Spotlight on West Marion Community Forum
November 13, 2020
Mary Snow, Principal Consultant, Equitable Community Strategies
Paula Swepson, Executive Director, West Marion Community Forum Inc.
Foundation grantees Paula Swepson and Mary Snow sat down with us to share lessons learned in partnering with their community to build power and ignite change, and how they are gifting those learnings to the field.
1. To start, can you each tell us a little bit about yourselves and your work with West Marion Community Forum?
My name is Mary Snow and I’m the Principal Consultant at Equitable Community Strategies. My name is Paula Swepson and I’m the Executive Director of the West Marion Community Forum Inc.
We work together to support community driven changes across historically excluded neighborhoods in McDowell County, North Carolina. We love to partner with community members to uncover their vision, hopes, and dreams for their community. We like to think of ourselves as truthtellers, positive disrupters, and good troublemakers, whose work results in creative solutions to address systemic challenges, build new leadership, and foster non-traditional partnerships.
I’ve learned that there is more than one way to be right. You have to get out of the institutional way of thinking about things and be open to a new way of working and thinking – structure isn’t always good.
2. What has been a key lesson (or two) that you've learned about community engagement in your work?
Mary: I’ve learned that there is an incredible amount of heart, courage, strategy, and intentionality that goes into community engagement. This work requires you to be a true champion of community voices by listening deeply to them, uncovering hidden talents, building spaces for people to speak their truth across diverse lived experiences, and stepping back to let others lead, plan, and drive community projects. It also requires ongoing self-reflection about how to be flexible and adjust our compass in real time when we are headed in the wrong direction. Mostly, you have to be willing to get uncomfortable, take risks, and swim in the messiness of change; which I believe is the sweet spot of where our individual and collective growth happens.
Paula: I’ve learned that, "It ain’t about you, boo.” Or what our team lovingly refers to as the QTIP (Quit Taking it Personally). I believe that some of the most prized possessions are within community. It just takes a willingness to get to know new people and bring out their leadership. I’ve also learned that there is more than one way to be right. You have to get out of the institutional way of thinking about things and be open to a new way of working and thinking – structure isn’t always good. Sometimes you have to be willing to do things outside of a norm or structure to accomplish a common goal.
We are moved by the power of community voices when they come together to advocate for their needs, envision new ways of being, lift up each other, run for office, and flip the status quo.
3. Tell us about your book, Shift Happens in Community: A Toolkit to Build Power and Ignite Change, and the inspiration behind it.
Mary: This book is our love letter to the community development field. We believe that real and lasting change comes from the bottom up and we want to share our model for others to replicate far and wide. We are moved by the power of community voices when they come together to advocate for their needs, envision new ways of being, lift up each other, run for office, and flip the status quo. This work takes away the noise created by media propaganda, and political divineness, and just brings us back to our humanity so we can truly see each other and how our destinies are tied together.
Paula: We believe this work is more urgent and more timely than ever before. We want to share our knowledge and help others who have struggled through similar challenges.
4. What do you hope readers walk away knowing or having a better understanding of?
Mary: This work requires a long-term perspective and a commitment to build real and lasting relationships. I remember speaking to an institutional leader once who told me they didn’t have time to build relationships within the community. I think if that is your attitude, then you need to question your role in this work, and/or, kindly move out of the way, because you can’t work toward a shared goal without trust and relationships.
Paula: That shift can happen in community. It’s about being intentional, thoughtful, and respectful. It’s also about having a team: #ittakesavillage. We move this work from a place where we believe that everybody has something to donate – whether it is time, ideas, or skillsets. If you learn to create a space where people are included and feel empowered to speak, then your village will become stronger.
5. What is one step individuals or organizations can take toward community-driven and/or community-led work?
Mary: Host a community forum and listen deeply to the wisdom and ideas of the community.
Paula: Yes, use this toolkit to bring the community together and be intentional from the start. Don’t come with your own agenda. Let the community define and lead this work.
6. Where can people find the book and/or support West Marion Community Forum?
Pre-order your copy now.
Official release date: December 7th, 2020
West Marion Community Forum is a current Foundation Community-Centered Health grantee – a clinical-community collaboration working to better understand and act on non-medical drivers of health.
About the Authors
Mary Snow is the Principal Consultant at Equitable Community Strategies. Learn more.
Paula Swepson is the Executive Director of West Marion Community Forum. Learn more.
View and opinions expressed in our blog are those of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation