Oakland is a unique place to be engaged in this work. As a city, we have a deep history and enduring legacy of powerful community-based efforts. Some of the best and most successful schools in our city were designed in deep and authentic collaboration with parents, students, and teachers. What these schools have embedded into their DNA is that real community engagement is not only a good thing to have – it is critical to successful school redesign.
Engagement goes far beyond gathering signatures on a petition, or holding a meeting to say that something is happening. Real, authentic engagement and relationship building starts by focusing on building deep, authentic, caring relationships with the people who are or will become a school’s community. Like any important relationship, this means taking the time to learn and grow to deeply care about one another. This means meeting and eating together, being introduced to the elders and neighbors of a community, listening to the stories, playing with the kids, and understanding the world through the lived experience of those in the community.
Once this relationship is growing, it then means authentically involving community members in all phases of the design process – starting from exploring great schools that help the group to imagine what’s possible, coming to consensus around what a great school is or could be, designing based on the visions and rooted in the hopes of the community, engaging students and parents as critical friends who shape and improve prototypes, and empowering parents and other community members to play key roles in the launch and leadership of the school. True engagement means checking in with the community, and using their feedback as a key indicator of success and/or work that needs to be done in moving a school forward. Without strong community engagement processes, we stand to make a huge design error – we may have built a school, but will it succeed if it is not built for and by the community it intends to serve?