From Forest Grove to Phoenix-Talent, What Does Authentic Community Engagement Look Like?

State, school district, and community leaders explore the power and practice of community engagement at the 2022 Oregon School Boards Association annual convention.

Scott Nine, Dr. Shay James, Evelin Gonzalez, and Brent Barry speak at the 2022 Oregon School Boards Association annual convention.
Scott Nine, Dr. Shay James, Evelin Gonzalez, and Brent Barry speak at the 2022 Oregon School Boards Association annual convention.

Communities elect school boards to solve complex problems—and school boards can’t solve complex problems without engaging youth and families who experience firsthand the strengths and shortcomings of Oregon schools.

So what does authentic community engagement actually look like in practice across Oregon?  How does inclusive decision-making help school districts create equitable policies and budgets that support all students? And why are community partnerships essential to creating rigorous learning environments where every student feels like they belong?

A panel of state, school district, and community leaders explored these questions in a conversation hosted by Foundations for a Better Oregon at the 2022 Oregon School Boards Association annual convention in Portland. The conversation was moderated by Janet Soto Rodriguez, FBO’s Deputy Director.

Community engagement is “a journey that doesn’t necessarily have an end game; it's always a process to connect with your community,” said Brent Barry, Superintendent of Phoenix-Talent School District. “It comes down to making sure all the voices in your community are heard and ensuring decisions are driven by what you're hearing from your entire community—not necessarily just those who show up to public comment or listening sessions.”

To move beyond traditional public comment, Superintendent Barry described how Phoenix-Talent School District decision-makers challenged themselves to engage local community members in more informal ways, like attending school athletic events or setting up a booth at a community event in a local park. These opportunities help school board members and district administrators better see and understand key themes about what community members would like to see in their schools. “It’s less threatening, it's conversation, and it's really about relationships,” he explained.

Dr. Shay James, who serves as Superintendent of North Clackamas School District, agreed. “One of the things that our board discovered is that we didn't have a way for our community to share what was important with us outside of public comment,” she said. “So then we wonder why the public comments get so tense.”

More authentic models of community engagement are committed to “really listening to what our community is saying and asking for—their goals and their dreams,” said Evelin Gonzalez, the Family Engagement Manager for Adelante Mujeres, a culturally specific nonprofit organization based in Forest Grove serving Latina youth. “Instead of presenting community members with the easy answer,” she explained, authentic engagement actually requires “working together with them, empowering them, guiding them, and then letting them be free to reach those goals.”

When school boards embrace this vision of authentic community engagement, it becomes embedded in school district practice. “Every single time I bring something to my board, I can count on the questions that they're going to ask me: Who's whose voice was heard? Who was at the table? And can you tell us about student voice?” said Superintendent James. “It keeps us accountable to what we say is important to us, to our core values, and to our strategic plan.”

School districts like North Clackamas and Phoenix-Talent model an approach to community engagement rooted in a sense of responsibility, purpose, and obligation. “If school districts are experiencing community engagement as a checkmark, we’re doing something wrong,” said Scott Nine, an assistant superintendent at the Oregon Department of Education, reflecting on how local districts are implementing community engagement requirements in the Student Success Act.

Practicing authentic community engagement, however, requires exactly that: practice. Community engagement processes will naturally and inevitably encounter disagreement, and school districts must be prepared to “skillfully disappoint” community members through trusting relationships and transparent communication, said Nine. “A big part of authentic engagement is knowing what promises you're making, how you're going to keep them, and how you're clear with the community about what you're not able to do.”

And at a time when tensions run especially high in fractured communities, school district leaders need to learn how to “create the conditions for everyone to hear each other,” explained Nine. Those skills haven’t necessarily been expected of education leaders before, nor are they mastered overnight. 

Even as Oregon learns to practice authentic community engagement in a polarized era, FBO Deputy Director Janet Soto Rodriguez pointed toward a hopeful starting point. “We all have the skills within us to build connections and relationships, because part of our human wiring is the need to belong,” she said. “It's about how you tap into that ember and cultivate those skills, because it is a practice.”