The Learning Conversations were imagined as a process for gauging public interest in the Memorial Fund’s work under the new mission, while discovering who exists in the equity ecosystem across the state and also gathering the community’s opinions and knowledge about what works and what doesn’t work in terms of strategic approaches and programming.
The goals were to:
- Introduce the Memorial Fund and our mission/strategic approaches to people from various walks of life across the state.
- Collect and understand different community perspectives about equity, racism and poverty.
- Learn what equity-related goals people hold for their communities and what ideas they have for reaching them, and how the mission and supporting strategic approaches do or do not support them.
- Invite constructive critique of the mission and strategic approaches.
- Begin to build new relationships and nurture existing relationships with various stakeholders from across the state.
The Learning Conversations were structured around four key areas of inquiry:
- What hopes and concerns do people hold for their children’s education and for the state of their communities?
- What long term goals flow from meaningful work on priority areas?
- Based on their shared hopes, what issues or projects would be priorities if the people were in charge? What challenges would make those priorities hard to achieve?
- Do the long terms goals align with any of the five strategic approaches currently attached to the Memorial Fund’s mission?
By using these key areas to prompt storytelling and to uncover untapped community wisdom, our hope was to avoid putting communities of color and communities living with poverty in the position of being dissected in a data mining process geared toward gathering information from disenfranchised people for the edification of a more powerful entity. Rather, the intended impact was a more relationship-based communication process with the intention of gathering community-vetted information to help develop the beginning of a plan to transfer resources and opportunities into disinvested communities.
Hundreds of people with diverse backgrounds from Bridgeport, Hartford, Middletown, New Haven, Norwich and Stamford participated in the Learning Conversations. Each community had a clear sense of their shared priorities toward achieving equity in education under the particular conditions existing in their city yet some universal themes related to the intersectionality between racism and poverty were consistent across the communities. Even though the Conversations ranged in size and atmosphere- from six youth sharing pizza in the Memorial Fund’s Community Room to a full scale, bilingual community event for more than one hundred parents at a YMCA in one of Hartford’s poorest neighborhoods.
Themes emerged across all iterations that were related to:
- equitable school funding,
- consistent curriculums/expectations for student success across communities with different resources and different racial/ethnic demographics,
- intergenerational and community-wide poverty,
- lack of economic control in the community by people of color and people living with poverty,
- housing issues that impact educational outcomes,
- teaching children of color that they have inherent value as human beings and creating positive narrative shifts about their heritage and ancestry,
- the need for high quality, sustained teacher training on racism and poverty issues, and
- the persistence of racism and racial disparities.
Across all communities, the most popular long term goals held by the participants were related to:
- creating fairly funded, more equitable schools by developing culturally relevant curricula that are affirming for poor children and children of color and also competitive with the more rigorous curricula offered at richer, whiter schools,
- developing programs to support student academic achievement and emotional/physical wellbeing,
- supporting parent relationships/communications with schools, and
- requiring equity training for teachers, principals and other authority figures who influence school systems (for example, police officers, board of education members, mayors, etc.).
The most favored strategic approaches across all communities were:
- Build assets within children’s homes, schools, neighborhoods, and society to reverse the effects of structural racism and poverty.
- Encourage healing in our society by supporting dialogue, action, policies and practices that advance racial and economic equity.
The Fund is grateful to the communities that shared their valuable stories about how they have been impacted by the intersection of racism and poverty, especially with regard to their education. The Memorial Fund continues to reflect upon the lessons gleaned from the Learning Conversations and seeks to refine its grantmaking strategies and nurture new relationships in community so that its work is better aligned with the experiences and needs of people most impacted.