Richmond Matters

Commentary and conversations about life in Richmond, Indiana

Community Life

Communication, data and collaboration: Megan Sanders on Forward Wayne County

Forward Wayne County is a relatively new organization driven by a simple idea: that we’re already equipped to tackle some of the biggest challenges facing our community, and that by improving communication, collaboration and how we understand and measure our work, we can make real and lasting progress. As Program Director, Richmond native Megan Sanders is facilitating this ambitious and far-reaching effort that is capturing the attention of leaders and residents across the region.

In this conversation Megan and I talk about just what exactly Forward Wayne County is and does, how increasing and improving communication is so critical, and how all of us have a part to play in helping Wayne County thrive.

Transcript

The below transcript was generated with the use of automation and may contain errors or omissions.

Chris Hardie: Megan, thank you for joining me on Richmond Matters.

Megan Sanders: Yes, thank you for having me.

Chris: So, we’re here in part to talk about Forward Wayne County and a bunch of other stuff, too. But I want to start with that and ask you, what is Forward Wayne County and how did it come into existence?

Megan: So, Forward Wayne County is a what we call collective impact initiative. And collective impact is a framework that’s utilized when entities, groups, communities want to make really big changes. And those changes are best served by making sure that everyone that’s coming together to address to whatever the problem is, to make changes, it’s important to make sure that everyone is on the same page. So, collective impact, it has what they call five principles behind it. So, when people are coming together to make changes, obviously you want to make sure that everybody has a shared understanding of what is being addressed.

So, if you have five groups coming together to address something like childhood hunger and food access, you want all the groups to understand what that really means within the community that you’re serving. So, if one group thinks that it’s that the families just are having trouble with cooking. Maybe they think they just need recipes. They need a good recipe book and everything will be fine. Where the other groups realize, no, it’s more they don’t have access to food to cook. If you have a difference of views, opinions, understandings with all the different groups, and everyone is coming together to address that problem of food insecurity, you’re likely not going to achieve the results that you would like to achieve as a group.

Chris: It’s interesting to think that something as simple as childhood hunger could be interpreted so many different ways. I mean, it’s a helpful example because it would be easy to say, right? “Just make sure they have food,” right? “Just make sure the kids have food.”

Megan: Exactly.

Chris: But what you’re saying is that people who are thinking about that problem or working in that space might have very different approaches. And then you’re trying to sort of bring those efforts together.

Megan: Very much so, yes. So, when you have any type of problem that is… and I say communities, my background is in social work. So, I think that I look through that lens most often with those problems that plague communities. But collective impact can really be utilized anywhere. It can be utilized in a business setting, industrial setting. Any type of big problem can be served by using a collective impact approach. And I think that those big five components really speak to why that is. So, that first one, like I said, making sure everyone is on the same page because if you’re not on the same page, you’re not addressing the same problem. And you could be going in different directions or even overlapping efforts.

Chris: And I know that historically as a community, we’ve had other efforts, other attempts at unifying the city of Richmond, or Wayne County, or the region around a particular vision or a particular way forward. Whether it’s addressing challenges or thinking about how to improve the area. And I know maybe a cynical person might say, “Okay, we’ve tried this kind of thing before and maybe it made a difference in one way or the other. And then it went away or it fizzled out.” So, can you talk a little bit about sort of Forward Wayne County as a different or new approach? And how is it different maybe from some of those past efforts?

Megan: So, connecting that question with your earlier question, Forward Wayne County really came out of an understanding that we have a lot of great resources within our area. We have great leaders. We have the ability to do a lot of really big things, but there’s an issue that we have. And that is that there’s not a lot of great communication. And I like to point out that this isn’t because people in the area don’t want to communicate, because if I’ve learned anything since entering this position, it’s that people really want to communicate. And they want to work together, but we have a lot of busy people, and being really busy doesn’t leave a lot of time for great communication.

So, I want to reference a study that I really hold in my mind as a clarifying instance of really what led to Forward Wayne County, that aha moment. And that was the study that was done by Katz, Sapper & Miller when Richmond Wayne County looked at adding in a life sciences building to bring biomed education to the area.

