Translating Life-Giving Cohorts into the Virtual Realm


Lessons and Learnings from Tapping the Potential of Community Engagement 2021

Amid the global pandemic, the climate crisis, and the on-going reckoning with racism at all levels, everyone is doing the best they can to navigate all the things. It’s been a trip. At the Nexus Community Engagement Institute (NCEI), we have been working hard with our community to adapt our work to be joyful, life-giving, and impactful in a virtual space, amidst all that is happening.

In 2021, we hosted our second online training for Tapping the Potential of Community Engagement, an introduction to the Field of Community Engagement. Contending with Zoom fatigue on top of all these on-going crises, we weren’t sure what participants would walk away with. Turns out, folks learned a lot. And we did too.

We wanted to pause and offer some of our reflections from this year’s cohort to other comrades in the movement trying to host each other in this socially distanced reality.


Before we share these reflections, we wanted to take time to share our context. Right now, NCEI is exploring what it means to do our work in this moment, and in this ecosystem of people, communities, and organizations doing the work. Taking our lessons from the natural world, dandelions have been particularly resonant with us. They help new plants grow by enriching the soil with nutrients, by pulling out toxins, and by loosening up soil structure.

At NCEI, we are trying embrace our role as dandelions. How do we build deep roots and networks of community care while also helping community authorship, leadership and ownership take root within systems? 

One way we do this is through our annual training series, Tapping the Potential of Community Engagement. Our goal is to provide space for folks to explore how culture, healing, history, identity, power, relationships and trust impact community engagement, as well as how they are strengthened through authentic engagement processes (see our Impacts Model here).

Tapping the Potential 2021 

From the beginning, this iteration of Tapping the Potential felt different. On average, the cohort self-identified as more experienced in communinty engagement than any cohort we hosted before.* Based on past feedback, we also added a fifth, 3-hour session to explore culture change more explicitly, bringing us to a total of 15 Zoom session hours. 

We weren’t sure what to expect—would participants come back after the first session? What would they takeaway? In the end, not only did we retain 95% of the cohort for the duration of the series, but participants also named some powerful learnings and desire to continue pausing for reflection and healing. 

Relationships and healing at the center 

What we learned is that people trying to engage community right now are thirsty to be together. They are committed to pushing systems to do better, but are dedicated to taking care of themselves, to slowing down for self-preservation and their health. Participants named their desire for pause, space for reflection, for healing, and for connection.

  • “I feel emboldened by the series to stand firm in the approach my team takes to community engagement.” 
  • “Dominant culture/white supremacy is still here, and [I’m learning] how that shows up in myself and the work; healing through community engagement.” 
  • “I plan on building in more time to reset, reflect and repair. Take tips from Pleasure Activism and other healing. I often go 100 MPH and actually even though I am in a good space…I need boundaries and time to slow down…” 

Value the process as much as the outcomes

In community engagement, we’ve always known that how we do our work is as important—if not more important—than what we do in our work. For our online programming, that principle remains as true as ever. It has been vital that we take time in trainings to build relationships; that we break up Zoom meetings with time for small groups and individual activities; that we dig into deep personal and group reflection; and that we still ‘read the room’ and scrap the agenda at times to make space for emerging needs. 

Participants confirmed this for us:

  • “This series created/modeled an experience for me that I want to replicate. I want to shift to focusing on the inner circle of the community engagement model.”
  • “The importance of the ‘invitation’ and of ‘presence.’ The way your team used technology and adapted practices in real time was very thoughtful and wise. Maybe the truest expression of the values we discussed.”
  • “When applying for grants, we will focus more on relationship building as a key goal/outcome.”

Embed body movement and story-telling

This year, we took another step towards integrating movement and playfulness into our sessions by mailing participants an interactive Playbook and a fidget spinner. The playbook was designed to spark the deeper dialog that community engagement requires through coloring sheets, stretching activities, I Am Poems, reflection questions, and more. Being vulnerable, speaking truth, and learning from each other’s stories to help complicate our own world view.

  • “I feel like I learned so much about how to hold space as well as the content…the most important thing I learned is to let go of the idea of ‘knowing’ as a goal and more deeply accepted my place at the start of a powerful journey.” 
  • “The biggest takeaway was how the series modeled the main takeaway that I think you intended, which was focusing on the inner circle of community engagement and letting anything from the outer circle flow from there.” Learn more about our impact model here. 

Life-giving spaces

There were many other take-aways shared by participants – deeper self-awareness, greater understanding of how community engagement and equity are linked, tools for how to move from outreach toward engagement, stories of successful engagement practices, and more.

But what stood out most to us was that hosting cohort experiences online can still be life-giving. By intentionally crafting our space and time, we could create opportunities to build relationships, to embrace many ways of thinking and learning, and to let stories and healing to emerge.

It’s always an honor to host cohort experiences with brilliant and powerful community members – this is why we love community engagement. We learned a lot from the participants in Tapping the Potential this year, and we’re excited to continue deepening our work together moving forward.

Stay tuned for the re-launching of the Engaged Learning Series this May, and for registration for the 2022 Tapping the Potential series this fall! For more information, email us at

*82% of participants in Tapping the Potential 2021 identified as “advanced” or “intermediate” in community engagement experience, compared to 73% in 2020, and 51% in 2019.

