Authentic Community Partnership: A Conversation with Ms. Towanda Sherry

Photo used with permission from The California Endowment

This blog, adapted from an interview with Ms. Towanda Sherry, East Oakland resident leader and organizer, with CSSP staff members Laura Kreeger and Anand Sharma. Ms. Sherry offers reflections related to a recent CSSP Learning, Equity, and Power (LEaP) session, “Authentically Engaging Community: Lessons from The California Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities Initiative.” Learn more about LEaP here and watch a recording of the session here.

Laura Kreeger (CSSP): Can you tell us about how you first got involved with The California Endowment (TCE)?

Ms. Towanda Sherry: I became involved with TCE and East Oakland Building Healthy Communities (BHC) through an organization called Causa Justa :: Just Cause, which is a housing rights organization here in East Oakland. TCE said they’d like to meet with East Oakland residents, so I started to attend weekly BHC meetings and got to meet a fantastic, interesting group of community members who were able to come together to voice some of their concerns. It was mind expanding because it also allowed me to see the perspective of other folks who were experiencing all kinds of problems in East Oakland.

Laura Kreeger: Can you tell us a little bit about how you take a broad view to health and what issues you think are most important in achieving health equity?

Ms. Towanda Sherry: We talk about health and many people just think it means taking care of medical needs, but we found out that to understand those needs and how they affect health we have to look at all things that are impacting your ability to feel well and safe. In East Oakland, we were living in a food desert. A lot of community stores didn’t sell the things we needed for a healthy lifestyle. We wanted to make sure families in neighborhoods had affordable housing and jobs.

In East Oakland, we live between two freeways and one of them is a truck transit to the port of Oakland and we have railroads coming through that are transporting coal. This leads to all kinds of toxins, pollutants, and environmental impacts. And so, we changed those things, we had to address them. Because these are part of not just health but health equity. Why is it just that the Black and Brown people who live in East Oakland are more likely to have asthma, health disparities, cancers?

Laura Kreeger: What advice would you have for a community resident or leader who’s just starting to work with a foundation like TCE or a community organization?

Ms. Towanda Sherry: Well, my main thing is to speak your truth. I think we [community residents] need to let foundations know that we are the experts because we live here. That’s one of the reasons why the healthy development guideline, which is a health development tool, doesn’t just include doctors. It includes jobs, housing, environmental impact, all kinds of things that affect everyday lives for people in the community.

And we should tell foundations that we want oversight. What is the process for foundations choosing who to work with? Are community residents part of that process?  The transparency issue is very important, don’t be afraid to ask for transparency.

Laura Kreeger: What do you still find challenging with this community engagement work? Where is there room for growth in this work?

Ms. Towanda Sherry: I think that room for growth has to do with learning to recognize that the people of the community have vision and their visions are just as important as foundations’. Don’t listen just with your ears, but listen with your heart and take to heart those kinds of impacts. I was in a recent meeting and a community member raised a question and the head of the group that was leading it dismissed her. That community member, she’s been there for years, dealing with stuff, sitting through many meetings, and she has put in the time, but yet her voice was not being recognized. It’s important that we recognize and value the community residents and especially the foundations listen and recognize folks there.

Anand Sharma (CSSP): What advice would you give to foundations in terms of how they approach authentic community partnership?

Ms. Towanda Sherry: One of the things I found out when I first came into this process, is that foundation people came up with terms that I, and others, had never heard. Foundations need to break down language in a way that community residents can understand and be transparent with their agenda. Materials need to be available in print for people, with definitions for unfamiliar terms, and translation services need to be available.

I think that it’s important that foundations choose folks who have integrity and vision and people who are respected in the community. Foundations need to meet people where they’re at. This includes hosting meetings in the community (sometimes even in people’s homes) during appropriate hours.  Residents need to be comfortable with where and when the meetings are held and need to be part of setting the agenda.  Also, community residents need to be provided a stipend, because their time is just as valuable as foundation members.

Anand Sharma: Can you share any reflections you have on how organizations and foundations can better understand the community they hope to serve?

Ms. Towanda Sherry: One of the important things to remember is that the community is not a monolith, and we also need to be willing to work in coalition. We are not here to fight with each other. We are here to lift up the whole community. So, when we work in coalition, especially with other groups and we talk to people who are African American, Latin, Asian, members of the community who also have different sexual orientations that we need to make sure those voices are included. When we work with them and listen to their voices and issues, then we can get a healthier view of what is going on in the community and how we can address these ills and these concerns.

Ms. Towanda Sherry is an East Oakland resident leader and organizer.

Laura Kreeger is a program and research assistant at Center for the Study of Social Policy.

Anand Sharma is a senior associate at Center for the Study of Social Policy.