Let’s Be Real: Building Authentic Engagement

Written by Beth Heller
    Tuesday, 27 October 2015
Let’s Be Real: Building Authentic Engagement

“An oasis in a city to learn about nature and teach kids about nature.”

This is what one community forum participant said about our Menomonee Valley branch when asked how he would describe the Urban Ecology Center to a friend. Another said “It is a place to have fun and laugh.” And when asked about challenges we can help address in the neighborhood, we heard that we should continue to “increase safety along the bike path,” provide more “options for kids in the neighborhood,” and perhaps add programs to help address “balanced nutrition … Kids eat unhealthy foods.”

These are just a few of the hundreds of comments provided through community forums at each of our branches – conversations with our friends and neighbors that help us to stay real and relevant.

Over the past couple years, the Board and Leadership staff at the Center have created a number of structures and processes aimed at providing authentic, timely guidance from our members, neighbors and constituents. These structures are designed to complement the feedback we already receive through our school partners, the community science advisory board of research institutions and surveys that we do for individual programs.

As the Center has grown, we have worked deliberately on building a team of board and committee members with experience and expertise to navigate complex governance issues and support increasing fund development goals, while at the same time ensuring that constituents have influence in program, mission and leadership decisions. In order to provide opportunities for engagement, each branch now has an advisory committee made up of board, staff and neighbors. These committees advise the decisions of the board and staff and are charged with the task of maintaining open communication channels with the neighborhood. Community forums are an outgrowth of this work.

Over the past two years, 134 community members engaged in one of seven forums offered at all of our branches. Participants included neighborhood residents and businesses, people coming to the Center for the first time and long standing members, and ages ranging from toddler to older adult. The hosts take notes, facilitating small group discussions so that everyone who attends is able to participate. Over a snack or meal, the forum participants have been able to dig deeply into interests, issues, assets and challenges faced by the Center and the community. At Riverside Park, we even incorporated a walk and a campfire into our forum this fall. Our spaces have been filled with creativity, laughter, listening, sharing and more listening. Forum feedback is guiding the growth and refinement of our program offerings at all of our branches, is informing a plan for renovation at our Washington Park branch and is ensuring that the Board hears the voice of our constituents. This is the kind of authentic engagement we hope for.

In addition, the Board has instituted a new Impact Committee made up of neighbors, Board members, researchers and staff to ensure that the work happening across the entire organization has the desired mission-based effects. Under the guidance of this committee, the Center has refreshed its 8 year-old impact framework and is in the process of determining the best, most cost-effective approaches for ongoing evaluation.

These committees also serve as a pipeline to board membership. Over 30% of our current board members first served on a Board or project steering committee. Our Nominating and Governance Committee relies upon board committees to nominate community and business leaders who also have the practice and commitment of serving on a committee. This has been one of the most reliable ways that we have been able to build such a strong, engaged and talented board. It is the authentic engagement of Board and committee members through our new structures that leads us to recommend the changes to the Article of Incorporation at the Annual meeting this year (described on page 10). We are aiming to formalize ways that ensure deliberate, informed decision making that reflects our culture of authentic community engagement.

Want to get involved? We plan to host forums at least once a year at each branch. Next on the calendar is a community engagement session at Washington Park led by Quorum Architects focused on our facility renovation vision on November 17th at 5:30pm. It is sure to be fun, engaging and valuable. Questions? Please direct them to Beth at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Photo Credit: Priscilla Farrell
Beth Heller

Beth Heller

Senior Director of Education and Strategic Planning, Beth received her Masters in Business Administration from UW-Milwaukee in 2005, where she received the Outstanding Business Plan award for a plan to launch a branch of the Urban Ecology Center in Washington Park. She graduated from Lawrence University in Appleton, WI in 1994 with a B.A. degree in Biology and Education. Beth began working at the Urban Ecology Center in 2000 to combine her love of the city with her appreciation of nature. Beth loves to sail, bike, sing and hike.


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