These past few years have been hard. As we navigated the hardships of transitioning to online trainings starting in 2020, the team at the Nexus Community Engagement Institute (NCEI) longed for ways to connect to community and share a little bit of us with those we hold so dear despite being physically apart.

When we were in physical space with each other, we invited people to bring their full-selves, we engaged senses and centered wellness and joy, surrounding participants with food, music, people, toys, coloring sheets, and more throughout the sessions. There was something special about being present with community members—giving hugs, sharing stories, laughs, and food together.

It was challenging to transfer that beauty to online sessions, whether we were hosting, attending or facilitating. We longed to and needed to engage and welcome our whole selves and bodies in our training spaces.

After hosting our first online Tapping the Potential of Community Engagement series in 2020, the NCEI team and co-facilitator Nicque Mabrey brainstormed ways we could host virtual trainings while engaging with our bodies in the ways we did when hosting the series in-person. From this desire emerged the idea of creating our Playbook!

What is the Playbook?

Designed by Nexus Communications Manager, Elly Fireside-Ostergaard, the Tapping the Potential of Community Engagement Playbook is intended to be another resource for people to learn about community engagement while interacting with music, dance, body stretches, coloring, and reflection questions. While enjoying the Playbook, we invite you to connect with your inner child that embraces messiness, goofiness, and joy.

Who is this for?

The Playbook was made for participants in the Tapping the Potential of Community Engagement series to follow along the curriculum but is also a resource for any community members looking to engage in fun activities and community engagement practices and principles from home.

Check it out!

We encourage you to print the Playbook, use its resources, and ignite your inner playfulness as we continue to move through this global pandemic and remain connected to each other and our joy!

Download the Playbook here!

Read or print blog as a PDF

At Nexus, we believe that community engagement is central to ushering out the rigged rules, attitudes, and practices that concentrate wealth and power in fewer and whiter hands, and ushering in ways of living, working, and making decisions together that nourish communities for this generation and generations to come.

The Nexus Community Engagement Institute (NCEI) is committed to establishing beloved communities by co-creating transformation and healing through community engagement. NCEI cultivates our community engagement practices with community through three main bodies of work, which we call growing, gathering and harvesting.

As for many others, 2020 brought for us transition, heartache, anger, deeper community love, care, and transformation into new ways of thinking and living into our mission. Within NCEI, this included an explicit, reinvigorated determination to restore power to the people and communities who continue to be harmed by the legacy of cultural genocide, colonization, enslavement, white supremacy, toxic patriarchy, and other systems of oppression. Communities, particularly those directly harmed by oppressive systems, have the right to self-determination and to enjoy full participation in any society.

New Pathways: Where we’ve come and where we’re headed

NCEI honors what has come before, and what is yet to come through broad engagement and co-creation with people doing community engagement on-the-ground. Since 2016, NCEI has been advancing and strengthening communities through equity-based community engagement both locally and nationally. We’ve grown and developed from the work of the Building the Field of Community Engagement collaborative, a four-year initiative designed to magnify and elevate the power of community engagement to change the way problems are solved and resources are invested.

Now, we are re-imagining our bodies of work using the language grow, gather and harvest to more closely align with Nexus values of nourishing and cultivating our relationships with community and one another, as well as healing current and ancestral trauma. We believe using land-based language helps us be in better relationship with community engagement work, knowing that the seeds for systems change we plant now can transform and nourish future generations.


Growin this body of work, we welcome people to the practice of community engagement as a means of achieving racial equity and abolishing oppressive systems. In addition, we expand the tools and networks for folks already doing this work. We call this “grow” because this is where we grow the field through training and workshops in what community engagement is, and how to do it.

Growing includes

Tapping the Potential of Community Engagement: a 4-part Introduction to the Field of Community Engagement. This cohort-based workshop series introduces participants to foundational community engagement practices and principles.

Coaching and Consulting: working with institutions, systems and communities to strengthen their ability to implement authentic community engagement policies and practices

Safety & Justice Challenge: providing community engagement coaching and support to grantees within the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety & Justice Challenge. We work with people in the criminal legal system to rethink public safety and reduce jail populations in the U.S.


GatherIn this body of work, we convene folks together in communities of practice. In these gatherings and cohorts, we deepen our practice in using community engagement to eliminate systems of oppression and transform organizations and communities. We call this “gather” because we bring folks together to learn from each other, support one another, and heal from the harm of working within historically oppressive systems.

Gathering includes:

Engaged Learning Series: convenings for community members to learn more about issues and opportunities emerging in the field of community engagement through deep dives and open conversations.

Neighborhood Leadership Program: an annual cohort-based program to support diverse community members to explore awareness of self, work effectively through cultural differences, and take meaningful action in their communities and neighborhoods (see below for more on NLP).


HarvestIn this body of work, we build on the collected wisdom of the folks we’ve grown and gathered with. From this knowledge, we co-create tools and resources to nourish the field of community engagement. We call this “harvest” because we’re harvesting the wisdom that we’ve cultivated together.

Harvesting includes:

  • Tools such as our Community Engagement Assessment Tool and Impacts of Community Engagement Model.
  • Stories of Impact of community engagement to support people, communities and systems to explore, embed and expand community engagement principles and practices in their work.

Welcoming the Neighborhood Leadership Program to Nexus Community Engagement Institute

As we grow, gather, and harvest with communities, we know we must center and remain tethered to people who are powerfully building with their communities. The Neighborhood Leadership Program (NLP), formerly a program of Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, does exactly that—it supports community leaders on their healing and transformation journeys, while grounding them in the engagement practices necessary to build permanently organized communities.

