By Shannon Williams
Executive Vice President
The Mind Trust
I believe when you are trying to make change or overhaul a broken system, it is imperative that you first listen to those most impacted. You must begin by listening to what they want, to what their solutions are. There’s a common truism in the nonprofit sector that reinforces this approach: doing things with a community rather than to a community.
If we fail to listen first, act second, it doesn’t matter how good our solution is or how compelling our ideas. Without community-driven support, those solutions will die on the vine and never impact the people they were meant to support.
I serve as the Executive Vice President for The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based education nonprofit. In this role, part of my responsibilities include leading the community engagement work. I’ll be honest, the history of The Mind Trust doesn’t always reflect the “listen first” approach I outlined above. There are times when we have done things to a community and expected the community to go along with it.
But we have made great strides in recent years. We have listened and implemented programming that would not exist had our community not requested it. Before I get into the specific examples, I should define what I mean when I say our community. It starts with our mission statement. At The Mind Trust, we strive to provide every Indianapolis student access to an excellent education. Every student, full stop.
Yet if you dig into our beliefs and our core values, you’ll see that we emphasize racial equity out of a recognition that our education system has never effectively served Black, Latino, and low-income students. As a result, so much of our work focuses on delivering better outcomes for our city’s marginalized students. We know they are deserving. We know they can achieve. Systems have conspired against them for years to hold them back and we fight these broken systems at every turn.
You’re probably curious: what have we done that grew in response to what our Black, Latino, and low-income communities wanted? One of my favorite examples is from the early days of the pandemic. Those early months were chaotic, filled with school closures, shortages on grocery store shelves, and a feeling that we were all on our own to figure things out.
While the pandemic affected everyone to some degree, it was so clear then and has remained clear since, that some people felt its effects worse than others. In so many ways, the pandemic intensified existing inequities in education and our wider society. Being an education nonprofit, we knew we had to do everything in our power to make sure the pandemic did not derail the educational futures for our city’s most vulnerable students.
We had our own ideas for what could be done, but I am so proud that we leaned in and listened to what Indianapolis families wanted. We heard that school closures were hard on kids. They were just as hard on the working families in our city who were trying to survive as the world spun out of control. They needed somewhere safe for their children to keep learning while they kept working.
In just a short time, The Mind Trust activated partnerships with faith leaders, community organizations, and schools to offer Community Learning Sites. These sites offered free, in-person support for students to conduct e-learning, receive social-emotional support, and be nourished both physically and mentally. Thousands of students had somewhere to go and their families didn’t have to choose between the well-being of their children or putting food on the table.
Looking back, I am confident that the solution we would have proposed would not have been as successful as Community Learning Sites. Parents requested them and they took advantage of them because they were exactly what they asked for. Reinforcing the importance of listening is the fact that Community Learning Sites catalyzed something much larger.
As the pandemic receded and schools opened back up, Community Learning Sites became less necessary. Parents, however saw a lasting solution in them to a larger problem: affordable, high-quality out-of-school learning opportunities. In response, we partnered with the United Way of Central Indiana to modify Community Learning Sites into what would become Indy Summer Learning Labs (ISLL).
The results from ISLL in just two years are remarkable. In summer 2021 and 2022, thousands of Indianapolis students attended five weeks of summer programming that led them to achieving average ELA and math score improvements of 15 percentage points from beginning- to end-of-program. Anyone who works in education knows that academic growth at that level is rare. Even more rare is repeating the feat. ISLL did it two years running even as the number of students who were served expanded.
The program is back for 2023 and I’m eager to see how it continues to accelerate student learning. Ultimately, neither Community Learning Sites nor ISLL would exist had we not taken the time to listen and respond to what our families were asking for.
There’s a set of truths found in the Good Samaritan narrative in the New Testament that are a good example of how often those who seek to help, often miss what’s right in front of them. Quite frankly, the approach I shared for doing service work where you listen first, act second is rare in today’s world.
So many organizations, whether they’re government, corporate, or nonprofit, do exactly the opposite. Or worse, they act first, act second, and never listen at all.
I’m not here just to lay blame. In fact, I think I understand why the “listen first” approach is rare. It’s scary to listen. For starters, you may not like what you hear. It goes deeper than that though. To better illustrate this, I have quoted the passage where Jesus outlines the Good Samaritan story in Luke 10:30-35 from the New Living Translation.
30- A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road.
31- By chance a priest came along. But when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by.
32- A Temple assistant walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side.
33- Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. 34 Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. 35 The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coins, telling him, ‘Take care of this man. If his bill runs higher than this, I’ll pay you the next time I’m here.’
Pay close attention to what happens in this story that applies to my work at an education nonprofit but that could just as easily apply to how a company treats its community. It starts with a person in need. Notice that their society had systems and structures in place for meeting those needs but when those systems encountered this person in need, they walked on by. They failed, not unlike the way our education system has historically failed Black and Brown children.
It was a radical act for the Samaritan, someone the passage indicates was “despised” by society, to feel compassion and do something for the injured person. The Samaritan doesn’t just heal his immediate wounds, he makes sure that this person is taken care of long-term. He has invested in this person’s outcome.
The Samaritan recognizes how revolutionary it is to help someone. By choosing to help, we immediately become accountable for what happens to the person we help. The Samaritan knew this, which is why he leaves the silver coins to cover future expenses. He didn’t want to be a band-aid, he wanted to be a solution.
That’s why I think listening can scare leaders sometimes. First, listening is a form of helping. No, it does not solve any problems on its own. But how could we ever hope to create lasting change if we don’t know what people think needs to be changed? Listening is the first step. And it’s apparent to me that if we listen, we become accountable to the people we have listened to. Doubly so when we choose to actually help. We are on the hook for what happens to the people we serve.
Although that may be intimidating, to downplay the role of organizations in transforming people’s lives by listening first is to abdicate our responsibility for solving injustice and turn a blind eye to persistent inequity. Our communities know what problems they face. When was the last time you asked them what the solutions should be?
The mantra that guides the team I lead at The Mind Trust. If you want to make a change, listen first. I promise that you, and your community, will be better off for it.
As The Mind Trust’s Executive Vice President, Shannon Williams leads the organization’s communications, community engagement and development teams in addition to serving as a strategic partner to the CEO. Since joining The Mind Trust in 2018, Shannon has been instrumental in expanding the organization’s brand and partnerships, establishing strong relationships with the grassroots community, and working with key groups of civic and community leaders to build understanding about the organization’s work. She has also launched initiatives that diversified the organization’s revenue streams. In addition, Shannon is also responsible for developing a fellowship that resulted in the incubation of EmpowerED Families, a parent-led advocacy organization.