Episode #077: Engaging Communities in Social Change with Vichi Jagannathan

Tobi: Welcome to the Volunteer Nation Podcast, bringing you practical tips and big ideas on how to build, grow and scale volunteer talent. I’m your host Tobi Johnson and if you rely on volunteers to fuel your charity cause, membership or movement, I made this podcast just for you. Welcome everybody to another episode of the Volunteer Nation podcast. I’m your host Tobi Johnson and I am very pumped today to welcome my guest, Vichi Jagannathan. Vichi has been working in community engagement for a while now. She’s got a very creative model of engaging community members and making change happen. So we’re going to talk about that in a minute. I’ll tell you what, it’s going to be great.

Tobi: Even if you’re not in community organizing, maybe you’re not into grassroots organizing. Maybe that’s not what your volunteer program does. Maybe you do direct service or you pull off events and festivals that volunteers fuel. Or you get volunteers involved in natural disaster relief, or you’re working with volunteers in advocacy but not necessarily from the grassroots level. Maybe you’re in a professional development association where you have volunteers working in chapters all kinds of ways volunteers get involved. But there is a very powerful way to get the community involved where what we call grassroots to grass tops. So decisions are made at the community level because the assumption is that the community knows best, because the community is wise, because they have the lived experience that we in. Organizations, if we’re not living in that community, may not have.

Tobi: Sometimes we do live in that community and we do have that lived experience, but there’s a tremendous amount of community capital in our communities, of value, of wisdom, of knowledge, of lived experience. And if you’ll remember back and if you haven’t listened to this episode, I’m going to put it in the show. Notes in episode seven, way back at the beginning of the Volunteer nation podcast, I talked about the power of volunteers as community capital. And I talked about the different ways of value and resource that volunteers bring to the table. So check that out. Also just calling out a couple of other episodes that you might want to check out before we have this conversation or after you listen to this conversation. Remember my conversation with Lucas Mays about volunteerism and research and volunteerism and his view of volunteers as natural resources, as something that we don’t want to deplete but we want to be good stewards of. So I think when we’re talking community, this is also an important thing to think about.

Tobi: We’re not burning out our communities. Also want you to think about the basis of volunteerism and volunteerism with Elizabeth Clemens. She wrote that fantastic book on the role of volunteerism and volunteerism in America. Basically, how did volunteers and community members shape public policy, shape lawmaking, shape pretty much everything we do here as a country. Nothing came anywhere but from the community. Even the forming of our country way back when during the Revolutionary War. So check those out. One other one I might mention is Giving Circles and Collective Philanthropy with Sara Lomelin, where we talked about how communities of color, in particular women, are forming giving circles and deciding for themselves where they’re going to give their treasure to which organizations and where they’re going to contribute in a grassroots type of fundraising and philanthropy effort.

Tobi: So there’s a lot of community interspersed throughout the Volunteer Nation podcast, but today we’re really going to go straight to the source of things. So today I want to really welcome my guest, Vichi Jagannathan, who’s co founder and executive director of the Rural Opportunity Institute, or ROI, which is a very cool name, by the way. It actually works really well, right? So in 2017, Vichi co founded the Rural Opportunity Institute. ROI builds the capacity of rural communities to support people’s healing from generational trauma, to achieve health, safety, connection, and self determination. And so important right now where we are just as a society. Based in rural eastern North Carolina, ROI has grown from a small grassroots effort to an influential organization that impacts more than 20,000 people in 15 states. ROI’s innovative approach has captured the interest of national state funders, including new nonprofit and the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust.

Tobi: Vichi holds a Master of Business administration from Yale University School of Management, a master of science in electrical engineering from Stanford and a bachelor of Science in electrical engineering from Been. You’ve you’ve been I mean, welcome to the podcast, FICCI. This is going to be a fun conversation.

Vichi: Yeah, for sure. I’m excited. Thanks for having me.

Tobi: Absolutely. So, first of know inquiry minds want to know how did you make the journey from electrical engineer to MBA to nonprofit leader? That is a very circuitous route, I’m sure, and I’ve got to hear the story.