NLP has been a staple resource in the Twin Cities region for over 20 years, and it has a robust and engaged alumni network with over 600 community members. Each year, NLP brings 25 people together across neighborhoods and identities—like race, class, gender, age, and others—to deepen self awareness, learn skills to work effectively across difference, and create change in their communities. As NLP becomes a core piece of NCEI’s work, we commit to honoring the past, being mindful in the emergent present, and building toward an irresistible future.

Since early 2021, NCEI staff have been connecting with alumni and partners of NLP to explore how to best honor its legacy and envision its future. The first NLP cohort at Nexus is slated to launch this Fall.

New Co-Leadership Structure for NCEI staff

For us, the transformation and healing had to begin internally. To better reflect our belief in the power of collective leadership to shift oppressive narratives and change systems for the better, NCEI has transitioned into a co-leadership model. This change is an intentional way for us to:

  • Collaborate. More closely reflect the collective way we do our work, allowing for deeper relationship-building across staff and community. By working together more closely day-to-day, we can prevent the isolation that organizational leaders can all too often experience, especially BIPOC leaders.
  • Practice wellness. Distribute a more equitable workload that allows for better work-life balance, time to invest in our own personal healing, and alleviate burnout for directors and staff.
  • Share decision-making. Co-leaders are able to make better decisions by bringing together their experiential knowledge, intersecting identities, and diverse and complementary skill sets.
  • Be more sustainable. Create greater stability and continuity moving forward as we shift, grow and adapt. As individuals transition through their leadership roles at NCEI, our collaborative leadership model will help sustain knowledge, relationships, and practice throughout the Institute.

We are excited about this new structure, knowing it won’t always be easy. It will require more intentionality, deeper self-awareness and togetherness, which requires more time. It will take longer and be messier – and we’re here for that beautiful, messy, ambiguous and emergent process – because that’s how healing and transformation happens.

By Janice Barbee, Founder and Director of Healing Roots, Member of Nexus Community Engagement Institute Advisory Committee—DOWNLOAD REPORT HERE!

More and more organizations are realizing the benefits of engaging with the people they serve.  They’re becoming interested in what authentic engagement can achieve, beyond surveys, focus groups, and advisory committees.  Such methods are typically used to get responses to what an organization is doing or plans to do, but do not do a good job of discovering what is on the minds of community members.  Organizations miss out on a tremendous amount of information, creativity, resources, and problem solving when they limit the flow of information between the organization and the communities around them. This flow of information is powered by the quality of the relationships between people in the organization and the community.

Small community organizations are typically best equipped to engage with community members, but large organizations can also reap tremendous benefits by engaging with diverse communities.  Nexus Community Partners worked with a local hospital system over a one-year period to support the organization to engage more effectively with the communities it serves. This partnership yielded new knowledge, understanding, and ideas about what is needed for any large organization to better understand community engagement and integrate it into their work.

Leadership Training

For this learning series, a cohort of about 12 senior executives and managers from many different areas of the organization, from Medical Director to Vice President of Marketing, were invited to participate.  They met every month for a two-hour session for 10 months to learn about community engagement and how to implement it in their organization. The organizers of the trainings were strong leaders within the hospital concerned with diversity and inclusion and they had worked hard before the training to make the case for engagement. The result was that the participants were eager to learn more about it.  They all had some sense that deepening relationships with the diverse communities they serve would help them to better achieve the hospital’s goals.

At the conclusion of the series of trainings, the participants were committed to community engagement as a valuable approach towards achieving their mission. They agreed that it is crucial for leadership to understand community engagement in order to spread the practice and its principles throughout the organization. The leaders were in a position to support each other, through membership on committees and workgroups, and to apply their understanding in their own work and the hospital’s policies and priorities. The participants concluded that training leaders is a good place to start.


  • Start at the top with the leaders who have the power to implement engagement practices and respond to community input with changes in organizational culture and policy.
  • Training organizers should meet with potential participants beforehand to make the case for community engagement and should choose those who are interested in learning.Don’t require someone to attend who is not receptive.
  • Implement a long-term training program that engages the participants, ties in to the issues they are addressing, and includes practical ways to implement what they learn.
  • Do not put community engagement in the hands of one department or a few staff, where they often do not have the support to spread this approach to other departments or to inform practice and policy as a result of what has been learned from the community.

Everyone on the Same Page: “Authentic” Community Engagement

The participants expressed frustration that staff throughout the organization does not share a common understanding of what is engagement.  Some had witnessed outreach, where information flows only in one direction, being called community engagement. They realized that their organization needed a common language.  Some participants talked about discovering how different departments were working on projects in the same community without knowing it, and how this had led to confusion and resentment.


  • Develop a common understanding of authentic community engagement at the beginning of the training, and spread that throughout the organization.
  • Clarify the language for interactions with community, so “outreach” and “community engagement” are understood as both having value according to their purpose, but are not the same process.
  • Commit to multiple trainings of more and more staff until everyone in the organization is on the same page.
  • Create structures in the organization for people to share their experiences and learning, process difficult situations, resolve conflict, brainstorm strategies, and develop new procedures and policies together.

