Sunday, September 14, 2014

Consulting with Community Partners, Part 1

Working at my dining room table today.
by Ann Abbott

When you hear the word "consulting," you might think of business suits, first-class flights, briefcases and PowerPoint presentations.

But when you do community service learning, consulting with your community partners usually looks very different. It might be:

  • Chatting about a project when you run into each other picking up your kids from the same art class their kids go to.
  • Showing solidarity when you show up at the same march and march a couple of miles in a cold, hard rain together.
  • Liking and commenting on the information they share on Facebook. Even personal information. It has been heartwarming this year for me to witness one of my community partners fall in love via the pictures she has posted.
  • Hosting a bridal shower for a friend who is friends with one of your community partners and so you get to talk to her and celebrate the bride-to-be at the same time. 
  • Staying abreast of activities, problems and celebrations in the community through a Facebook group that one of the community partners formed.
This weekend, consulting with my community partners has looked like this:

Via private messages, one community partner asked me for information about who to contact at the university to inquire about a Dreamer's tuition. All of a sudden the university switched the student's status to an international student...with much higher tuition. I tried to think of the people on campus to contact, but I'll also try to move things myself if the community partner doesn't get very far her/himself.

In another private message, a different community partner asked me a few questions about a service recipient that she and others in town are working to help. I won't go into details on this public forum, but suffice it to say that it is a story of someone who is panicked, confused, desperate and totally reliant on the grace of strangers. And you know what? That could happen to any of us. (Although most people probably think it won't. Not really.) Some of the questions were about housing, employment and legal assistance. I only wish I could have done more.

I spoke on the phone with another community partner. We talked about technology issues, information issues, and as usually happens, those issues are tied very tightly to organizational issues. In other words, when you start asking questions about, let's say, a website, you quickly find that the answers lead you to more questions, often unanswered, about an organization's mission, staff, turnover, resources, trust, and more. I am always sorry when I am asked a direct question and cannot give a direct answer! But sometimes it takes an outsider's eye to see that we're not ready to ask that final, definitive question yet. I'll write another post about this with more detail.

What do your relationships with your community partners look like? What do you talk about? Do you provide more to them than just students? Do you interact with them even when you're off duty? Or do you find it important to draw lines around your time? I'd love to hear from you.

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