Vichi: Yeah, that is a great question my parents probably also would like to know the answer to. So yeah, it is not what I had in mind. So for a little bit of context, my parents are both first generation immigrants from India, and so me and my siblings were the first to be born here. And so growing up, they were both engineers at IBM, and I just had a lot of exposure to that. And I never really thought about it much. It just kind of was like the career path I fell into and got interested in. So I ended up doing that for undergrad, and then I graduated in 2010, which was, like, right into the recession. And it was pretty hard to find corporate jobs at that time.

Vichi: So I was kind of looking at alternative paths. And one thing I came across was research PhD. And then also had heard a lot about Teach for America, and a lot of friends were doing Teach for America, and that wasn’t my first go, but it felt like a good alternative that might lead to more positive impact immediately, but also had kind of the COVID of being like a well known, prestigious program to go into. And so I actually ended up starting out in a PhD program at Stanford and I pretty quickly decided it wasn’t for me. Just didn’t feel a ton of connection with the types of problems people were working on. It’s not great now but the gender inequities then in electrical engineering were pretty rough. Maybe 10% of our class was women and that or fewer among the faculty. So I just didn’t really find a good fit for myself.

Vichi: And around that time I reconnected with the TFA recruiter. They’re always in the right place at the right time and they successfully gave me a different opportunity. So ended up signing up for that. And at the time you didn’t write preferences but they just sent you somewhere. And so the Ae ended up sending me to eastern North Carolina which was my first time in the south, my first time in a rural place, totally eye opening. I definitely thought I was going to be way closer to Duke basketball and city stuff and it was not, it was very small, probably 2 hours from the nearest big city and it just completely changed everything for me. I had certain narratives in my head about rural communities and about our history. And I mostly grew up in New York and then, of course, lived in San Francisco, and so had heard a lot of deficit stories about how people in rural communities, if they’re left behind, it’s because they don’t try.

Vichi: They’re not interested in doing different things. They make bad choices, all this stuff. And being in the classroom, my experiences couldn’t have been more different. I saw a lot of challenges that my students were facing and it was super clear that many of those challenges were rooted in systems and policies that had been designed for a long time ago and that were almost purposely meant to disadvantage them. And it wasn’t at all that they were making bad choices. It was like people were actually finding incredible ways to overcome tons of barriers. And it felt a little bit like I’d been misled the whole time. And particularly having gone to a bunch of those elite institutions and then my parents as like, we had a lot of trust in educational institutions in the United States.

Vichi: And after being through all of those I kind of felt like I’d been deceived and got really interested in primary research and understanding people’s actual truths and stories. So that was really like the major turning point. After doing TFA, I was looking for jobs, other places. I ended up moving back to the Bay for a little while and I just could never forget about the people and the place that I had been at and just got really interested in staying connected. So pursued a lot of opportunities in between, but it kind of was a situation where all roads lead back to eastern North Carolina, so eventually found my way back to start ROI. And that is what I’ve been doing.

Tobi: Love it. I love it. Yeah. It’s funny when you leave graduate school I remember when I left graduate school and I got a degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in modern art history theory and like but it was always in my mind I would work in nonprofit arts. Right? And I started working in the nonprofits arts community when I graduated. And times were tough then because it was during the early ninety’s, and arts funding was just getting cut, slashed right and left, and I started working. It was kind of hard to find jobs. And then at some point I just realized I needed to do more, that I needed to work in social services, I needed to work in a place where I could make a bigger impact.

Tobi: So I totally relate to that. There’s a point in your life where you just say, like, look, I’m all in, I want to do this, I want to make a bigger impact. I don’t want to do things where I don’t fit and also where I can’t make an impact. So I completely relate to that. That’s fantastic. And I’m glad that you’ve done this because it’s created this amazing movement. So tell me a little bit, why does engaging communities, specifically in rural areas, you were a city girl living in the Bay Area. I’ve lived in San Francisco myself, and living in New York, that’s city living right there.