Engagement Leads to Equity

One of the most transformative sessions of the series with the executives was the session focused on equity.  Several in attendance were not aware of the practice of redlining (which denied mortgages to people of color), an example of institutionalized racism and a major contributor to the inequities of today. This session helped people see the connection between equity and engagement, and to realize that staff needs training in equity alongside or even before learning about community engagement.  These leaders learned how cultural communities have been historically excluded, not just from opportunities, but also from the processes for solving the problems that affect them most intensely. They learned how community engagement is not just a way to achieve their organization’s goals, but how it can also be a healing process.  These sessions on equity also shone a light on the organization’s internal equity practices and supported the hiring of more people of color.


  • Include at least one or two sessions on equity in your trainings. Include the history of racism in your neighborhood and the history of the relationship between your institution and communities of color. Interacting with community members without this context can blindside staff when community members bring up past injustices.
  • Make the connection explicit between the need for equity and the need and benefits of community engagement.
  • Allow for both personal and professional exploration of this topic. These discussions can challenge people’s identity and understanding of their own history and can bring up strong emotions. Use experienced facilitators that can create safe spaces where people can reflect, express and understand their emotions, revise their understanding, and integrate their new learning.

Setting Priorities and Expectations

Several of the members of the cohort expressed frustration during and after the trainings on the difficulty of implementing the principles of community engagement.  They saw staff trying to do as much as they could and getting discouraged that they weren’t seeing a lot of positive change. They realized that top leadership needed to set priorities, to create a coordinated effort to make change in a focused way. Participants also told stories of engagement efforts that had backfired because the community members wanted things that the organization couldn’t provide.  Their reflection revealed disconnections, inefficiencies, and weak links within the organization that need to be addressed.


  • Set priorities for your staff for community engagement efforts.
  • Support staff to communicate with each other and to make sure that what is learned from the community makes a difference in the organization.
  • Make sure staff is trained to be explicit with the community about what they can and cannot do.


The shortage of time, tight timelines, and over-stuffed schedules were a constant theme throughout the trainings. Members of the cohort expressed frustration that they don’t have the time to build relationships in the community and maintain them.  Too often, they said, one staff member has established relationships with a community only to leave within a couple of years.  The next person has to start from scratch. The leaders also talked about the limitations of their advisory committee, where representation of the community was extremely limited, and the meeting process did not afford the opportunity for creative input from community members.


  • Do not expect a one-time training to be sufficient. As with any training that seeks to produce a shift in culture and understanding, this is a long-term process. Build in multiple trainings over several months with time for debriefing and follow-up.
  • Allow time for several staff members to build relationships in the various communities your organization serves. Don’t let all the responsibility rest on one person’s shoulders.
  • Not every meeting with community members needs to have a task to complete; the goal is to build relationships and trust.
  • Develop many ways to build relationships between multiple staff and community members, from one-to-ones, to personal interviews, to listening circles, to community dinners, meetings, and other events.

Changing “Old” Thinking

Many times during the trainings, the members were confronted with examples of old, entrenched ways of thinking getting in the way of learning and applying new knowledge.  They realized that many of these ways of thinking are deeply engrained into the organization’s culture, are extremely difficult to change, and need to be constantly challenged.  The participants in the cohort named several examples of “old” thinking that get in the way of integrating community engagement into the organization:

  • Lack of awareness of one’s culture: People operate from a “default” way of thinking, which assumes that their culture and ways of doing things are “just the way things are.”They need more awareness of the assumptions and beliefs of their own culture.
  • The expert /professional model in our society teaches that the staff should be the ones to solve the problems. Staff may feel a tension between what is expected of them as professionals, community members’ perception of them, and their ability to act as a resource and liaison for the community.
  • Being professional often means one needs to be “objective” and detached and it can be considered inappropriate to express emotion in one’s workplace. One of the most memorable sessions in the hospital cohort was when the participants were asked to share an experience of being in community when they were growing up.Many stated that this was the first time that they had shared personal stories with each other in the many years they had worked with each other, and it bonded them together in ways they never had before.


  • Include trainings on cultural awareness and cultural identity. Trainings that challenge attitudes and perceptions require both personal and professional work. In our individualistic society, people often don’t realize how much their culture is the “water” through which they understand the world.
  • Allow for people to express emotion, to tell personal stories, and to bring their full selves into the discussions. Giving space for this can transform attitudes and practices more effectively than words can. Strictly professional relationships don’t build trust and transparency. 

Don’t Stop the Conversation

The participants in these trainings are very committed individuals who want to do what they can to lead their organization to do a better job at improving health and preventing illness. They took a lot of time over 10 months to learn about the power, principles, and potential of community engagement. The hope for the trainings was that, because they are leaders in the organization, they were in the best position to apply this learning and spread it throughout the organization.  They are doing this to the best of their ability, but they also realize that this requires a cultural shift. It takes challenging some entrenched ways of doing things; it requires a re-alignment of values and incentives. Just as community engagement takes time, so learning about it and how to integrate it will take time.  Trainings on engagement and equity are investments in a future where everyone has a voice and the opportunity to make positive change for the common good.


  • Create structures for senior leadership to regularly re-evaluate procedures, incentives, practices, and policies in the light of both what staff are learning from the process of engagement and from community members.
  • Regularly ask your staff what they need to better understand in order to serve the different communities and accomplish your organization’s mission. Continue to offer trainings and workshops accordingly.
  • Keep asking questions such as:
    • What is not working, according to community members?
    • Who else do we need to hear from?
    • What does the community want us to do that we’re not doing?
    • How could we support community members to strengthen their community?