And the accounting firm did their assessment, they did their interviews with people. They really looked at, what does Richmond Wayne County have to offer? What resources could we use to really get this off the ground? And through their interviews and their research, they found that people were not communicating. And I think that that really ties into what I was discussing before with collective impact. And I think that it’s really important to understand that collective impact isn’t just collaboration. Because like you said, I hear that a lot and I’ve seen that with other groups, where people can have the best interest at heart and really want to make a change.

But if you are going about it with just collaboration and not a solid plan, you might find that you try and try and try to make a change and either it never comes together. Or, you do notice fruits of your labor but then it falls apart or it’s not sustainable. And I think it goes back to those other conditions that are part of collective impact, mainly the… with, like you said, the continuous communication. But also making sure that you have a shared measurement system. Just a quick story, and I can talk a lot. So, I’m trying to…

Chris: No, this is great.

Megan: I actually just went to a task force meeting yesterday in Connersville for their early learning coalition. And they have a facilitator onboard who is leading the way with these task forces to address I believe four different areas. And the area that I went to was supporting families with young children. And the facilitator explained that she’s been doing this for a very long time, and she always wants to make sure that people understand how important it is to have a shared measurement system. Any measurement system for that matter. She worked with a group in Evansville that received a very large sum of money to make improvements to their community.

So, the group jumped in. They knew where the issues were because they lived there, so they started coalitions, they started nonprofits, they started new programming. They started all of these different things and it seemed like things were going really well. But then they noticed that slowly but surely, exactly what you talked about, people were falling off. Programs were stopping, and they brought her in to see, where did we go wrong? We knew what we needed and we put things in place to address those needs, but it’s not working. When they evaluated, they realized that their efforts helped less than 20% of their target population.

Chris: Wow.

Megan: Through that effort, they actually realized what the target population was. They realized what their goal may have been, and they realized how they may have better evaluated that. So, if you, kind of going over what I said, after the implemented, they identified their target population. After they implemented, they identified their goal. After they implemented, they figured out how they wanted to measure it. So, I think that that’s a huge part that is core to why Forward Wayne County I think is such a great initiative. Is that it’s not just about there’s a problem, or there are problems that we need to address and we have our framework to outline that. We’re actually looking a step further to look at, what are we doing and how are we going to measure it?

How are we going to actually measure success, and how are we going to do it in a sustainable way? Making sure everyone is onboard, making sure everyone is communicating, and making sure that we’re looking at things in the same way and we understand what we’re doing.

Chris: There’s a lot there that I want to dive into a bit more, especially the measurement part. But before we get there on the communication piece, I think it’s easy for people to think that communication is easy and communication is happening all the time. I mean, we have numerous meetings happening every day all over the county. We have City Council, County Council. We have all the events that people who are sort of involved in community improvement in different ways are a part of. We have Facebook, we have social media, we have people like me doing blogging, sort of online sharing of ideas.

So, it can be easy to convince ourselves, oh, there’s lots of communicating happening. And Richmond is a small enough place that if I want to talk to someone, oh, just pick up the phone. Or, drive five minutes across town and have a conversation with them. Same for other parts of the county. So, what is it about communication that is hard? And what is it about communication where if we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s something that isn’t a need for more focus or more intention or care, that we actually need to stop and say, “Oh, this is actually a little harder than we think and maybe takes a little more effort than we think?”

Megan: So, looking at that question of, “What is it?” So, we’re communicating, we’re communicating often. Why is it not enough, or why is it not meeting the mark? And how can we communicate in a different way? I think that the type of communication that is really successful is communication that aligns with what our measurements are and what we’re trying to establish. I think that very often, it is easy to look at how did X project go, or X event go? It went great.

But if it stops at that and it’s not connected to anything more structural like that shared measurement system, we… So, that would look like saying, “How did the event go? It went great. Okay, so with this event, our goal was this. And we laid out the path to reaching that goal with certain tasks, with certain plans. And we had these metrics from last time that we used to guide us to develop this plan. Let’s look at all of that together.” And I think that this is something that might be happening within individual organizations, but I think that it wasn’t something that was happening with groups as a whole that are… when I say as a whole, meaning groups that are looking at that issue of childhood food and security.