Tobi: And I live in East Tennessee now, and I’ve worked in rural areas and helped developed rural volunteer curriculum. Actually, it’s a different vibe altogether. What does engaging communities in rural areas mean to you?

Vichi: Yeah, it’s definitely different than city stuff, and that has been an ongoing adjustment for me. I think one of the things about rural communities, or at least the one that I live and have worked in eastern North Carolina, is there is a real amount of trust to be built. But once the trust is built, the level of connection at least that I’ve experienced is so much deeper than very often where I was ever able to get to with people I met in urban places. Like, I feel like in San Francisco or New York, I interacted with a lot of people and we had a lot of meetings and we spent a lot of time together. But the depth of how well we knew each other or what we shared or vulnerability was pretty surface level. And I found that for me, being an outsider coming back to eastern North Carolina, it’s like if I showed up to the same community meeting like two, three, four times, people really it shifted a lot. And we were able to build trust pretty fast and people would start opening up and sharing really personal and real challenges or experiences they were having and inviting me into this totally different level of relationship. And for me, that was very meaningful.

Vichi: I felt very welcomed. I felt very connected, and it also shifted how I interact. It kind of led me to open up and bring more of myself to a place which I realized I had never really done before. And having that experience just it makes it way more than just work. It made it way more like it was more like I’m becoming a part of the fabric of the place. So at that point, it’s not just like, oh, I show up here to do my job, and then I go home. It’s like, we’re all just, like, living this life together, and now you’re in it. And that level of engagement, I just never even experienced that anywhere else.

Vichi: So for me, it’s very personally meaningful in terms of relationship building.

Tobi: Yeah, it is definitely a different vibe. And I do think that well, I think partly folks need to rely on each other more because there’s just not infrastructure there. But I also think there’s not as much distraction, there’s more quiet, there’s not as much traffic, those kinds of things that like, we’re not spending an hour on a commute out know, we’re driving past and we’re waving at people as we drive. Know, we’re seeing people that we know. So it’s awesome that you’re doing this. Tell us a little bit more about ROI. How is it know, you came out, you did teach for America, then you decided, you know what? I’m going to do this thing. How did that all come about? And how did you decide to address the challenges you decided to address? You talk about trauma informed work on your website.

Tobi: I’m kind of curious about this whole thing. What’s, the birth story?

Vichi: Yeah, so, I mean, the real birth story of ROI wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Seth, who’s my co founder, TFA, we weren’t in the same school, but we’re in the same area. And he is originally from Iowa, so we both had kind of a shared experience of not necessarily being from the community, but he also experienced that kind of deep level of trust and relationship building that I did and both of us kind of frequently connected on. We would always say Eastern North Carolina is the first place that ever felt like home. That’s at least what he would say, and I would say for, like, also felt like family. I don’t have a lot of deep roots in the United States. And so weirdly, this community really welcomed me. And kind of by coincidence, him and I both finished teaching and then moved out to California. I was looking for a job, and his now wife had a job out there.

Vichi: So we were both in California, and we would meet up sometimes, and both of us just felt this strong disconnect between the spaces we were in, the conversations we were having, and the very real needs and assets of eastern North Carolina that most of the people we were interacting with had no idea about. And it kind of tugged at both of us. I ended up leaving the Bay to go to business school and Seth was kind know, figuring out different jobs and stuff. And there was a summer in between when I was in grad school, there was a summer and I was in North Carolina and he happened to come back for a visit too. And both of us were I remember talking around this dinner table, kind of having one of those like we’re 26, 27, however old we were, what are we doing with the rest of our lives? And it was like the elephant in the room that we were both thinking. I think the only way I would feel complete is coming back to eastern North Carolina. But it was like nobody wanted to say it and finally it kind of came out and it just felt different to be like, oh, I’m not the only one saying this, there’s like somebody else who feels the same way. So we both made this pact.