Janice Barbee is the director and founder of Healing Roots, and has the honor of being named an Elder in our European American community. She is currently a consultant in community engagement and an adjunct instructor at the University of Minnesota, teaching on culture and health. She designs and conducts workshops for organizations who want to better understand culture and respectfully and productively engage with people of different cultures.

“I do a little bit of this, a little bit of that”

While Chalonne joined the Nexus family almost two years ago, she is just settling into a new role with the Nexus Community Engagement Institute (NCEI)—National Community Engagement Program Manager. In the position, Chalonne provides guidance around community engagement to folks across the country while also facilitating local events.

Her national work focuses on the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge. This initiative aims to reduce the number of people incarcerated across the US at over 50 sites across the country. After several years of advocacy by NCEI and others, MacArthur is in the early stages of shifting to a community engagement-centered approach, specifically focusing on currently and formerly incarcerated people and their families. As a new member of the team, Chalonne is working with sites to develop and implement community engagement strategies.

Lessons Learned about Community Engagement

Giving community money isn’t as risky as people think. Millions of dollars have already been invested in eliminating disparities between white communities and black, indigenous, people of color communities, to little avail.

“What’s the bigger risk? Continuing to fund things the way we’ve been funding them and getting the same results? It feels more risky to keep doing the same thing. Instead, we need to consider how to actually get money into the hands of communities. How might we allow communities to drive how this funding is spent?”

For example, in Philadelphia, a criminal justice innovation fund has been established to provide microgrants to community-based organizations working on jail reform. Additionally, this site established an community advisory council with a paid staff person and financial resources for advisory members. This would not be possible without the supplemental community engagement funding from the MacArthur Foundation to select Safety and Justice Challenge sites. While people have concerns about what might happen if community, instead of institutions, were given money, the worst case scenario is that issues like mass incarceration stay the same.

What is Energizing about the work?

Chalonne gets life from all of the people doing community engagement, the way they hold events, and how they share space and power. Especially energizing are informal, grassroots spaces that engage individuals and families across generations. Being a part of a family with five living generations, her vision for the future is that families of multiple generations will have more opportunities to be engaged together in their communities.

As much as she wishes that she could “snap my fingers and put an end to the unjust systems,” she knows that it takes work, creativity, and engagement. “We have to usher out this system, and usher a new one in. That will take time and all of us engaging in the changes we want.”

When Chalonne isn’t traveling the country doing community engagement, she works on cooperative initiatives in the North Star Black Cooperative Fellowship, she is a magical and gifted facilitator, and she is a certified IDI consultant and coach. She also enjoys all the laughs, drama and joy of a large and beautiful family.

“Institutions have no historical memory, indigenous communities have nothing but memories.”
—Engaged Learning Series participant quoting an indigenous community member

“This is a conversation about healing but it is really about what happens because of that healing. It is a conversation about transformation; about what will emerge because of how we have healed.”
—Susan Raffo, Healing Justice Report

Communities, at their core, are about relationships.

In order to promote and build an equitable society, we have to practice equity-based community engagement where historically oppressed or ignored community members have authorship over their lives and future.

But what if our institution has historically been the oppressor or has broken trust with the community through planning, programming or funding practices in the past? How can we rebuild trust and begin to heal the relationship with community?

On September 28th, 2017, we explored these questions with 50 community members at Nexus Community Engagement Institute (NCEI) Engaged Learning Series. From this meeting, four themes emerged for helping us move toward healing through community engagement:

  1. centering self-care and personal healing;
  2. shifting organizational and interpersonal culture to be more human and relationship-centered;
  3. needing to prioritize healing in our institutions’ budgets and in our funding practices; and,
  4. incorporating relationship-centered practices in community to repair trust.

Self-care and Personal Healing

“Individual and collective healing, one doesn’t happen without the other in any sustainable way but it all starts with individual healing. I see lots of organizations being run by wounded people who are doing their best to do good work. They are creating organizational habits that are wounded; they are asking people to work too many hours for too little pay because that is what their sector does.” Suzanne Koepplinger (Raffo 2017)

In order to practice authentic community engagement, we have to first confront our own personal experiences with historical trauma, microaggressions, and toxic stress to move toward self-healing and self-care. Practices such as meditating, taking breaks, having fun, and walking in nature are all important during the work day (and on the clock).

“I try to have feelings at least once a day, I do acupuncture once a month, and I do poetry with a group of fellow Arabs,” said panelist Jna Shelomith of Ramsey County.

Likewise, panelist JooHee Pomplun of the Alliance, shared the importance of negotiations and self-care. “I’m at a negotiating point in my life – if I can nourish myself with food and friends, that is what’s important to me.”

Taking care of ourselves and creating space for self-care allows us to release toxic energy from our bodies. In turn, space is created for communities’ energies, emotions, and healing.

Shifting Organizational and Interpersonal Culture

Dominant workplace culture encourages the separation of home and work life, but why? We are all part of a community – and that does not stop when we walk into an office. We should make time at work to be our full selves – incorporating time to show emotions, sharing what’s going on in our lives, listening time at meetings, and bringing healing components into staff trainings.

Being listened to can lead to unexpected outcomes. As Jna Shelomith said, “we need each other to do reality checks. How are you? No really how are you? That’s the work.”

