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Element 1: Connect in Community

Meaningful, lasting change happens in community and is carried by trust. In this lesson, we identify key strategies for building connection, belonging, and relational trust among school and district communities.  


To put this element into action, facilitators of school and district systems change efforts should prioritize building community and growing relational trust throughout the course of the change process. This involves creating opportunities for interpersonal connections, designing shared spaces that center belonging and that invite people to bring their full selves to the work, practicing active listening, and taking action that is responsive to community interests (Valdez, Cerna, & Hashmi, 2023).


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 this case story clip to hear Principal Nguyen share more about strategies to connect in community as she and her team aimed to integrate familial and cultural knowledge into the design of EnCompass Academy.

Click Here to Listen To The Full Story

Reflection Pause 

How does your school or district approach relationship-building with historically and currently marginalized groups?
Has trust been broken with the community in previous systems-change efforts? How might your team work intentionally to acknowledge this broken trust with the community and move toward healing?
Are there opportunities for your team to engage in active listening about community members’ ideas, motivations, and experiences?
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Deep Listening Exercise

Deep listening is fundamental to connecting in community and building relational trust. Constructivist listening is a process through which observers set aside any predetermined needs or agendas to engage in deep listening about people’s experiences. This practice provides a safe, formal structure for people to engage in self-expression as well as emotional release about their experiences. The following guidelines can encourage relational trust through the simple act of listening and being listened to.


Practice these constructivist listening guidelines by finding an opportunity to listen to a student, family member, community partner, or school or district staff person about their experiences in the education system. 

  • Equal time. Each person is given equal time to talk and to listen. Because everyone deserves attention.
  • No interruption. The listener doesn’t paraphrase or interpret the talker’s thoughts or feelings, analyze, give advice or break in with a personal story. Because people are capable of solving their own problems. 
  • Confidentiality. The listener doesn’t talk about what the talker has said to anyone else, or even bring it up to the talker afterward. Because one needs to be assured of confidentiality in order to be authentic.
  • No criticism. The talker doesn’t criticize or complain about the listener or about mutual colleagues during their time to talk. Those challenges can be addressed in a different structure, based in dialogue. Because one cannot listen well when he/she is feeling attacked or defensive. 
  • Undivided attention. Don’t eat or drink, glance at your cell phone or email. Remove any other distractions. (National Equity Project, n.d.).  


Resources to Explore

Valdez, A., Cerna, R., & Hashmi, S. (2023). Participatory systems change for equity: An inquiry guide for child-, youth-, and family-serving agencies. California Center for School Climate & Center to Improve Social and Emotional Learning and School Safety. WestEd.


National Equity Project. Constructivist Listening. Adapted from Becerra, A. & Weisglass, J. (2004). Take It Up: Leading for Educational Equity. Santa Barbara: The National Coalition for Equity and Education

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