Community Involvement in Evaluating Violence Prevention
March 7, 2016 | Estivaliz Castro
“Community involvement” appears to be the new catchphrase in grant language, programs, research, and program evaluations. Experienced evaluators seem to agree that community involvement is tremendously important when assessing the effects of a program. And yet, engaging with communities requires time and effort. It is not straightforward and may come with some challenges. Even so, the large numbers of young people who are victimized by gun and gang violence in the United States speaks to the importance of engaging the community when evaluating violence prevention programs.
From 2010 to 2012, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency (NCCD) conducted a process and outcome evaluation of the Salinas Comprehensive Strategy for Community-Wide Violence Reduction, also known as the Strategic Work Plan. The Strategic Work Plan aims to address gang violence in the City of Salinas, California, with an initial focus on the Hebron Heights neighborhood. This high-density residential area is plagued with high levels of crime, violence, and poverty. However, with the potential to undergo significant community transformation, Hebron Heights was selected as the pilot location for the Strategic Work Plan.
NCCD’s objectives for the evaluation were to advance the work of the City of Salinas, provide recommendations, and demonstrate the impact on crime and community safety in the City of Salinas, in particular, the Hebron Heights neighborhood. NCCD’s evaluation methodology included a planning process to identify key research questions and a process and outcome evaluation to assess the plan. For the planning process, NCCD interviewed 25 stakeholders who worked on developing or implementing the plan. For its process and outcome evaluation, NCCD interviewed more than 65 individuals, including community members and representatives of government agencies, community-based organizations, and other entities involved in the plan’s development and implementation.
NCCD staff who worked on this project took away the following lessons about involving communities in evaluations.
Community members are the real experts. They understand existing tensions, structural struggles, and what works in their cities and neighborhoods arguably better than any other stakeholder group. Community members also understand the needs of their respective neighborhoods. In Salinas, for example, a group of women saw a need to create a support group for parents who lost children to gang violence. Program goals included creating a space for grieving parents to share experiences, spread awareness, and warn other families about the dangers of gang involvement. This invaluable connection and understanding of community needs is only attained through firsthand experience. Throughout an evaluation, a conscious effort must be made to listen to the voices of those who are not often brought to the table. These community members are most impacted by violence in their cities, which makes them the experts.
Form relationships with a diverse group of stakeholders through initial interviews. One barrier that evaluators may face when trying to engage community members is a lack of community connections. NCCD works to eliminate this barrier by conducting interviews with stakeholders—individuals who are affected indirectly or directly by the program being evaluated. Stakeholder interviews help to inform evaluators of the context, tensions, goals, challenges, and successes faced by the program. Stakeholder interviews also enable the formation of relationships with a diverse group of community members and agencies. During interviews, stakeholders often identify essential additional community members to bring to the table. By forming relationships with these stakeholders, NCCD can develop an advisory board that comprises local community members and individuals who represent different agencies. An advisory board can help guide the evaluation from beginning to end. This way, the evaluation’s focus, methodology, and data collection and analysis are all informed and verified by the advisory board and not by the evaluator alone.
Use stakeholder relationships to build rapport with communities. Because many of the community members most affected by gang violence tend to come from marginalized backgrounds, a lack of trust may prevent them from participating in interviews and focus groups. Although forming relationships with community members takes time and effort, a key way to expedite relationship building is by asking a stakeholder with connections to community members to facilitate initial interactions.
Make evaluation accessible to communities. Another barrier that community members may encounter is a lack of accessibility to interviews and focus groups. In Salinas, for example, many parents worked long hours, lacked transportation, and/or did not speak English. In order to reduce these barriers, NCCD held interviews at the parents’ convenience, met them in their neighborhood, and used interviewers who spoke the language and understood the culture. When interviewing community members, it is important to make these meetings as accessible as possible.
Community members are some of the most important partners for evaluators assessing violence prevention and intervention programs. It is critical for evaluators to hear these voices as conversations and decisions about violence reduction strategies take place.