Being listened to helps build trust and trust can lead to the surfacing of past workplace, institutional, or outside harms or memories. From there, raw, honest conversations can lead to organizational healing:

Having more authentic conversations, even though they bring up thoughts and feelings that can be hard to hear or challenging to have, are a sign of success. Sometimes organizations are confused by this turn of events. Organizations assume that if no one’s talking about these issues, then everything is going fine. Quite the contrary–if you create enough safety, more and more conversations will happen, and more issues will come into the light; the silences are to be broken. And that is a good thing.” (Luna Jimenez 2015).

In addition to creating a workplace that values listening and relationship-building among staff, having internal support groups and caucuses can be a safe space for people to release toxic energy, as well as hold each other accountable.

“For the Giving Project, we had a POC [people of color] caucus and a white caucus, because there’s different healing and different spaces that we need,” said panelist Caitlin Schwartz, board member for Headwaters Foundation for Justice.

Identity caucuses are a powerful way for us to learn about ourselves – as both the oppressor and the oppressed – and allow space to process our patterns of behavior as well as to heal from the actions of others.

Prioritizing Healing in Our Budgets and Outcomes

As the saying goes: “Show me your budget and I’ll tell you your values.” Prioritizing community engagement, community healing, and organizational healing requires a budget line item (or multiple line items) for relationship-building and personal wellness. Are we providing resources for employees to take care of themselves and their families? How are we investing time to repair trust with community and get on the path to healing? What financial resources are we investing for community to be nourished and to heal? Additionally, who are we hiring and how are we investing in the community?

Part of the path to healing is about institutions’ accountability to community, which includes honoring the community’s knowledge and assets by providing paid opportunities for community members to lead at institutions.

Caitlin Schwartz elaborated on the work of the Giving Project. “The Giving Project was created by having a group of community members determine the criteria for funding, and then actually being responsible for granting those funds to local organizations.” We all need to take a look at our grantmaking, hiring, and other internal processes through an equity lens to see who benefits from our work and who is burdened by our work.

Authentic Relationships to Repair Trust in Community

In addition to the above internal shifts, healing between institutions and communities requires representatives of those institutions showing up as listeners — honoring the community’s wisdom, knowing the history and context, and being prepared to be uncomfortable, transparent, follow-through on promises, and open doors for community leaders to lead.

It’s also important for us to know our personal interest – why am I the one leading this project, or this event? How are my experiences connected to this work? As Caitlin Schwartz said, “Getting clear on why I’m doing the work and where I’m doing the work [as a white woman], is about challenging white supremacy. It’s good to always get clear on why any of us are doing the work that we are doing.”

Self-awareness helps us build more authentic relationships, and helps us to realize when we should give up or reclaim power. Sometimes giving up power means partnering with community organizations that do have the community’s trust and investing in their work.


JooHee Pomplun told a story about Cambodian refugees who didn’t feel settled or at home in Minnesota. After experiencing the Little Mekong Night Market, an amazing opportunity to experience the sights, smells, sounds, and tastes of traditional Southeast Asian night markets, Southeast Asian elders told JooHee that for the first time, this felt like home. The Little Mekong Night Market was co-developed with the Asian Economic Development Association as a result of their community engagement efforts.

Community engagement can lead to some incredible outcomes – not the least of which is healing, for individuals and for our communities. “My somatic healer friends have told me that the lungs actually lie in your back, so when we say ‘I’ve got your back’, I picture holding your lungs so we can breathe,” said Jna Shelomith.

This is about changing how we do our work and how we have the community’s back.

The pathways to healing are complex, but we can move systems together – and it starts and ends with relationships.


Luna Jimenez, Nanci E. October 31, 2015. ”Building Authenticity at Work with Listening: The Most Powerful Social Justice Tool.”

Raffo, Susan. 2017. The Healing Justice Report.

Dates: March 1, March 8, March 22, March 29
Time: 9:00 am – 12 Noon
Where: MCN, 2314 University Ave W #20, St Paul MN 55114 – River Room

This workshop series is designed to deepen your knowledge, broaden your perspective, and sharpen your skills as you explore the potential for community engagement to create equitable, healthy, and sustainable communities. The sessions are for anyone who is interested in learning more about community engagement, or for those who wish to deepen their work with community.

Session Topics:

  • Session 1: What is Community Engagement?
  • Session 2: Shifting Power: Moving from Service to Engagement
  • Session 3: Healing through Community Engagement
  • Session 4: Moving Forward: Integrating Community Engagement Practices and Shifting Work Culture

Learning Goals:

  • Understand the principles and values of community engagement and how it differs from other practices, such as outreach and the traditional social service model.
  • Learn how community engagement can make your work more effective.
  • Utilize community engagement tools for building relationships, leadership, and ownership.
  • Explore how community engagement leads to equity and how understanding equity is essential for effective community engagement.
  • Assess your organization’s readiness and capacity to incorporate community engagement as an approach in your work.

*PRE-WORK OPTION: Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) Cultural Exploration: Culture, healing and relationships are central to authentic and sustainable community engagement. Thus, we are offering the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) as an optional pre-work add-on for participants who are interested in more deeply exploring culture and identity, challenges and opportunities connecting across difference and commonality, and how to navigate those differences in community engagement work. Your confirmation email upon registration will have more information and next steps for opting into the IDI pre-work component, which will take place in February 2019 prior to the beginning of the workshop series.*

Fee: Scholarships are available to ensure anyone can participate, no one will be turned away. Contact Angie for details (see below).

