More Than Community Engagement Coordinators
How two CRC staff members empower communities
Author: Cecilia Laura Morales
Before serving as community engagement coordinator for the Center for Regional Change, Nancy Xiong already felt like the organization was family from simply reading about it and realizing how much of its mission aligned with her personal goals. Once she joined the team, her connection to the center was reinforced.
“Now that I’ve gotten to know more of my co-workers, just seeing how passionate they are about the work, that’s how familiar it felt,” Xiong said. “Meeting them and realizing they’re equally as passionate and share the same values that you do so you don’t come in thinking that you always have to fight for resources but knowing that you have the support of a whole center behind your back on anything that you wanted to do because your values align that much with everyone.”
One of these coworkers, Brandon Louie, is who Xiong would go on to do youth engagement work with for UC CalFresh*. Specifically, they are helping nutrition educators in certain counties implement youth-led participatory action research (YPAR) projects and shift from a focus on serving youth to engaging youth in nutrition and physical activity.
“YPAR is one of those newer strategies that we’re helping to build capacity for but like I said it is really hard only because folks are so used to working on a set curricula,” Xiong said. “Oftentimes YPAR is not that. We have stepping stones to help guide the project, we provide technical assistance support for the adult allies leading the project but at the end it’s really about the relationships that they share with the young people and the trust that they have in order for the project to be successful.”
In their community engagement work across different projects, both have recognized the larger struggles they’re up against from bureaucratic red tape to low funding to the system-impacted positions of those they are collaborating with.
“Just another key challenge in particular working with youth—or just community members in general—who come from marginalized populations, communities that have been oppressed and exploited for generations and generations,” Louie said. “There's a lot of just everyday survival that people have to deal with. And so some of this work at times can be a lot of extra tasks and responsibilities for people who already are just trying to get by, trying to survive.”
Xiong and Louie, and the center as whole, push through these forces by valuing these communities and keeping it genuine in their pursuit of social equity. In being open to learning from them, the center can better understand what it takes to help them reach a healthier, more prosperous and sustainable level.
On the trauma-informed healing framework used by groups such as the Neighborhoods Owning Power, Action, and Leadership (NOPAL) Collective that Louie works with, he said: “It's about self-care, it's about spirituality. It's not just about the work, the work, the work, you know. Some of our partners talk a lot about focusing more on the relational versus the transactional. How do I just build with people as people, see you as a human before it's just like, ‘You and I have a thing to do.’”
Whether it’s educators who now feel more confident in their ability to teach unconventionally, as with YPAR work, or volunteer fellows involved with NOPAL who experienced incarceration in the past, each group continues to push their boundaries. And it shows. Both Xiong and Louie highlighted how fulfilled they feel when getting to witness growth within the communities they sought to elevate.
“They're doing the advocacy work; they're going to the capital, they're doing hearings and public comment advocating for changes,” Louie said. “It's really amazing to see them come in really unsure and then through both the technical training and relationship building — but also the healing work, the spiritual work, the cultural organizing work — they really become these incredible leaders and do this amazing work.”
To learn more about the youth engagement work Nancy Xiong and Brandon Louie work on click here.
*A project supported by faculty affiliate: Nancy Erbstein (Assistant Research Professor, UC Davis: Dept. of Human Ecology).