We connected with Dr. Lance Gibbon to learn about his highly successful community partnership and engagement strategies in this three-part interview series. Dr. Gibbon is a thought leader in this field with a strong 30-year track record of success in multiple school districts. Dr. Gibbon’s efforts have resulted in increased community engagement, support and pride in local schools, and successful passage of school district ballot measures. In this segment, we wanted to hear Dr. Gibbon’s views on the roles of inclusivity, communication, and recognition in community engagement.
We understand that authentic community engagement can be difficult for some school systems. What challenges have you faced when trying to engage the community? How did you overcome them?
Probably the biggest challenge is communication. It can be particularly difficult to reach certain target audiences. With all of the tools at our disposal, you’d think that would be relatively easy. But the fact is that when you look at the diversity of groups that you’re trying to connect with in a community, it takes a pretty broad approach.
That means using multiple means of communication. The web, social media, email, and videos are all great. Boosting social media posts in your local community can greatly expand your reach and is very cost-effective. But keep in mind that some community members still prefer plain old paper. It can help to make sure you’ve got a newspaper article or press release out before the event. Attractive color flyers posted at a community center or mailing them to certain businesses or organizations can also expand your audience. Plus, fliers are good collateral to hand out at in-person events.
Verbal communication is always good. There are also often opportunities to make announcements at other events. There might be a chance for a quick announcement or plug at a Chamber luncheon or Rotary meeting. Even taking advantage of public comment at a city council meeting can help spread the word. Whatever you do, be sure to encourage people to talk to their neighbors and let them know what’s going on. It really helps to use the grapevine when you can.
If you’re putting together a community engagement event, sometimes it’s hard to get people to show up. How do you overcome this challenge?
It’s true that generating community interest in what’s happening can also be difficult. Apathy is hard to overcome. Let’s say you’re hosting a community information night or town hall and people don’t know what it is; they’ll probably be a little reluctant to come. This is where having some kind of draw is important in getting people through the door.
Student performances or food made by students from our culinary arts program can generate interest and, at the very least, get the families of the students to show up. Advertising that you’ll be addressing a hot topic that’s out in the community can also get people in, even if you’re going to share additional information once they’re there.
I’ve also found that posting pictures and stories from prior events to promote your new event can really help. Just the visual of people attending the same or similar event makes people feel a little bit more excited and willing to come out for the next event or activity that you’ve put together. “The people in that picture look like they’re having fun. Maybe we should go!”
For people who can’t make it in person, offering a virtual option or streaming the event can be a big help. Just being able to go back and see the main presentation at a later date can greatly expand your potential audience.
Have you ever used recognition and PR to increase community engagement? If so, how did it work?
Absolutely. One of the biggest things we did as a school district was to highlight what our community partners were supporting or doing in our schools on our website, on social media, and in newsletters. To me, community partners include anyone outside our schools that serves and supports our work with kids. So that means our PTSA’s, service clubs, city and county governments, emergency services like police and fire, churches, other non-profits, and even local businesses. It was surprising how often people weren’t aware that these groups were helping us out. Honestly, if we don’t tell the story, people don’t know about it.
For example, our Kiwanis Club purchased and delivered student dictionaries to every third-grade student in the district. We’d take and post pictures of smiling students with their dictionaries and Kiwanians passing them out. The community loved it and the club felt valued and recognized for their work. I think seeing coverage for our volunteers and partners made other organizations a little more excited about their partnerships. Recognition is like putting a little fuel in the tank.
The same goes for individual volunteer recognition. We created a way for us to allow staff members or community members to nominate volunteers doing great work for students and families to be recognized as volunteer of the month. All the nominations were published so everyone was recognized and they each received a thank-you note from the superintendent. The “winner” was surprised by the superintendent at school with a certificate and a special district-branded tumbler. We’d also share the stories of our volunteers on our media channels.
Another PR engagement idea is sponsorship. Depending on your district’s fiscal rules, you might have to run this through partner organizations such as foundations, but we hosted an annual staff family picnic and actually had businesses competing to be the grand sponsor because they saw it was so beneficial from a PR standpoint. The staff and their families just loved coming. Sponsors were able to set up a tent at the event and we made sure to recognize them in multiple ways like giving shoutouts on the PA or playing a video before the movie. They liked being seen as making something special happen for our educators and their families. It was truly a win-win.
Talk to us about other barriers to community engagement, specifically inclusivity and accessibility. What steps do you take to ensure that your community engagement efforts are inclusive and accessible to all members of the community?
If you’re serious about community engagement, inclusivity, and accessibility are vital. Always asking for feedback about your events and communications is a great place to start. Are there parts of your community that are not there or you’re not reaching? Find out why. For example, as I mentioned earlier, multiple modes of communication are important, and not making assumptions about how people want or need to get their information. Traditional print media with various electronic and in-person communication helps reach more segments of the community.
As part of that, it’s important to make sure you address language barriers. Thankfully, there are lots of new electronic tools that can help. Software like ParentSquare actually allows community members or parents to pick the language that they want to receive their information in. Websites generally feature translators, which is great, and virtual translation services can help record or translate verbal messages. For the hard of hearing, don’t forget to consider subtitles, transcriptions, and interpreters.
Live-streaming or hosting a virtual version of your event is another way to expand access, especially for those with schedule conflicts or transportation issues. Another advantage to online events is the audio transcription and translation tools available. These can be huge in overcoming language barriers.
Making sure you’re inclusive sometimes requires personal or individual outreach. If you have groups or individuals that could benefit from a service or program you’re offering, but they’re not participating or you’re concerned if you’re reaching them, a call, text, or direct email from someone they know and trust can be just what they need to feel welcomed and safe to participate. That could be a staff member, volunteer or someone from the community.
Another way to remove access barriers is to take your program or event to the community rather than asking them to come to you. Take your presentation to them. Meet them where they’re at. That might be showing up and participating in events where they’re already attending. Going to the community rather than just asking them to come to you can be a really powerful way to make sure that our events are more inclusive and remove some of the barriers like transportation.
The bottom line is that identifying and thinking through barriers to getting everyone access and making them feel welcome is more than worth the extra effort. Again, asking for suggestions from the groups you’re trying to reach can be very illuminating. And don’t forget to take advantage of your other community partners, such as service groups and nonprofits, who can also help make sure that you’re able to address accessibility and inclusivity issues so that everyone can participate.
About Dr. Lance Gibbon
Dr. Lance Gibbon has been serving a diverse range of students, staff, and families for three decades in the Puget Sound area. Cultivating connections and enhancing team building through creative strategies and community partnerships, Dr. Gibbon exemplifies servant leadership. He fosters positive, inclusive learning environments for students, educators, and staff members alike.
Lance Gibbon supports many organizations, including Rotary Club, Kiwanis Club, and Big Brothers Big Sisters. He has been honored with awards from Empower Youth Network, the Washington School Public Relations Association, Best of Whidbey, and EarthGen (formerly Washington Green Schools).