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Community Building Lessons from BME

December 22, 2011

Roughly a year ago, we started working with Knight Foundation to engage and empower young black males who are working to better their communities. We recently piloted the effort, called BME (Black Male Engagement), in Detroit and Philadelphia utilizing an identity-building methodology. Having learned a ton along the way, we thought we’d share some insights.
1. Learn from the Masters: We are big fans of the Marshall Ganz school of community organizing, and often reference his simple methodology that leverages individual storytelling as a powerful tool for forging relationships.
2. Listen to the Community: We spent weeks (and subsequent months) listening to the stories of black males in Philadelphia and Detroit in order to design a program that met their needs. Often called “human centered design,” this form of research puts the community at the forefront, designing for the ‘who,’ not the ‘what.’
3. Make it Local: When we launched the storytelling challenge, we went hyper local. The website was there as a central convener of information but could not replace face-to-face contact. Ultimately, it was the personal efforts of Knight Foundation directors Donna Firsbee Greenwood and Rishi Jaitly, along with our street teams, that engaged the community.
4. Design for Action: While we love Ganz’s model, we found it lacking when it came to sustaining community action. So we added activities like networking events, grant opportunities and collaborative projects to keep the community fire stoked.
5. Listen More: A community requires constant listening. You can’t just tune in during the design period and assume the conversation never changes. By keeping a constant ear to the ground, we not only learned a lot but developed unexpected and powerful partnerships.

These are just five of the literally dozens of lessons we’ve gleaned over the past year. Most central is that we found a way to leverage both established models (like Ganz) and the real experts: the community members themselves. To do so required building long-term relationships that went well beyond school visits or hour-long interviews. Luckily, Knight Foundation not only supported us but challenged us to deliver real results.

BME is just in its first year, but based on the thousands who have already joined, we think it’s here to stay.

image source: Andrew Potter

Community Building Lessons from BME

Charlie Brown

CEO & Founder

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