  • Philanthropy/Corporate Rate: $1000 for all four sessions
  • Nonprofit/Government Rate: $600 for all four sessions
  • *Additional IDI Pre-Work Option: additional $250 per person for IDI group session and individual feedback session in February 2019 – registration is separate and will come with your confirmation email from one of the above selections*

NOTE: Attendance at all four sessions is required, as this is a cohort experience and each session builds upon previous sessions.

**Please do not register for more than 5 participants from one organization** this is to ensure a mix of participants from various sectors and backgrounds for a rich, dynamic experience. Please contact us if you have any questions or concerns about this requirement.

Feedback from Previous “Tapping the Potential of Community Engagement” Participants:

  • “The series is a challenging, inspiring experience that anyone and everyone can learn and grow from.”
  • “I would recommend this workshop series….the conversations, connections, and knowledge learned will help them go from outreach to engagement; from equality to equitable approaches.”
  • “It’s very helpful both as an introduction to CE as well as providing more in-depth training for people already working in CE.”
  • “Prepare to be challenged and accept that what you’ve been doing needs a new perspective.”

About Nexus Community Engagement Institute: Nexus Community Engagement Institute (NCEI) advances and strengthens communities through equity-based community engagement, both locally and nationally. NCEI is continuing the work of the Building the Field of Community Engagement collaborative (BTF).

Facilitators and Presenters: The presenters and facilitators are staff and partners of Nexus Community Partners and Nexus Community Engagement Institute.

Contact Angie Brown at with questions or for more information about scholarships.


What does it mean to center culture in community engagement? How do our cultural identities impact our relationships in community? How do we get closer to our own stories in order to move away from extractive relationships toward reciprocal relationships?

On November 1st, 2018, Nexus Community Engagement Institute (NCEI) hosted the final Engaged Learning Series of 2018 to explore: What’s Your Story? How Identity & Culture Impact Community Engagement.

Introductions at tables began with creating and sharing I Am Poems, many of which were left to share back with the group.

Panelists Bilal Alkatout, Roxanne Anderson, Vina Kay and Susan Phillips spent the second half of the session sharing how personal identities have influenced how they are engaged, and how they engage others in community. Listen to the video below to hear their I Am Poem introductions. 

Following introductions, NCEI program director Avi Viswanathan asked the panel three questions followed by audience-panel Q&A. Check out the videos below to hear their responses to each question.

Question 1: What does it mean to you to center culture in community engagement work? What identities are you drawing from?

Question 2: How have your cultural identities been impacted by or impacted others when engaging community – either negatively or positively?

Question 3: What advice would you give to this group to build authentic relationships centered in identity and culture?

Audience-Panel Q&A:

This Engaged Learning Series was a brief two and a half hours to begin the discussion about centering culture and identity in community engagement. Feedback from the group included a need to further explore cross-class perspectives and deeper discussion around the impact of white supremacy in community engagement. We hope to continue supporting each other at future Engaged Learning Series in these topics as well as other opportunities and challenges in community engagement.

Nexus Community Engagement Institute (NCEI) is proud to welcome Caitlin Schwartz, Sindy Morales Garcia and Venessa Fuentes to our NCEI Advisory Committee!

NCEI advances and strengthens communities through equity-based community engagement, both locally and nationally. The NCEI Advisory Committee is composed of local community engagement practitioners who guide and support the work of the Institute, helping to provide vision and strategy as well as to develop and co-lead trainings and workshops on community engagement with NCEI staff.

We’re honored to have the wisdom and experience of Caitlin, Sindy and Venessa to help ground and guide this work moving forward – please help us welcome them to the team!

Get to Know the New NCEI Advisory Committee Members

Caitlin Schwartz

Caitlin Schwartz has over 12 years of experience in community engagement, organizing, and grassroots leadership development, most recently working on Metro Transit’s Community Outreach & Engagement Team and serving as board member and development committee chair with the Headwaters Foundation for Justice. Her passion is in constituent leadership and ensuring that people are centered in the planning and decision-making that impact their lives. A first-generation college student, she received her Bachelor of Arts from the University of St. Thomas, studying Justice & Peace Studies and Sociology.

Sindy Morales Garcia

Driven by a commitment to equity and wholeness, Sindy works with Wilder’s Community Initiatives team to catalyze the cultural shifts needed to co-create transformational and sustainable change. Her work is informed by a rich tapestry of experiences in higher-education advocacy, community collaborations, and faith-based activism. As a facilitator, Sindy enjoys cultivating spaces of meaningful reflection and dialogue that enable participants to strategically advance new thinking and action in their lives and work.

Originally from Quetzaltenango Guatemala, Sindy comes from a family of community organizers. Her family’s narrative of struggle, resilience, and strategic disruption led her to center her personal and educational journey on deepening her understanding of liberation, healing, and social justice. This includes a degree in Reconciliation Studies at Bethel University, community organizing and public policy at the Silberman School of Social Work, and liberation theology and social ethics at Union Theological Seminary.

Venessa Fuentes

Venessa is a local artist and advocate who, since 1997, has worked in Twin Cities arts, community development, and grantmaking nonprofits. Recently, she held positions at the Bush Foundation and Jerome Foundation – both in grantmaking and communications. Venessa is an alum of the inaugural cohort of the Ron McKinley Philanthropy Fellowship.

