Comments related to sustaining intergroup relations efforts emerged frequently during the course of our research. In many cases, the challenge of sustainability is closely linked to the availability and/or continuation of funding. Without the necessary financial resources, intergroup initiatives often are discontinued. Several project participants stressed the need for efforts to be long-term rather than simply one-time or short-term experiences. This not only maximizes impact and effectiveness of programs and dialogues, but also encourages the construction of deep, lasting relationships.
The creator of a leading intergroup relations curriculum shared his perspective on the importance of a continued series of engagement as opposed to isolated experiences. He asserted, “I am interested in processes, not in events — people coming together to develop what they want to develop. Not just a training, but a longer term building. Acompañamiento. You can’t accompany an event, but a process and a people – yes.”
Rubén Lizardo of PolicyLink noted that beyond the need for sustained intergroup programs or dialogues, there is also a need for organizations to commit to developing new leaders in this realm: “I do think that this is not an endeavor that should be taken up as a short-term thing. Commit to a long-haul approach, even if it’s just with one constituency (i.e., young people). …If you open up these dialogues or leadership approaches, the people who come to them deserve for you to really be committed to long-term leadership development.”
Rev. Patricia Watkins of TARGET Area Development Corporation discussed her organization’s involvement in the United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations’ Lived Experiences Series and shared how participants requested continued intergroup work: “Participants always said, ‘this is great, but we need more time.’ It didn’t matter if we did a two hour panel or a fishbowl. ‘We need more of this; I learned so much I did not know.”
Similarly, other participants offered a critical perspective on initiatives that enter a community, do some education work, and then leave the community without offering continued support or guidance on how to use and apply that knowledge to local circumstances over time. In turn, some project participants stressed the need for ongoing practice. Using analogies such as how one’s foreign language skills tend to deteriorate when not given the chance to use that language regularly, these individuals stressed the need for an ongoing commitment. In the words of one, “Sports athletes don’t just show up for games; they practice in between.”
Sustainability can also be challenge within the context of an ongoing initiative. One participant shared about an ongoing programmatic effort that encountered difficulties when participants did not show up consistently throughout the series but instead attended occasionally, causing the larger group to often have to pause and revisit topics that had been covered in previous sessions. Consistently rehashing material can put the initiative as a whole in a precarious situation when those who have attended regularly find the sessions redundant. One project participant discussed the challenge of keeping the material “fresh” for long-term participants while bringing new participants “up to speed.”
Another aspect of sustainability is the willingness to continually evolve and change approaches and materials based on the needs of the community at a given moment. Even so-called “best practices” should be reviewed regularly for effectiveness and impact.
Finally, in terms of solutions to sustainability concerns, a few project participants advocated for uniting forces with local entities such as a community relations commissions, YMCA, or another nonprofit. By joining intergroup efforts with another institution, particularly one that is already staffed, it may be easier to sustain efforts over time compared to programs or dialogues led by lone individuals or singular organizations.
Image: Angela Stuesse