Vichi: Actually I had a year left of grad school, so he said he committed for that year to not take a full time job and just do like part time work to make ends meet. And I committed to not interviewing for any other jobs till graduation. And we were going to spend that time trying to see is there a way that we could put together some sort of organization or sustainable business we could do in eastern North Carolina. And so we both kind of had our backs against the wall like this is it. And over the course of that year we were coming back and forth to North Carolina quite a bit, reconnecting with old relationships and stuff. And over and over we heard people talking about various challenges in the community and saying what we’ve been doing isn’t working. We are really open to learning new or different ways of supporting our community. And we were sharing a little bit about old jobs, things like the design thinking process or systems mapping, different tools that we had heard about and asking, would you all be interested in going through a process like this to come up with some new ways of working? And there was a lot of excitement from superintendent, sheriff, county manager, those types of folks.

Vichi: And it was like down to the wire. But we ended up raising a really generous gift from a local family funder maybe a couple of weeks before my graduation for us to do like an initial period of that type of community based research. And so that was like the catalyst for us to move down and start. And then once we started engaging, there was just a lot of traction and it kind of grew from there.

Tobi: Yeah, amazing. It’s funny, I think when we set our intentions and we just consistently take right action towards those intentions, the universe just opens up and starts sending stuff our way. Sometimes it comes earlier than we expect, sometimes it comes on time, sometimes we have to wait longer. But I’ve just been seeing this happen. It sounds really woo woo. And gang, I know if you’re thinking I’m being really woo woo, I’ve just been seeing it this year over and over again with people, with myself, my own life. It’s been an amazing thing. And I think when you start having conversation, when you’re building relationships and you’re having conversation, and it’s a two way, authentic conversation, people also step up to help.

Tobi: People say, oh, yeah, I see what you’re doing. I’m behind that, and I want to help you on that. When you talk about trauma informed work, let’s talk about the challenge ROI is hoping to, or is working to, really. Now, you’ve been in business, quote, unquote, since 2017, so it’s been a while, it’s been a spell. What does it mean to do trauma informed work in community, and what are the challenges that you decide? What were the challenges people were bringing up?

Vichi: Yeah, so when we first started ROI and we were listening to people, we did not come with any presumptions about the problems we were going to solve. Like, we didn’t have trauma informed or trauma really, like, in our vocabulary. But we started hosting meetings originally convened by the school system, and then we kind of pulled in more partners, but we’d invite open community meetings where anybody could come and share what they were most struggling with. And we’d get a mix of police officers, teachers, nurses, community members, parents. And really commonly, people would tell stories of kind of unexpected, challenging, or difficult experiences that would happen. And as a result of that experience, it would cascade to derail, like, every other part of their life, and they could never reconnect to it. And so, some examples. Our area is especially prone to hurricanes, and in the last 25 years or so, they’ve become way, way more frequent.

Vichi: And so we started ROI in 2017. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew had happened and had a ton of damage in Edgecomb County, the area that we were working in. And in 99, Hurricane Floyd had come. And at that time, I think Bill Clinton came, and they all said something like, this is a 500 year flood that hopefully won’t happen to this level again in our lifetimes. And people were saying they told us it would be 500 years. Well, it’s only been 17, and this happened again, and we never really recovered from the first one. Trauma can be a lot of things, but it’s usually I think we think about it as stressful events that are, like, too much, too fast, too long. So all of us have this amazing capacity for resilience.

Vichi: We can navigate a lot of stressful things and challenges and bounce back but sometimes the stress is just like too much, too fast, too long and disproportionately. There are people and communities that due to the way that our systems are set up, experience that type of stuff more. And our community, rural communities, I think particularly rural communities of color, that is very much the case. And so people were naming these compounding stressors that just keep layering on and there’s never an opportunity to recover before the next one happens. And it was really that this overwhelming amount of challenge that was being laid upon people to go through alone, that is like what we heard consistently. And when we shared those stories with the systems leaders, schools and police and social services, they’d be nodding like yeah I see it. Schools would be saying like, we see a kid come to school and they have a behavioral challenge and we’re trying to address it with the counselor but then we find out they were impacted by the flood, they lost their home, that led their parent to lose their job. That then led to some sort of substance use which then led to this kid coming to school upset and having this behavioral thing.