How do you effectively tell the story and impacts of authentic community engagement? How can we capture, evaluate and communicate the power of community engagement?

Join us for our next Engaged Learning Series to explore Storytelling & Evaluating Community Engagement with a dynamic panel of community leaders.

The session will begin with a facilitated panel with community engagement practitioners from Frogtown Neighborhood Association and another local organization (to be confirmed), who will share how storytelling has been a means of capturing the process and outcomes of authentic community engagement. Following Q&A, we’ll break into small group dialogue to explore challenges and questions regarding effective storytelling and evaluation of community engagement, and what opportunities you see in your own engagement practices to more authentically tell the story of engagement with community.

Date: Thursday, August 9, 2018
Time: 9:00 AM – 11:30 AM

Breakfast & Networking: 9-9:30am
Program: 9:30-11:30am

Location: International Institute of Minnesota
1694 Como Ave
Saint Paul, MN 55108

Click here for more info and to register!

Nexus Community Engagement Institute invites you to: 

Tapping the Potential of Community Engagement:
A 4-part Introduction to the Field of Community Engagement


Dates: June 1, June 8, June 22, June 29
Time: 9:00 am – 12 Noon
Where: UROC Room 105, 2001 Plymouth Ave N, Minneapolis, MN 55411

Description: This workshop series is designed to deepen your knowledge, broaden your perspective, and sharpen your skills as you explore the potential for community engagement to create equitable, healthy, and sustainable communities. The sessions are for anyone who is interested in learning more about community engagement, or for those who wish to deepen their work with community.

Session Topics:

  • Session 1: What is Community Engagement? Why is it Important?
  • Session 2: Effective Tools for Community Engagement
  • Session 3: The Link between Community Engagement and Equity
  • Session 4: Integrate Community Engagement into your Organization’s Work and Culture

Learning Goals:

  • Understand the principles and values of community engagement and how it differs from other practices, such as outreach and the traditional social service model.
  • Learn how community engagement can make your work more effective.
  • Utilize community engagement tools for building relationships, leadership, and ownership.
  • Explore how community engagement leads to equity and how understanding equity is essential for effective community engagement.
  • Assess your organization’s readiness and capacity to incorporate community engagement as an approach in your work.

*NEW THIS YEAR: Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) Cultural Exploration Pre-Work Option: Culture, healingand relationships are central to authentic and sustainable community engagement. Thus, this year we are piloting offering the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) as an optional pre-work add-on for participants who are interested in more deeply exploring culture and identity, as well as challenges and opportunities connecting across difference and commonality. Your confirmation email upon registration will have more information and next steps for opting into the IDI pre-work component, which will take place in May 2018 prior to the beginning of the workshop series.*

Fee: A few scholarships are available, no one will be turned away. Contact Angie for details (see below).

  • Individuals: $450 for all four sessions
  • **Groups of 3-5 from one organization: $400 per person for all four sessions**
  • *Individuals Plus IDI Pre-Work Option: additional $150 per person for IDI group session and individual feedback session in May 2018 – registration is separate and will come with your confirmation email from one of the above selections*

NOTEAttendance at all four sessions is required, as this is a cohort experience and each session builds upon previous sessions.

**Please do not register for more than 5 participants from one organization** -this is to ensure a mix of participants from various sectors and backgrounds for a rich, dynamic experience. Please contact us if you have any questions or concerns about this requirement.

Feedback from Previous “Tapping the Potential of Community Engagement” Participants:

  • “The series is a challenging, inspiring experience that anyone and everyone can learn and grow from.”
  • “I would recommend this workshop series….the conversations, connections, and knowledge learned will help them go from outreach to engagement; from equality to equitable approaches.”
  • “It’s very helpful both as an introduction to CE as well as providing more in-depth training for people already working in CE.”
  • “Prepare to be challenged and accept that what you’ve been doing needs a new perspective.”


About Nexus Community Engagement Institute: Nexus Community Engagement Institute (NCEI) advances and strengthens communities through equity-based community engagement, both locally and nationally. NCEI is continuing the work of the Building the Field of Community Engagement collaborative (BTF).

Facilitators and Presenters: The presenters and facilitators are staff and partners of Nexus Community Partners and Nexus Community Engagement Institute.

Contact Angie Brown at with questions or for more information about scholarships.

Artwork referenced in the blog: Nothing About Us by Twin Cities artist activist Ricardo Levins Morales

Ana Clymer of United Way of East Central Iowa (UWECI) was one of the participants in Nexus Community Engagement Institute’s (NCEI) Tapping the Potential of Community Engagement series in the fall of 2017 – a four-part introduction to the field of community engagement.

Ana and her colleague, Laura Columbus, drove four hours for each session, giving them ample time to discuss how they may incorporate more community engagement principles and practices into UWECI’s work:

How does community engagement lead to equity? One example includes the age-old proverb, “Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day; teach a man to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime.” This may be true in some cases, but we need to ask, “Do people want to learn to fish?”, “Will teaching people to fish really solve the problem?”, and “Do people already know how to fish, and there’s another problem we can’t see?”

By asking these questions, we might learn people of the community won’t eat fish, or fish isn’t enough to sustain them, or the fish are not edible. If we don’t live there, we don’t know until we ask.

Check out Ana’s full blog here: “Community Engagement and Equity.”