So, that may be five different organizations working on that one goal of decreasing childhood food and security. But if each of the organizations are evaluating what they’re doing, but not in the overall picture of how everyone’s working together, I think that that’s where the communication can get really dicey. That’s where we run into those issues.

Chris: It also seems, yeah, like you were saying, we’re a community that puts a lot of emphasis on if a bunch of people have gotten together in a room together, then something has happened, right? A meeting is where progress is made, or it’s an event where that’s the kind of final output or outcome of an effort. And I think what I hear you saying is that it’s about not only having those meetings and those events. But also building kind of infrastructure and communicating channels that keep that work going in between events, in between meetings. And that keep people aligned, and thinking about sort of end results or goals along the way. So that even if there were no meetings, or even if there were no events, that organizations working on something like childhood hunger can know that they’re contributing to taking us in the right direction. Is that fair to say?

Megan: That is very fair to say, Chris. And thank you for bringing that up, that it is really important for that understanding of what everyone is working on. So, like you said, even if there is no specific event, even if there is maybe a lapse in communication. People at least have that framework or that foundation that they’re working from that lets them understand, what is my piece in this? And what are we working on as a whole? Because it can be very difficult to have that continuous communication. You probably know, as well as many people in our community know, that we have a ton of talent. But we’re also dealing I think with a lot of changes that we want to make in our community, and there are only so many people that are available to do that.

I don’t know if you’ve had the same experience, but when I go to a task force or I attend a coalition meeting, or anything like that in the community, I see a lot of the same people over and over and over again.

Chris: Yeah.

Megan: It’s a lot of the same engaged individuals that really want to make a change, and being a small community it’s natural that you would see that. So, I think that making sure that we have those five conditions of collective impact met, that just really gives us kind of a safety net to say, “Well, we’re not going to be perfect, but we have an idea of what we’re doing and we all have the same idea.” And I’m able to, in my organization, excel at what I do. And then the other organization is able to do the exact same thing.

So, collective impact is not about saying, “Everyone’s going to do the exact same thing in the same ways to reach the school.” In fact, that really wouldn’t work because I think the beauty of coming together is that each individual or each entity has different strengths and different resources. It’s about, what are we trying to accomplish and how are we going to come together using our natural talents and resources to do that? And how is that plan going to keep us on track?

Chris: I want to step back a minute and just acknowledge that there probably aren’t any training programs that say, “Come join us. We’ll teach you how to be a Program Director for a collective impact organization like this.” So, I want to ask you a little bit more about your background in this work and sort of your history with Richmond and Wayne County. How did you end up here?

Megan: I am actually a Richmond native, and I laugh because I tell people that and they’re like, “Really?” And I think it goes back to kind of what I was saying with if you do any type of community work or you’re engaged in the community, you see a lot of the same people over and over and over again. So, I think I was probably a new face for a lot of people, but I was born in Richmond. Went to Richmond High School, started college at IU East, and I left to complete my bachelor’s degrees at IU Bloomington. And after my time in IU Bloomington, I went to get my master’s in social work from IUPUI. And from that, I went directly into the world of community mental health and worked with Meridian for a number of years.

In that, I was a therapist starting out. And I worked as a therapist full-time while working to obtain my LCSW, which is the licensed clinical social worker certification license, to function independently as a counselor.

Chris: And did you see anything during that time working with mental health and counseling in the community that made you… I don’t know, that may have prepared you for or gotten you thinking along these lines of bigger picture collective impact? What was that like day to day and how did it inform what you’re doing now?

Megan: I think that I saw a lot when I was working as a therapist. And then as a clinical supervisor later on, I noticed a lot at all different levels. So, I know in the business world the terminology is very different from the nonprofit social work world. Right now, I’m working in that upper level, the upper level functioning with the collective impact initiative Forward Wayne County. But at the community and mental health center level, I was very much in that micro meso, or so we say in social work, that individual family group program level. And with that, I noticed that the people that I was supervising did better when they worked collectively. When they were all able to put their resources together.

