Engaging people typically left out of the public decision-making processQ&A with Desirae Simmons: Nonprofit Journal Project

Desirae Simmons is the co-director of the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice in Ypsilanti that focuses on transformational change for social justice rooted in community.

Your organization was involved in advocating for a participatory budget process for Washtenaw County. Can you tell us about what that looked like in practice? Where were some of your wins? 

The way we started the campaign isn’t how we ended it, which sometimes is what happens in this work. We did succeed in helping to raise awareness about what the participatory budget process looks like and to gain support from some members of the county commission and to explore ways to use it in the future. We are planning on continuing that push until we get to that place where they are doing more participatory budgeting.  

On the community side, we are able to educate about what the county budget looks like now and to help engage people in that process. We set up small group discussions focused on different populations who are typically left out of decision-making or folks who experience very high impact when funding is not going where we see the greatest need. I facilitated a lot of them with young folks.

Another group we met with was the unhoused community -- we had conversations with folks at warming centers and at places that support the unhoused community. There is a need for is an overnight shelter on the east side of the county. We need more beds so no one needs to sleep on the streets. Now we are leaning into this, really thinking about how we build out a proposal but also build some kind of community infrastructure around it.

We noticed that when it came to using ARPA [American Rescue Plan Act] funds, they’re focused on projects they call “shovel-ready.” That means someone has already done all the work. We want to get proposals together with community engagement and then start pushing it for policymakers to internalize it, so when that money comes up they can say “we know what we can do.”

How are you using "Compassionate Conversations" and how do you facilitate this type of communication?

We are having a Connect and Act event March 4, which is something we have been hosting as a way to convene people, as a way to build relationships and connect people with issues and help people act on those issues. This one is focused on Compassionate Community Conversations.

The first half of the meeting will focus on skills we need to practice, to be able to put in our toolbox to even begin to engaging in Compassionate Community Conversations. For example, skills around storytelling for organizing, facilitation, conflict resolution in dialogue.  The second half will actually be a practice of doing these conversations where people will be able to both participate and see some of those different skills in effect in this space. Even with people who we mostly agree with, even with people we like, with people we have known for years, sometimes there are still hard conversations. Our hope is that people see themselves able to be facilitators and conveners of these conversations so that they can learn how to take it into their own space.

Compassionate Community Conversations are more long term, multiple conversations, because it takes more than one time to get to the end of these questions. When people are with their family or friend group, we want to have the ability to work through what might seem like a really difficult conversation. The hope is that as we have these conversations, people are also able to connect with larger themes around power, around collective ownership, and around the decision-making tools we have. How do we connect these values we have with the ways we interact with each other? These conversations can help do that.

So much of your work is about being in community with people and very relationship-oriented. How did that work during the pandemic? How did you meet that challenge and how did it evolve?

Many of our events pull people together to see what magic happens in the room, and it was hard when we couldn’t do that. Our population is more retired folks and people near retirement, so some of the more virtual ways of engaging took a while to get up and running and feel comfortable.

It opened some possibilities too. ICPJ was able to tap into larger state level work than we had been really doing up until that point because we were doing everything virtually -- that really opened up a possibility for me to be in spaces and build relationships in that way. It did definitely change what we could do, and how we could focus, with being able to do forums, meetings and online.

When we would facilitate, with our VOTE caucus, for example, we used that meeting time both to get things done and connect with someone else. We had opening questions to give us a little insight into people’s lives. The group continues that culture of check-in that feels really personal. It’s been a great thread to still have a sense of community in that space.

As people are starting to get back in person we do a mix. For example, this month we’re having a mixer for new people who joined over pandemic who haven’t seen each other. People do want to connect together again, and it’s really important to think about ways we can do that while still being safe.

What keeps you going in this work? It can be very joyful but also very difficult. What keeps you going in the rough spots?

I have a couple of ways of thinking about that, for example, thinking about what I would do instead -- what am I well suited for besides talking to people? I also write down these little things to think about who I am – what I have right now is that I am a person who will keep trying, and I don’t accept shouldn’ts because of couldn’ts.

I was inspired by a song by Little Simz called Angel. There’s a line that says “don’t tell me I shouldn’t just because you couldn’t.” I feel that energy right now, but we are facing big time challenges. The issues are humongous, and it’s easy to feel defeated by them. The system and status quo are strong but only as strong we let it be.

If we can change the conditions and change what’s happening on the ground, if we can build relationships and have conversations with people that move us out of our head space into heart space, and we act from our heart space, we can change things.

This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change, and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.
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