User-Driven Community Engagement

By: Irina Zadov

When I first began at the museum in 2008 my supervisor and mentor shared a story about the Louisiana Children’s Museum’s response to Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath of the storm families came together to share food, resources, and basic necessities, activities which radically strayed from the LCM’s mission of “promoting hands-on participatory learning for children of all ages.” This made me wonder: what is the role of a children’s museum in the lives of the families it serves? Natural disaster or not, what is our responsibility? To whom? And to what end?

For the CCM, being a “community resource” is one of the top priorities in our Strategic Plan, but we’ve always struggled to articulate exactly what that means. Over the years there have been numerous concerted efforts by individual staff and passionate community partners, but there has never been a systematic approach to community outreach and engagement.

We know it takes more than an active commitment to involving community artists, innovators, and youth in the co-creation of our programs and exhibits. We know it takes more than simply offering fee-waived family memberships for families from low-income neighborhoods. We know that for many families challenges around finances,  leisure time, linguistic and cultural norms, and legal status present a barrier to access. To help develop community outreach and engagement strategies that will be meaningful and lasting, we are choosing to focus on assets rather than needs.

“We are forming the Creative Community Council – a group of community leaders who will co-create a meaningful and sustainable platform for outreach and engagement.”  – Audrey Yamamoto, Executive Director.

Launched in the winter of 2011, the CCC is a group of 15 youth and adult advocates with strong ties to youth and families in our target age range.

The CCC includes folks like Yohana Quiroz, the Director of Youth and Family Programs at Family Service Agency of San Francisco who supports teen mothers, infants, recent immigrants, and elders in the Mission district. “For me it’s exciting – we work with low-income, high-risk families and if I could list five families who know about CCM, that would be amazing – I want to make sure that this resource is accessible for all of them.”

Other council members represent old friends. Fatimah Guienze, a teaching artist with Galileo Learning and Leap Arts in Education has worked with the museum for years as a facilitator, exhibition developer, and advocate.  “I am sincerely grateful and feel thoroughly blessed to be sharing the power of CCM with my San Francisco and East Bay community – I am always amazed how few of my students have had the chance to experience the freedom and creativity of the CCM – the need is great.”

Finally, we are thrilled to include youth representatives like Kai Lyons-Kuster, a senior at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts whose passion for music and early childhood education brought him to the museum as a C.I.T.Y. Guide where he was nominated by his peers to be a youth community advocate. “When I was in middle school, band was the only thing that got me through the day, when that went away in high school I had to transfer. When I graduate I want to be a music teacher so that all kids have access to creative expression.”

Inspired by the IMLS award winning Wing Luke Asian Museum Community Process  and the Oakland Museum of California Community Advisory Council our council is focused on developing long term and short term engagement strategies for each of our three target audiences: children ages 3-5, children ages 6-12, and families. Rather than forming an ongoing committee with monthly meetings into eternity, we chose to launch a task force with a clear deadline and action goals: to develop a Community Outreach and Engagement Plan  just in time for our March Board Retreat and its inclusion in the FY13 Operations Plan and Budget.

We chose to use the Design Thinking Process as a model of human-driven innovation for our bi-monthly meetings. Over the course of six weeks, the CCC will develop empathy through site-visits, observations, and interviews with each of the target demographics; a point of view or a need statement which will guide the design process for each demographic; they will ideate (come up with ideas); prototype (make mock ups of those ideas); and finally test them with our ultimate end users who include community members, staff, and board.

The outcome? A Community Outreach and Engagement Plan designed by and for youth and families whose needs are currently unmet by our organization. Of course, like everything in our museum, this process is an experiment, perpetually in beta and strengthened by our ability to fail forward.

Has your institution tried something like this? What were the results? Are you part of a community which doesn’t typically use the resources of a children’s museum? What suggestions would you give us as we embark on this adventure? 

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