On October 19, Conveners.org partnered with the New Mexico Health Equity Partnership (HEP) to co-host a webinar on how to effectively plan and design strengths-based, community-focused gatherings.

HEP believes that every New Mexican should have the opportunity to lead a healthy life, live in neighborhoods where children and families thrive, and have a say in the decisions that impact their lives. We break down silos by working to create critical connections among groups working towards social change — and one way we do this is through convening!

HEP’s approach to convening is reflective of its core values. During the Conveners.org webinar, we explored challenges that sometimes arise when organizing a convening, such as inaccessible meeting locations, deficit focused framing, and creating space to have difficult conversations. We followed this with a discussion of promising approaches to convening that foster community engagement and trust building, authentic dialogue around critical issues, learning, inspiration, collaboration, and strengthened leadership. The following are a set of best practices that we at HEP embrace when organizing community gatherings.

Planning and Content Design: Lifting Up Community Assets

For us at HEP, it is essential to acknowledge and leverage community knowledge when planning and designing content for our convenings. We do this through the following best practices, which were explored during the webinar:

  • Engaging community expertise: For HEP, community members are the experts. With this in mind it is essential that community representatives serve on planning committees as they know their communities best. This is important when planning for statewide and regional gatherings, particularly when we are not familiar with a particular geographical, historical or cultural context. During our dialogue, Webinar participants also suggested inviting an elder to offer an intention at the beginning of a gathering.
  • Cultivating peer learning in supportive environments: When we plan gatherings, we focus on how we can best support processes for peer learning and sharing our lived experiences. We work to create opportunities and safe spaces for first-time presenters. We recognize that serving on planning committees and presenting are great ways to build leadership, and we want to make sure participants feel prepared and comfortable. During our discussion, webinar participants suggested acknowledging uneven power dynamics upfront and utilizing shared community work agreements to ensure shared understanding of expectations and how to work together.
  • Creative agenda development: We work to be creative, flexible and adaptable with the agenda to ensure that exciting unanticipated dialogue around critical topics can emerge. We also recognize that everyone has diverse learning and communication styles, so we work to provide a variety of activities to support this.
  • Providing diverse interactive activities: We have done this by partnering with different organizations to incorporate movement into our gatherings by centering the arts. This provides different modes for learning, expression, and communication. Through movement, participants can get out of their heads, connect more fully with our mind, body and spirit to be fully present with their full selves. Along these same lines, we have found it important to center the arts in our gatherings by having paint, markers, clay, and pipe cleaners on tables for use. More recently, we had a graphic illustrator capture a critical dialogue around policy recommendations that were connected to our lived experiences. The graphic illustration at the heading of this blog is from a HEP gathering and was done by Erica Bota. We have also visited cool community artist spaces, and learned about community histories via murals and by incorporating poetry into gatherings.
  • Community site visits: In addition to incorporating interactive exercises into our gatherings, it is important for us to get outdoors and be in the community walking. We have done this by incorporating site visits into our gatherings, as well as opportunities for walks or fun runs.
  • Meeting in person: For HEP it is really important to meet in person to make connections, build relationships, develop trust and have a better understanding of geographical and cultural context.
  • Diversify gathering locations: It is critical to have meetings in different places that are not typically considered for regional and statewide convenings. This is a great way for community members to visit new places that they don’t have an understanding or context for, see the strengths of other places across regions, as well realize there common issues and innovative solutions across regions. This helps people to build connections and a sense of working together moving forward.
  • Accessibility: It is important to ensure the venue for each gathering is community-based and accessible.Local/Fair vendors: It is key to provide food from community-based organizations and work with local vendors who pay fair wages and treat their workers well.
  • Value culture traditions: It is important to value and honor cultural traditions, the arts, sharing of histories and narratives, and visits to community sites and incorporate these into our gatherings.

We would like to thank Yolanda Cruz and Ron Hale for sharing their experiences planning and designing gatherings in partnership with HEP for the health councils, as well as our partners at the Notah Begay Foundation III and Tewa Women United for participating in the dialogue and sharing effective strategies for making gatherings more community-focused.

Image Source: Graphic Illustration by Erica Bota