Challenges to successfully engaging underrepresented communities may be found anywhere. Project administrators must strive to become aware of and work to address their own organizational constraints. Care must also be taken to become aware of context specific barriers or constraints that can be uncovered through community partnerships and open discussion with communities.
Using the languages spoken at home by participants and building awareness of and confidence with project activities and their requirements may be essential for successful partnerships. However, there is also a need to understand family work time constraints so that activities and meetings can be scheduled at convenient times. Access to computers with internet access may also be needed, not only to submit and work with data, but to facilitate communication between and among participants, partnering leaders and organizations, and PPSR project staff. There is a need for means of transportation to and from wherever the project may need participants and their families to travel to. Varying degrees of participant literacy, family stress, financial constraints, and immigration status may all pose challenges to participation.
Focused on citizen participation in conservation advocacy and watershed stewardship, Tualatin Riverkeepers engages hundreds of people annually in recreation and volunteer programs. Founded by local scientists and environmental advocates, Riverkeepers joined the Waterkeeper Alliance, a larger association of environmental organizations with the mission of having all rivers protected by a ‘keeper.’ It was important for Tualatin Riverkeepers to keep its name plural to indicate that there can be many ‘keepers.’ That existing desire for inclusion led Riverkeepers to reach out to the growing local Latino community after realizing that the population served by its programs was not changing along with the cultural profile of the Tualatin River watershed. Riverkeepers had not been able to engage Latinos successfully; beyond the occasional volunteer and event participation, the community was not seeking out additional leadership or volunteer opportunities within the organization.
Tualatin Riverkeepers recognized the lack of diversity among its participants, and worked to identify the underlying reasons for it. The Center for Diversity and the Environment helped Riverkeepers understand why Latino community members were not seeking out the program. There was also a need to examine internal systems that were barriers to engaging communities of color. Some staff and board members were initially resistant, expressing misguided ideas: that anyone interested in conservation and volunteering would actively seek out Riverkeepers, and that people living in communities of color don’t have time to volunteer, as a result of their low socio-economic status. Riverkeepers and the Center for Diversity and the Environment provided training for all staff and board members to dispel these myths, and charted an organizational course for intentional diversity, equity, and inclusion. Evaluation continued after Latino engagement improved, focusing on new relationships and programs, and quantitative assessment of participation. With a new understanding of the challenges facing underserved communities and a set of skills for building relationships with those communities, Tualatin Riverkeepers began to rebuild relationships based on shared values.