Community Conversations

Centering Community Voice for Greater Impact

Hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts residents who are working to get back on their feet after the worst of the pandemic uncovered profound and historic inequities are being hit with record-breaking inflation, job losses and the threat of a recession. As a result of these challenges, affordable housing, healthcare, and childcare are becoming further and further out of reach. These are issues that we as a community have a unique and urgent opportunity to address.

United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley is rising to this moment.

Leveraging our uniquely powerful partnerships with community-based organizations and residents, we’re harnessing the power of community voices on the region’s most pressing priorities through a series of interactions with community members called Community Conversations. These Community Conversations inform our strategic planning and program investments and create a framework for incorporating community input into our impact strategy, so that we can achieve our vision: We will advance an economically just region, where access to financial opportunity is universal and prosperity is shared across race and ethnicity.

The What, When and How of Community Conversations

Time and time again we’ve seen that affecting real and long-lasting change in a community can only happen when we partner with community members—when we understand our communities’ priorities and challenges and include community members in identifying and developing solutions. Community Conversations evolved out of United Way’s commitment to center the voices of those most affected by economic injustice.

From April through June 2022, Community Connectors—community leaders with deep roots in their respective communities, who represent historically marginalized groups—convened small group gatherings of community members to discuss the issues that they feel matter most when it comes to their financial well-being. By design, most of these conversations took place in the eight focus areas where nearly half of people living in poverty in our region reside: Boston; Chelsea, Everett, Revere and Malden; Lowell; Cambridge and Somerville; Lawrence; Lynn; Quincy; and Taunton.

To augment Community Conversations, United Way held Town Halls, each focused on one of our major service areas: quality affordable childcare and out-of-school-time programs, educational and career pathways for youth and young adults, safe and stable housing, wealth accumulation and access to credit, and crisis response.

Community Conversations Participation by the Numbers

  • 29 Community Conversations were led by 25 Community Connectors hailing from 18 communities.
  • Two-thirds of the Community Connectors identified as a race other than White or European; 6 identified their ethnicity as Hispanic or Latino/x
  • About 400 residents participated in the conversations.
  • Participation came from every region within United Way’s service area with 13% from areas beyond United Way’s direct scope
  • 186 participants provided feedback in a post-event survey:
    • 60% identified as BIPOC or Latino/x
    • 32% responded in languages other than English

What We Heard

Through our Community Conversations, we heard the hopes and dreams of residents across our region, and we learned that the freedom to make choices in their lives, ensure their essential needs are met and plan for their future are all critical to achieving financial well-being.

Conversations also revealed common themes of mutual struggle. Lack of living-wage job opportunities combined with an inflated cost of living makes financial stability out of reach for many. Difficulty finding affordable childcare is a persistent challenge for families in our region. We heard over and over about the toll that COVID-related disruptions had on families and individuals, particularly children, and the need for more social and emotional supports in schools and youth programming.

Beyond the commonalities, Community Conversations raised issues unique to particular communities. For example, while many people consider foreign travel a luxury, for immigrants with close family members outside the U.S., travel abroad is an absolute necessity. “It’s soul sustaining. There’s a real connection between financial health and the isolation that immigrants feel,” one Community Connector said.

Key Takeaways

Community Conversations provided an opportunity for us to test ideas about financial wellbeing with residents in communities that are particularly impacted by the issues on which we focus, providing critical insights as we hone our grantmaking and programming. Among the key takeaways:

  • Long-term financial wellbeing is a priority in our communities. Community members described financial wellbeing in a future sense, citing homeownership and getting out of debt among important indicators of financial wellbeing, more frequently than they did in terms of meeting immediate needs such as keeping up with housing costs.
  • 18 to 24-year-olds were even more likely than older participants to identify longer-term indicators of financial wellbeing. United Way continuously heard from young people that while they want to meet their most immediate needs, they are future oriented and eager to build toward long-term financial well-being.
  • The areas that United Way prioritizes largely align with how community members perceive financial wellbeing: Over 60% of survey respondents reported financial wellbeing indicators that relate to our five key service areas. The balance of the responses were longer-term, holistic responses that financial wellbeing means aspirations like “spending more time with my family.”
  • Not all financial well-being indicators appear on a budget or balance sheet. 22% of respondents described indicators attached to a holistic -being, such as freedom or lack of stress. These intangibles are just as important as, and often driven by, financial stability.

