principal Nguyen share more.

Click Here to Listen


Consider a time you witnessed or experienced power imbalances - across roles, ethnicities, gender, and other social identities or categories. 
How might power dynamics be negatively impacting change efforts in your school or district?
How does your school or district approach relationship-building with historically and currently marginalized groups?
How are community members in your school or district currently invited to participate in decision-making? How do you ensure that one group or voice does not take over or dominate decision-making in your school community?
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Resources to explore:

  • Design for Belonging’s Community Toolkit: A toolkit for understanding and improving belonging in your team
  • Constructivist listening: A description of constructivist listening as a strategy for engaging in intellectually demanding and emotionally challenging conversations
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