Personal contact means doing more than talking with community members simply to get their input on project activities. Whether speaking directly with project participants or community leaders, the most productive conversations are genuinely equitable, personally meaningful, and sustained over time. It also involves having someone knowledgeable and passionate about the project available to explain it, to express their passion in person, and to figure out how to reach common goals through the project.
Celebrate Urban Birds (CUBS) grew out of efforts by the Lab of Ornithology to create a citizen science project that would be of interest to and relevant to underserved communities, particularly Latino youth, caregivers, and group leaders in placed-at-risk communities. The goals of the project are primarily to achieve a more equitable representation of all audiences in participatory science. CUBS offers both extensive web-based initiatives and intensive, in-depth community work and youth development.
Staff put a lot of energy into creating a dynamic dialogue with communities so that the project would continuously be changing in response to feedback and initiatives from communities. In this way, CUBS is both a continental project and also a local project responding to and reflecting individual communities. To do this, Project Leader Karen Purcell says:
“I really believe that the best way to engage new communities is to engage in dialogue—to talk and listen. We have had lots of success partnering with community based organizations of all sorts (businesses, health care organizations, community centers, educational outreach organizations, Latino advocacy groups, churches, etc.) that are embedded in and trusted by the community. To me a true dialogue is key. And this is not easy. It takes an enormous amount of time and commitment and nobody wants to fund it because the results are hard to see. It’s important not to engage in dialogue in a patronizing way – what can WE do to HELP you… but to really engage in a conversation. The truth is that the majority of organizations we work with in underserved communities have never heard of us… and don’t care that we are The Cornell Lab of Ornithology…. Sometimes the conversation needs to happen about things that have nothing to do with the project — (Did I just spend two hours talking about our relatives in South America? The best Cuban food? Our kids? ) and to be patient. Building trust takes a lot of time and long-term commitment.”
When asked whether she can summarize how to work with organizations in underserved communities, Karen says, “No – each is different and unique.” She goes on to clarify that one of two common themes that seem to work despite of this is:
“Face time – We’ve been told many times that the best ‘resource’ we can give organizations working with underserved communities is ourselves. Face to face time. It goes back to engaging in dialogue. Listening and talking – trying to figure out what their goals are and what goals we have in common. We’ve been told that this face time is more important than funds (which comes at a close second).”