Members of the Community Engagement Team presented their proposed plans on July 15

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The Community Literacy Solution Design Team of the Evanston Cradle to Career initiative (EC2C) held its fourth meeting on July 15. More than 50 people representing more than 25 organizations, including the School Districts, the City of Evanston, and many non-profits, attended.

One focal point of the meeting was how to engage more people in the process, particularly those whom EC2C is intended to benefit.

Some Background on EC2C

EC2C is built on the premise of “collective impact” – that schools, institutions, community organizations, business groups and others can have a greater impact by working together to address complex social and educational issues, than working alone.

EC2C will not provide any direct services itself, but the initiative provides a vehicle for organizations to partner together and provide their services in more effective ways to achieve a shared vision. Currently, more than 30 organizations have committed to participate.

The vision of EC2C is: “By the age of 23, all Evanston young adults will be leading productive lives.”

The plan is to address the needs of Evanston youth, starting at birth, in a holistic fashion and to focus on all factors that impact learning, health, and social and emotional development.   

Ultimately, five solution design teams will be formed, each to focus on a different area: a) literacy; b) community stability including housing and poverty; c) mental health and physical health and safety; d) career and postsecondary readiness; and e) parent engagement. Each team will set goals in its area, adopt an action plan to achieve those goals, and set measures to track progress toward meeting the goals.

EC2C decided to start out by focusing on literacy, and a Community Literacy Solution Design team was formed and held its inaugural meeting on May 8. Shortly after that a Community Engagement Team began meeting. That team is charged with reaching out to the broader community to ensure community ownership and engagement with EC2C. 

Planned Community Engagement

One of the guiding principles of EC2C is, “We commit to partner with the people most affected by this community initiative, as equal stakeholders, to help lead the development and implementation of these collaborative efforts.”

The concept is to change from an “Us for them” approach to the approach, “We, together as equal stakeholders,” says a draft document prepared by the Engagement Team.

The idea is to get out into the community, build new relationships, and “based on empathy, listening, and deeper understanding … change how we see, think about and speak about our community.”

Melissa Carpenter, director of community schools at Youth Organization Umbrella (Y.O.U.) and co-chair of the Engagement Team, said one key principle of EC2C is to engage people who EC2C is intended to benefit, and to gather their input to develop more of a shared vision and shared values and empower them to be leaders and help develop the work.

Delores Holmes, Fifth Ward Alderman and co-chair of the Community Engagement Team, told the RoundTable, “It’s important to have everyone at the table. There’s a seat at the table for everyone, particularly those who are served. But not only those, the business community – everyone should have a seat.” She emphasized that it is important to make people feel “comfortable” once they are at the table and understand that “their input is important.”

Ms. Carpenter and several members of the Engagement Team outlined plans to engage the community during the next six months and long-term. She said the team, which has 18 members representing 13 organizations, has been meeting once a week for the last seven weeks, and will continue to do so through August.

Diona Wilson, an assistant principal at Haven Middle School and member of the Engagement Team, said the questions the Engagement Team has been asking are, “How do we build relationships? What does that look like? How do we engage the community because ultimately these are the people that we’re working for and working with.

“We want to go to every part of Evanston and talk about what do we need to do to work together to increase Cradle to Career and community literacy. From there we develop new perspectives, listening, learning, and growing to facilitate change and create new partnerships. That’s ultimately what we want to do. … We have to create a shared value.”

Ms. Wilson added, “We had a strong conversation about, ‘Is literacy really what we should be looking at? How do we know it’s important? How do we know this is where we should be going?’ That’s where the conversation is going to start, and then create that shared value within the community so we can move forward.”

“We have this moving train around the idea of community literacy, mostly around existing institutions, practitioners, agencies,” said Ms. Carpenter. But the community outreach will inform how it “actually resonates with people.” The goal is to “braid” the two together to develop a “shared vision and shared values” and to develop strategies, she said, adding this will be “a continual process.” 

Sheila Merry, executive director of EC2C, told the RoundTable, “I believe what the committee is thinking is, ‘We need to be hearing what are the urgent issues from the community’s perspective. And that will influence how we think about community literacy.

“Our initial focus, for this first Solution Design Team, is community literacy.  We recognize that the community would likely not highlight this as their major concern, but we firmly believe that literacy is deeply tied to what we suspect we will hear as major concerns – jobs, housing, safety, etc.  Our conversations with community members, we hope, will be the beginning of ongoing relationships that will guide both how strategies should be developed for this first team and how subsequent teams will develop.  Ultimately, we hope that this will become much more of a partnership where organizational perspectives and the community’s will come much more in line.”

Ald. Holmes told the RoundTable, “How do we get people in the community to understand literacy is one of those things that connects everything? Once we go out in the community, people may not be saying literacy is an issue, and we don’t know that. We have to have people understand not only what literacy is, but how it affects us in every way. For instance we talk about violence. You have to help people understand how violence in the community goes back and connects in some ways with literacy, for some youth very, very early.