I noticed that, or at least in my opinion, that our local mental health system could have really benefited from more collective impact with their services. For example, there are certain mental health centers that really excel with adult services versus children’s services. And this is not to the fault of any of the centers, it really speaks to the practitioners that they happen to hire. Some practitioners are really interested in working with adults, and others are interested in working with other populations. So, if you are a community mental health center that attracts a lot of practitioners that really want to work with adults and that’s where they’re really strongest, you’re probably not going to have the best children’s services, or family services, or addiction services, or whatever it may be.

Megan: So, I think that that’s one example of where I really saw if we could come together for this goal of having a more mentally healthy community, and utilize the resources we have, I wonder what things would look like. I wonder how it would be different. So, I think that that’s one area that really prepared me for what I’m doing today. Just having that very close up view of seeing the deficits and those advantages within one organization. And seeing how many organizations coming together could be like putting together a puzzle and revealing a very complete picture. But there are a lot of barriers to that.

Chris: Yeah, and it feels like there’s also, I mean for me at least personally, there’s always a tension between the big picture and the individual issues. Or, even just the individual people who on a given day are struggling in some way or need some kind of help. And you’ll hear people talk about, “How can we spend time and money on this big project over here that feels maybe ambitious or is really couched in kind of longterm thinking? When over here, we have, here’s a family that needs help today. Or, here’s a person that’s struggling today.” And I can imagine as someone who’s done that day to day, I don’t know if frontline is the right term, but that day to day work. The micro work, as you were describing, and is now looking at the big picture. Do you feel that tension? And how do you work with that or against that in a way that makes sure you’re moving forward in all the ways you need to be?

Megan: Yeah. So, if I’m hearing you correctly, looking at that tension between let’s just do something now. As opposed to not so much let’s not focus on the future, but I think that the reality of a longterm project is that it’s future focused. And people don’t want to focus on the future, but they want to see results now.

Chris: Right.

Megan: Which is completely understandable. Going back to the story that I told earlier about the group that received the large amount of money, they wanted to make impact in their community immediately. They had the resources to do so, and they took the steps that they thought were needed to really help the problems that they saw that were right in their face at that moment. So, I guess the steps that I take to address that type of thinking is just bringing people back to what we’re trying to accomplish. And I think that I really try to do that by looking at the full picture. I utilize our framework a lot, and that was one of the documents that I sent you because I think it does a really great job of highlighting the very big picture and then the smaller pieces. And how all of those things work together with our big indicators of success, with our goal being 2025.

Chris: Great.

Megan: So, it’s really important to just really mentally align yourself with yes, this is a slow process. It is definitely not a race to the finish, but if we can address those smaller issues, that are creating that larger picture, the larger fractured picture, we’re going to be more well off. And I actually have an example from my therapy days that I used to provide to the people I worked with. I told them to think about a house with cracks in the ceiling, those striations across the ceiling, those cracks that you see. So, imagine if you use putty. You use putty to patch up the cracks and you paint it.

What’s going to happen? It’s likely that those cracks are going to reappear. They may not reappear the next day, but they may reappear in a few weeks or when the weather changes, or whatever it may be. And a lot of times, those cracks are due to issues with the foundation. So, if you continue to put your effort, your resources, put your actual physical effort into getting the ladder out. And lugging everything up to the top of the ladder to fix the ceiling, and you have to buy more putty and all those things. You’re not really addressing the problem, you’re just covering it up. It may look nice for a while, but until you really address what’s going on down below the house, that foundation issue, you’re just going to continue to have cracks. And I think that that’s a way of looking at this.

Chris: Yeah. I mean, that’s a great metaphor and it’s so relatable. And something I think, I mean all of us in our lives, there are places where we just want to cover over the cracks or the blemishes and move on. And we know that it actually takes the hard work of looking at the foundation to get there in the long run. So, it feels like there’s a lot there that applies not only in community improvement, but also in business and in life. I want to ask, just in the time that you’ve been in this role, what has surprised you the most? Or, what has been one of the harder parts of being in the role and sort of wrangling the project as it’s been so far?

Megan: So, I would say what has surprised me the most is the sheer number of people within our community that really want to see a change. And that’s not surprising in that I didn’t think that there were people in the community that wanted to make a change.

Chris: Yeah.