Vichi: Like whatever they were seeing on the surface was nothing close to upstream all of the different things that were leading to that challenge. And then we’d hear the police or somebody else say yeah, actually I remember interacting with that kid’s parent. And so the whole web of the stories is coming together and everybody in the room started to realize they were talking about the same thing. Like they call it all different stuff but they’re talking about the same thing. And so what became the thing people were asking for and what eventually became our role or strategy was to try to look across all of these systems. What are all the ways that currently when people are experiencing this type of stress or trauma, what are all the ways that shows up? And very often that shows up as things that we punish. It can show up as substance abuse, it can show up as domestic violence, it can show up as missing work, missing a payment, kids acting up in school. That should be a sign for us to ask what is this person going through? Instead we often just blame them and punish them.

Vichi: And so really what we’re trying to do is help systems understand how to recognize when someone might be showing up with that kind of stuff and then equipping them with alternative responses. Right now sometimes they punish or isolate because they don’t know how to help. But there are a host of trauma informed practices out in the world about ways where people can respond in more restorative ways. And so we’re trying to help all of those systems implement those types of restorative solutions. So that they can help people heal and recover instead of just adding on to the compounding stress and trauma. Yeah.

Tobi: So powerful. I hate to say this sounds really cliche, but it does take a village, right? It does take a network of people because we’re all interfacing with different spheres of our lives. And it does take people working together. And in a rural community, in some ways, it’s a little bit easier because you know people and you know people who know people, and that can be a negative in a small community can also be a tremendous source of strength and power. I think it’s also interesting. Your model, and this is where volunteer and community engagement comes in, is you’re engaging communities in social change from grassroots to grasshops. So you’re working with people in community. You didn’t come in with a model and say, like, hey, gang, here’s my model.

Tobi: You all need to get in line, and this is how we’re going to do it. And many direct service organizations have a logic model that says, we figured out the logic model. We know what the service needs to look like. And a lot of times I’ve worked in these organizations, they have a lot of expertise, and a lot of times things help people. But there’s an alternate way, and that way is to work from the grassroots and get the community involved in designing what’s going to help them best. So tell us a little bit about your model for engaging communities in social change. What’s your process for helping communities identify priority issues? I know you use systems mapping, which is really interesting, community mapping, which is a really fascinating, quote unquote technology or facilitation method. Talk us through your method of bringing that voice rather than top down command and control, which, gang, whether you’re a supervisor or you’re developing a new program, it’s really not the way to go nowadays.

Tobi: It’s not bringing in alternate voices. It’s not being open to the different experiences people have, and it’s not definitely not checking our blind spots, right, if we’re doing top down. So tell us this model. Tell us about it. I love it. I think it’s fantastic.

Vichi: Yeah, it’s interesting because a lot of it actually arose somewhat organically. So like I said, when we first started, the reality was, like, we didn’t know the answers to a lot of the questions people were asking us. What are you focused on? How do you plan to address all these changes? We were literally like, we don’t know, so who would know? And very often residents and the people who are experiencing the challenges they know. And so it started from a really honest place of not being sure and wanting to find out more. And so that’s like originally, like I said, we began with these kind of open community meetings. And so we had a couple of relationships, mainly in the school system and there were a couple of forums that already existed where they were bringing community members together to listen, which I think is particularly interesting I’ve noticed about rural and smaller communities is very often there already is some kind of infrastructure or place where people are gathering to talk. And my observation is a lot of times outside organizations are trying to create a new space and saying, we’ll come to this new thing and people are like, well, I already see all these same people at all these different things. Why would I come to this new meeting? So we kind of got a sense of what’s the pattern of gathering that already exists and could we just plug into that and listen? So at first it was more like that.