“I think the job is to work as hard as you can to show the connection of literacy to everything, to whatever group we’re working with,” Ald. Holmes continued. “If we don’t do that we’re not really doing our job in terms of making people understand what this is all about.”

Anne Murdoch, Board member of Evanston Community Foundation and member of the Engagement Team, added another dimension. She said, “One of the things we really want to help do is also change the way this room looks going forward” – by bringing people who EC2C is intended to benefit to the table  to “inform our process and make it more robust and effective.”

“We want to build trust and a comfort level that will encourage more people to join us and share their voices,” Ms. Murdoch said.

Ms. Carpenter outlined two listening strategies the Engagement Team plans to follow through on between now and October. First, she said, the committee plans to conduct focus groups to gather “concrete information” from folks in the community on how they feel about how cradle to career is structured, about the focus on community literacy, and about some of the strategies.

Second, Ms. Carpenter, said the team will engage in what she called “casual listening” at various events or places in the community, such as National Night Out, ward meetings, barber shops and churches.  She said it was important to be out in the community, to build relationships, and “to just hear what’s on people’s minds,” without an agenda.

Between October and December, Ms. Carpenter said, the Engagement Team plans to use the information gathered in the focus groups and through casual listening to identify new avenues of community engagement. Some of the things she suggested might be considered are creating a parent advisory council, increasing representation on the action teams, and sharing feedback to the community so they know their voices are heard.

At the July 15 meeting, members of the Literacy Team provided written input on the community engagement plan. The plan is still a work in process.

“In addition to engaging  the formal sectors [e.g. municipalities, school districts, non-profits, community advocates], we have learned the importance of working with people who have lived experience. Too often, the people who will ultimately benefit from program or policy changes are excluded from the process of understanding the problem and then identifying and implementing solutions. Authentic engagement with people who are experiencing the problem first hand is critical to ensuring that strategies are effective.” Essential Mindset Shifts for Collective Impact, by John Kania, et al, Stanford Social Innovation Review (Fall 2014).


 “Community engagement needs to be a contextual process not only in regards to a specific community or region but also to a specific topic or challenge. …

 “Transformational engagement is the deepest level of engagement and involves integrating the community into the decision-making and problem-solving of the Partnership. This type of engagement involves equal communication from the community and the Partnership; however the number of people who can be involved in this type of deep engagement is limited. An example of transformational engagement is involving community experts and practitioners in the collaborative action networks to use data and expertise to identify what is working and build strategies to continuously improve the work. Additionally, collaborative action networks often have feedback loops to test whether their identified strategies resonate with community members who are impacted by the work, engaging both community experts and community members in the decision-making, and problem-solving functions of the partnership.” Community engagement in Collective Impact, blogs by Carly Rospert, associate director of Knowledge & Tool Development for Strive Together, (2013).


 “If you look back at history, things have changed at large scale in this country and around the world when some critical mass of organizations comes together and agrees that there is something important to work on. But this happens only when everyday people believe the issue is really important and are willing to change their own behavior. Not because someone tells them to, but because they want to. They see it as a priority for themselves, their communities, and their lives.

“Then there is the issue of creating real change in the community so that things actually get better. That’s where this whole idea of engaging people and making them feel a part of the process comes in. Even if they didn’t come to the community conversation to share their voice, they see their aspirations echoed by others around them and they feel a part of it. They feel like it’s something they want to adopt in their whole life. This is an interesting cultural shift in the community that changes behavior.” Roundtable on Community Engagement and Collective Impact, comment by Stacey Stewart, U.S. President of United Way Worldwide,  Stanford Social Innovation Review (Fall 2014),

Update on the Literacy Team

The draft overarching goal of the Community Literacy Solution Design Team is “”All children, youth, young adults and families in Evanston have the literacy skills and competencies they need to realize our shared vision.”” On May 29, the Literacy Team, which has more than 50 members, decided to form five Action Teams based on five key outcomes:

• All children and youth are safe, healthy and ready to learn.

• Children and youth have the literacy skills needed at all stages to support academic success.

• All young adults in Evanston have a post-secondary plan and the skills and supports to execute it.

• Parents and other caregivers have the skills they need to support their children’s literacy.

• All members of the community work together to build the capacity for literacy, ensuring that resources are equitably distributed throughout Evanston.

Each Action Team has met seven or eight times and discussed goals, strategies, and measures of success. On Aug. 11, each Action Team is scheduled to present “”what objective they have decided to target initially, what metrics they are thinking makes sense for them and then three goals, an immediate goal, a six-month to one-year goal, and a long-term goal.”” said Sheila Merry, executive director of EC2C.

The large group “”will then look at how well things fit together and get feedback from one another on how we can help one another with the goals we have established,”” said Ms. Merry.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...