Megan: But I think that there are just… In a way, I feel like we have just a really unique community that we have so many people with such big hearts, that honestly really want to see the best for Wayne County. And I think that that in itself, just the sheer number, that has been so surprising. And it’s really heartwarming to know that there are people around every corner that are ready and willing to help. It’s just, “Let me know. What do I need to do? What do I need to do to help?” So, I think that that has been one of the biggest things for me.

Chris: Yeah, that’s great. I want to come back to the measurement question and how that works. Because as you said, and as we’ve talked about, I mean, there are so many people in organizations working to make Wayne County a better place in some form. But sometimes when we go to look for specific success stories, or just hard data about the results, we end up having to take their word for it. And maybe that’s because there wasn’t a culture of measurement within their efforts, or the things they thought they were working on, turned out there was some other need.

So, given that Forward Wayne County has this focus on measuring the outcomes of its work and kind of setting some concrete goals, can you talk us through what that looks like? I mean, how do you… what’s the actual sort of in the weeds process of setting a goal, tracking it over time? And then knowing when we’ve reached it or when we’ve made a difference with these collective impact efforts?

Megan: Yeah. So, the way that I see it is kind of a two part. So, with Forward Wayne County specifically and with any collective impact backbone, which is what Forward Wayne County is. It’s a backbone organization that provides ongoing support to move any type of change initiative forward. It’s going to look very different with the details, but I say it’s two part because you want to make sure that you have a clear strategic plan on what are you addressing? So, like I said earlier, that area that you may address may be childhood food insecurity.

You want to look at, what are we specifically doing to address that? How do we know when we’ve done that? And then we want to look at, have we done it? So, looking at that example, we actually have a strategic plan for Forward Wayne County that looks at all of our different areas. So, some are more developed than others at this point in time because we started off with what we call our 3 + 1, and that is our look at three of the focus areas plus our one focus area of communication. Because communication is so important, we have a very in depth plan on just communication itself to make sure that we stay on top of communication with different groups. And doing things like this, getting the word out, making sure that people are aware that Forward Wayne County exists and understand what it is so they can use it to the best of their ability.

Megan: The second part is actually looking at the real data. So, like you were saying, it can be very difficult to get data. So, part of what I do in my role with Forward Wayne County is a lot of data acquisition. So, that includes connecting with different agencies to gather their data. Collecting data from state level agencies, for example, Indiana Youth Institute is a lifesaver, IYI. They have great resources for data. They will put together different reports on data. I utilize the census, and so on and so forth. But really getting an idea of where we are, setting those benchmarks against similar counties or the state is usually what we look at. And then looking at the United States as a whole.

So, from that data, we better understand where are areas of deficit? But then we also understand longterm, are we making any improvements or any changes at all in these areas? So, like I said, two parts. You want to make sure that you have a very clear plan on what are you addressing? How are you addressing it, and how do you know? What will that outcome be? So, one of our areas is early childhood success. And we’re looking at the quality education, quality childcare. And by doing that, we need to better understand, what does it mean for a child to be ready for kindergarten? So, in order to understand that, we have to have a definition of kindergarten readiness. And when we have that definition, that’s when we know that we have achieved that task of understanding if a child is ready for kindergarten.

From that, we hope that we’ll see less retention because if we better understand what it looks like when a child is ready for kindergarten, we can better prepare kids to go into kindergarten. We can better understand where kids are when they are on that path to kindergarten, and when they’re in kindergarten. And if the kids are better prepared, we hope to see a decrease in retention rates of kindergartners.

Chris: And what role would Forward Wayne County play? For example, I’m looking at the Wayne County Early Childhood Success Scorecard that’s on your website. And as you said, it touches on those points on number of opioid addicted babies born in a given year. Percentage of children enrolled in high quality early childhood care. So, if you’re tracking that data and you’re watching those numbers change over time, and you see a number start to go in the wrong direction or start to not make the progress, you thought it would make… What do you do? What does Forward Wayne County do? How does that data then get in front of the right people, and how do you react to it?

