Connecting with community

Over the summer we hosted a series of focus groups to help us create our new vision and strategic plan for 2015 and 2016.

Sixty-two people from throughout Kalamazoo County participated in one of eight 90-minute sessions held in four locations: Edison neighborhood, Portage, downtown Kalamazoo, and Texas Township. Seven were conducted in English, while one was in Spanish with simultaneous translation. Participants were diverse in zip code, age, gender, sexual orientation/gender identity/expression, role, socio-
economic level, profession, race/ethnicity and religion.

While 80 percent of the people we invited knew about the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, 20 percent had no prior knowledge of our organization. We used an outside facilitator to ensure people would feel comfortable sharing their feelings and ideas. None of the feedback captured was associated with anyone’s name.

Each discussion touched on what it takes for people to lead healthy and successful lives, and what the community and individual people are doing toward this end. Responses were clustered around these key themes: open dialogue around tough issues; bold community leadership; clear, results-focused direction; the importance of asking for feedback; and transparency.

We also learned the importance of building public support for increasing equity. Participants identified these barriers to equity: lack of knowledge, lack of urgency by those who are unaffected, entrenched leaders and tired activists, risk aversion by the Community Foundation and other leaders, and lack of effective advocacy. These comments present us with a number of opportunities, such as: supporting community-wide learning, goal setting, and planning; providing training and policy advocacy; creating a sense of urgency and offering opportunities for people to talk and build trust; and developing new, diverse leaders. 

To conclude each session, our facilitator asked everyone to pretend it was the year 2024, and to share how they thought Kalamazoo County would be  different if the community has worked to ensure everyone can live a healthy and successful life. Most agreed there would be fewer people affected by poverty, homelessness and other challenges; there would be new leaders, new ideas and new ways of working to improve conditions; and there would be an open community dialogue about issues like racism.

Thanks to the people who participated, we were able to craft a new vision and focused goals on making life in Kalamazoo County better for all. 

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