From Input to Action

We’ve already begun incorporating the learnings from the Community Conversations into our new strategic plan for advancing economic justice in our region. A few important themes have surfaced to help guide our work:

  • Organizational values and our impact strategies must remain human-centered—financial well-being is just as much an experience as it is an outcome. When people feel financially secure, their mental and physical health improves. They are able to build for the future without worrying about debt. They can confidently make plans for achieving their goals, knowing that there is a clear path to getting there.
  • United Way is already well known for our ability to support individuals in meeting their immediate needs in a crisis; communities also need our support in achieving longer-term financial wellbeing.
  • Individuals’ experiences accessing services and resources is a critical factor as they strive toward their financial outcomes. If a family can access quality childcare when and where they need it, or if they can secure housing without an overwhelmingly complex process, the family outcomes for these services will be stronger. We must put people front and center when designing systems to support their financial wellbeing.
  • Our region’s residents are powerful, culturally intelligent connectors who can be change agents in communities that have been excluded from systems promoting financial wellbeing. We need to incorporate people’s lived experience and networks in decision making and program design.
  • Maintaining relationships with Community Connectors, building relationships with their networks, and prioritizing their inclusion and knowledge in our work will be critical to achieving our vision. This compels us to expand our reach and the consistency of our messaging to this audience. We are relying on our Community Connectors to inform our grantmaking decisions, program expansion, and be present at key inflection points, which makes this a long term, vs. One-time relationship..
  • Connectors and community members are serious about this work. We’re asking them for thoughtful input and a considerable time commitment. In return, we should approach their participation as we would any other consultant, with meaningful compensation.

When we raise up community voices and unite behind a shared vision, together we can be a force for economic justice!

People Are Saying…

“Quality early education is one of the best investments in the community…People don’t realize how critical early learning is for later success.”

“As we think about recovery and reconnecting for students whether through OST or school, the SEL piece is critical. Access and opportunity is good for [the whole] family.”

“[We need] More collaboration between providers of benefits and policy so that policy is not working counterintuitively.”

“’If you have 2 people working full time above minimum wage, you should be able to support their family.’ Families are wondering what more they can do. When does it get easier?”

“We need forums/places for individuals of different cultures to share what financial security means to them for a greater understanding of the cultural differences.

Meet A Connector

Amanda Blount, the Literacy Center, Attleboro

Amanda Blount, Executive Director of the Literacy Center in Attleboro, oversees an organization that works with 500 students a year, from 57 different countries. It was from this diverse population that she sourced her Community Conversation participants. Though she knew most of the group through their involvement with the agency, they surprised her. “Almost everyone really considered financial wellbeing to include the ability to travel to their country of origin and visit their family and children,” she says. “Initially, we thought about travel as a leisure activity, but for the people we serve, it’s not a leisure activity. They want to take care of ailing parents or see children they left in other countries. It’s soul sustaining. There’s a real connection between financial health and the isolation that immigrants feel. It was very clear to me that not being able to leave Massachusetts or Rhode Island is very stressful for them.”

The Greater Attleboro area falls far outside both Boston and the Southeastern Massachusetts areas, which limits the options for affordable housing, childcare and other critical supports. “It was very interesting to hear about how the United Way thinks about data that is representative of very disparate regions. It was clear that United Way was thinking about regional differences – this will be increasingly important as we think about how we can serve those communities that are so different. I am very interested to see how this will inform United Way’s strategic direction.”

Kathy Lafferty – South Boston Neighborhood House, Boston

South Boston Neighborhood House has been a community hub since its founding over 120 years ago, providing preschool, afterschool programming, family engagement programs, education and career programs for teens and a senior center for active seniors.

“This is a tight knit community,” says Kathy Lafferty, Executive Director of the center, as she describes the discussion group of about 20 parents, seniors and staff. “There’s a big gap in our neighborhood between people who have very little and people that have a LOT. These families have been squeezed out of the middle, and the disconnect has become greater over the last 10 years. The conversation was like gathering at my kitchen table – we all know and help each other.”

The group’s needs were urgent and immediate: “They aren’t even thinking about buying a house – all they talked about was getting out of debt, paying for childcare, buying groceries.” Kathy said. “Day-to-day expenses were their top priority.”

Through this conversation, we learned that bringing this community together and communicating about the services available to them takes a personal approach. “People in the room knew a lot about what agencies provided services for childcare and youth pathways, but felt like they didn’t know how to get to the right person or place. And they weren’t familiar with agencies that could help with financial support,” Kathy explained, “These folks face lots of obstacles to building wealth. Many of them live in subsidized housing. There are roadblocks around language and access to technology. We tend to get the word out with flyers, and we think we’re doing great by translating them. But people told us that just because you hang a flyer, it doesn’t mean they will come. They want to be invited. Their thought is “no one wants me to come” or “that’s not for me.”