Megan: So, the role of Forward Wayne County in that overall picture of understanding the data, looking at what to do when it’s going in the right direction or the wrong direction, and then gathering people to address it really is in that role of facilitating and gathering. So, Forward Wayne County does not actually do the work of developing the standard, or enrolling kids in kindergarten, or doing any of those specific direct service roles.

Chris: Got it.

Megan: But what Forward Wayne County does is get together the right people. And when I say right people, those are the people that have that understanding of, what does it mean to be a successful pre-K student? Or, what does it mean to be a parent with a young child, a child that’s in that zero to five age range? What does it mean to have a successful childcare or pre-K entity? So, we get those people together to discuss, what is our goal? So, going back to what I had talked about before, making sure that we better understand what’s happening within the area that we’re trying to address. What’s happening with our target population? What trends are we seeing? How do we make sense of it? And from that, what goal are we going to develop? And then what smaller pieces are we going to institute to then reach our goal?

So, where Forward Wayne County has goals and tasks and measurements that they’re following, we help groups come together. Or, we help form groups that are then going to address those issues that we may be tracking, and then we help them track their efforts as well.

Chris: That makes a lot of sense. I know on your website there’s a lot of talk about Asset-Based Community Development, ABCD, and there’s a real focus there on being kind of resident led. Having neighborhoods and communities working with each other, finding the strength in what happens when people are engaged in kind of a widespread way. And as you talk about the importance of gathering and analyzing that data in the story that you shared early on in our conversation about finding out target population on the other side of the project. It seems like a lot of what you will end up doing or what needs to happen is educating people on the importance of measuring, and maybe even helping people become sort of amateur data collectors and analysts themselves. Is that a part of the work?

Megan: I believe so, yes. And I think you hit it right on the head. Forward Wayne County is not in place because people in Wayne County don’t know how to address problems because that’s definitely not the case. People within Wayne County know how to identify what is not working. They know how to address problems. They’re very good at what they do, but I think that for a lot of areas, I think that groups just are not accustomed to that data piece. I think that it’s something that may be foreign for a lot of individuals. So, I think that if Forward Wayne County is successful, like you said, we’re going to produce a lot of amateur data collectors and data analysts because that really is an important part.

You really make the most impact where you live because you know what’s happening, but it’s also important to see it within the data because we all have our own lens. And I may know more about an area than someone else knows, but I can know even more if I look at the data and then I use that data to influence what I’m doing.

Chris: Beyond the importance of addressing some of the challenges that Forward Wayne County is tracking individually, I mean, childhood success, education and employability, health and wellness. If you think about the project, the work bearing fruit and we start to see a shift in some of these metrics. If you think about Wayne County 10 or 20 years from now, what is a vision of Wayne County or our community that has tackled these things, that is making progress with these things? Does it all wind together in some easy to explain version of what we are that you can articulate? Or, is it really just about making a difference in those maybe smaller ways, in ways that then set a foundation for a more thriving community in general?

Megan: So, I think that it does wind down to an easy to understand point. And that is the goal of Forward Wayne County is to attract, develop, and retain a highly competitive workforce to meet the current and future needs of the industries and businesses that we have in our area. And I think that it’s great that we were able to discuss all those smaller parts and then really wind down to, well, what does it all mean? Because I think that for a lot of the groups that I work with, because we’re focusing on our people. The quality of the livelihood in our area, and we’re focusing on our community and the health of our communities, of our neighborhoods. That I think if I went into meetings and I said, “Okay, we’re going to focus on attracting people to the area and developing people to make sure that businesses have people that can work there,” That a lot of the point would be missed. And I think kind of going back to what we were talking about before with that longterm, putting in that way is like, well, how do we even do that?

That’s such a big picture. So, it’s one that might not connect with a lot of people that are doing that day to day. But it’s also such a big picture view of, okay, well when is that going to happen? But I think that that is really that main point. And that goes back to one of the other main points of when Forward Wayne County was developed, is that people realize, okay yes, we don’t communicate. That’s one, we’re having some issues with communication. But also, we are having a very real population decline in Wayne County. Wayne County has, like many rural areas, again, I don’t think that this is just Wayne County specific. I know it’s not just Wayne County specific.

Chris: Yeah, yeah.

Megan: But a lot of rural areas have noticed a decline in population where we develop really great, smart, talented young people in our educational institutions. And a lot of them go off to other places for what they see in their minds as better opportunities. So, we want to make sure that we are retaining that talent. We want to also make sure that we are attracting talent. We have really great industries in our area that attract people from outside of Wayne County or even just outside of some of the cities within our area. Some of the surrounding areas, like we’re very close to Ohio. I would assume that we probably have some attraction from people between the Indianapolis Richmond area work here, but a lot of them don’t live here. And then just retaining altogether, making sure that when we develop that great talent, be it from that young age or even people who are older. I mean, like me looking at this, this was definitely a change.

Chris: Yeah.

Megan: It was established in one area and I grew into another. So, making sure that we are retaining any of that talent that we develop, and then also retaining that talent that we attract. And then that’s where it goes back to the big, those two pillars of our framework. How do we do that? Well, we want to make sure that we have that early childhood success in the front of our minds because we have to start early. Or, looking at the other side of it, if we have people coming into the area that have young kids, we want to make sure that we have the opportunity to provide to them for their kids to grow up strong. Just using one of those framework focus areas an example, that is why we have that small piece that connects to that larger piece. And there is that larger picture that we have in mind, and it is to attract and develop and retain people that are really going to help make our area stronger.

Chris: And I think it’s just worth emphasizing that one of the things I love about the foundation and the kinds of projects and programs that it’s able to tackle and spin off, like Forward Wayne County, is that there’s no driving agenda beyond the overall health and sort of success of the county and the community. It’s not about one organization hitting its funding goals for that year so that it can raise money the next year, or it’s not about anyone certainly getting rich or any one business succeeding. It’s about the whole community succeeding, and I can imagine where people might be cautious about pouring lots of time and resources into one organization that they don’t necessarily understand if they think it’s just all about that organization. In this case, you really are talking about a version of and vision for the county that benefits everyone living here in really substantial and kind of impactful ways.

Megan: Definitely, yeah. It is not… What I’m doing with Forward Wayne County is really moving Wayne County forward. And I feel like it sounds so cliché, it sounds so silly, but it literally is that. It is not forward enter business name here, or forward enter an individual who has an interest’s name here. It is honestly jut focusing on, how can we make sure that Wayne County, that our economy is strong? That we prosper into the future? That we support the population that we currently have, and that we attract a larger population? Because like I said, all rural areas, or maybe not all, I don’t know that with 100% certainty. But a number of rural areas across the United States are struggling with maintaining a strong population. So, we want to make sure that we are really invested in our population now into the future with nothing, no strings attached.

Chris: Yeah, yeah. I want to come back to that question of how people can be engaged in community improvement. When, as you said, attending a lot of meetings, you start to see the same faces and you start to hear some of the same voices. And it’s not that the time and talent of those people who are very involved in our community isn’t welcome. I think it’s maybe the danger that we can fall in the trap of convincing ourselves that we have the answers because we’re hearing them in multiple meetings. When really, it’s just a couple of, a handful of people saying the same thing. And the importance of and the power of diversity in community improvement for hearing from many voices, and hearing from people with lots of different backgrounds.

Chris: I certainly experienced that when I owned a business downtown and was a lot more involved with a lot of different organizations. It’s like once your name is out there, then all of a sudden you’re invited to all of these different organizations and being a part of these different boards. What advice do you have both for organizations who are looking to build up their boards of directors or their volunteer committees, and for the people who say, “I want to be involved in the community, but I don’t feel like I have a place at the table right now?” How do we look at both sides of that equation to bring about more diversity and make sure we’re not in an eco chamber?

Megan: I think looking at the businesses that say that they either want to increase the diversity of opinions and voices, and people that are working with them to help them really address their business, their goals. That I think it would be important to really connect, again, back to that communication. Connect with other businesses to see, what are you guys doing? Where are you pulling from? But then also, I think connecting in unconventional ways. So, looking at connections to some of the groups that may not be right on the forefront, because I think that each entity has its typical place to align and to connect. Because we get very comfortable in our routines.

Chris: Yeah.

Megan: And we get comfortable with what we know. So, for example, when I was a therapist and working in community mental health, our regional manager was very connected to the chamber. And I think that we had a lot of opportunity afforded to us because we were connected to a larger community entity.

Chris: Yeah.

Megan: Our regional manager also made sure that she kept the employee based very connected and aware of what was happening, because you never know who has an interest in what area. You never know who has great insight that can move a program forward, and this wasn’t just at a specific level. This was at all different levels of supervisor to direct service worker. So, I think that for businesses, making sure that you’re connected in ways that are not maybe traditional for you. Which, I can’t say exactly what it is for each person.

Chris: Sure.

Megan: To be looking at, what avenue have you maybe not looked at connecting or considering with connecting? But then also, how are you looking at the people that are working with you and supporting your business? How are you looking at utilizing them in different ways? Because I know as an employee, that was something that I really appreciated. I appreciated being able to provide different insight and feedback on issues. And I would say for the people that are in the community saying, “Well, I want to be connected.” This was something that I always talked to people about when I was a therapist. Looking at, well, what are you interested in? And once you figure out what you’re interested in, it can be a really great starting point to bigger and better things.

Also with that, I think that not being afraid to try something new and not being afraid to potentially not do as well at something as you would like to do. Putting yourself out there in something that you really enjoy can be the gateway to so many new things. Connecting with new people, new projects, saying yes to things. That can be a really great way, and I think that that would be something that would help our community tremendously because we do have a lot of the same people working on the same projects. And while I think that we have so many talented and intelligent people working in our area, we can always benefit from additional insights and perspectives, and just more hands on deck.

Chris: That’s really great advice and I hope people hear it and take it to heart. Because it’s easy to assume that the right people are already in the right places having the right conversation. But we know that if that were true, we wouldn’t be struggling with some of these things that we struggle with. And so I think it’s more important than ever perhaps to encourage people to think outside of their comfort zones and find the place where… what they’re interested in and what they’re passionate about can meet up with what our community needs. So, thanks for that insight.

I know that Forward Wayne County has its website, ForwardWayneCounty.org. But if someone listening to this conversation decides that they want to support Forward Wayne County or get involved somehow, what is the greatest area of need right now and how should they do that?

Megan: I would say that the greatest area of need is just feedback. Really connecting with the importance of understanding where the community is in order to make changes, but then also as we briefly touched on, that asset based community development. We have assets in our community. Everyone’s insight is important. Everyone has something to provide. So, just connecting and speaking out about what may be on their mind. I actually connected with someone earlier this week who had mentioned their difficulties with transportation, being someone with a disability. And while we are focused on transportation, we don’t have all the answers. We just know that we want to focus on addressing the transportation system in some way.

So, hearing from someone who says, “It’s really difficult for me and the options are very limiting,” that gives us insight into, well, maybe this is something that we should explore further. So, if someone really wants to get involved, it can be beneficial for them to just let us know where they are. We definitely meet people where they are. Or, if it’s actually helping, if they want to jump in and actually join a task force or help with something, that would be great, too. And I think that the best way to reach out, like you said, we do have our website, ForwardWayneCounty.org. And we have multiple places on the website to sign up for the newsletter that is sent out, and that is something that is sent out monthly. That just includes updates on what we’re doing and opportunities to connect. Because if you know what’s happening, you’re going to be more likely to be able to connect.

But we are also on social media across all of the platforms, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. We are @ForwardINWayne. So, I think that connecting, looking at the website to get a better idea of what we’re doing and who we are. Because I know there are a lot of questions about that, but then also looking at the newsletter and social media can help people stay more current with what we’re doing. And give them more of an opportunity to jump in and provide insight, or provide help or wherever they see that best fit for them.

Chris: Great. Well, Megan, thank you so much for this conversation and for all of the work that you and everyone involved in Forward Wayne County is doing. I hope we can come back together again sometime in the future and look at how things are doing. Look at the data and track the progress that’s being made, it’s really exciting.

Megan: Yes, yes. I would love to come back together and look at some of the things that we’ve done. Because I think that with where we’ve been already, I’ve been in my position since January. So, it has been a relatively short time, but already to this point I think there have been a lot of accomplishments and a lot of connections. And I definitely see it just continuing as we move forward.

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