Vichi: We’d find out that the school had this monthly working group, the church had this community session. There was a healthcare task force, the police had something. And so we were just going around to these meetings and listening. And that was the original. We’re hearing the same kind of stories and then we start to go back to them and say, hey, could we have ten minutes on the agenda to just introduce ourselves and say what we’re working on? And so we’d be sharing out in all these spaces. Just a quick summary, like, we’ve been listening to people, we’ve heard a lot of people talking about the trauma of the hurricane. If that resonates with you and you’d want to talk more with us, find us after. It was surprising.

Vichi: People really wanted to talk, and a lot of people would come up to us being like, yes, I really want to talk. And something that just struck me is I’d never actually thought about that as volunteerism until talking to you. And now I’m thinking, actually, yeah, one of the ways people were volunteering was basically to share their story with us and help us better understand. And we didn’t frame it that way, but a lot of people were volunteering to participate in that sort of way. So then we were like, okay, we started setting up these smaller spaces or interviews with people and at the end we would ask them, is there somebody else you know that you think would like to talk to us? And almost always they’re like, oh, my sister really needs to talk to you or this person. And they’re referring us to people. And they really were getting a lot out of just the opportunity to share. Like we weren’t telling them anything.

Vichi: We were just asking questions, creating space. And people had a lot they wanted to say. And after doing enough of those, we started to come up with some findings. And like you were saying, we were using certain methods for getting information. We were using some practices from design thinking, some of the systems mapping tools to basically organize the information people were giving us. And we would organize that information and then go back to. All those meetings and share out, hey, we talked to ten people, some of you in the room. And what we heard was this diagram and we talked through it and folks would come up to us and say, like, I’ve talked to a lot of researchers before.

Vichi: I’ve never actually seen what came out of it. And it’s really cool that I can see, like I told you that. And it’s neat that you took what I said, and I see it in this document, and that really led to a longer term folks saying, hey, if you ever need me to help with anything else again, volunteering. What can I do? And so we made it more of a regular practice to a hold our own listening sessions or listening spaces when we need input on things and to also regularly go back to these spaces to report back. It’s kind of led to this almost informal group. There’s a core set of people that always show up and anytime we ask for input, they’re always sharing it. They’re always bringing people along. And then there’s some people only do it once they happen to be there.

Vichi: One time they shared something, they came to one meeting and both of those work. It’s more this idea that if you want, the space is always there and if it’s too much and you’re good, zero pressure like come when you can or can’t and it’s always open. But it is surprising how many people are interested and happy to volunteer their time and expertise to provide input. And the key thing for us has always been making sure we’re closing the loop and showing them what we did with that information. And that’s kind of led to this sustainable, ongoing listening process. Even though it’s not super formal, it’s just like a set of habits.

Tobi: Yeah, absolutely. There’s so many principles that you’ve mentioned of engaging communities, engaging volunteers, engaging community partners. The same thing I used to ask after every meeting when I would do outreach to different organizations I was hoping to partner with. I’d always ask at the end, who else should I talk to? And you’re tapping into a network. There that’s community capital, right? That’s social capital. The fact that you’re feeding back information, even if you’re doing for our volunteer managers out there, even if you’re doing a volunteer survey, you should always be. If people are giving it’s almost ethical research practice in my mind that if people are giving you their data, their stories, their perceptions, their points of view, that at the very least, they deserve to hear back what the aggregate looks like once everybody’s given their feedback. And then making listening a practice, an ongoing practice, and not making it super formal conversations.

Tobi: I think those are all great principles of community organizing, of systems thinking, but also of volunteer engagement in general. It just makes that kind of I think sometimes we put volunteers in a box and they need to fit this certain definition. But I think anytime anybody’s helping somebody, helping neighbor, helping neighbor informally or people are coming to give their perception, that’s a type of volunteerism. So you gathered all these data points, you fed it back to the community. Then what did you do next?

Vichi: Yeah, a lot of what we were synthesizing was again into the systems mapping process. So basically we came away with this. It’s a physical map with all these different feedback loops and diagrams showing the different forces at play that lead to the challenges we’re witnessing. And there were a lot of things on there, like the map was covering everything from misdiagnosis of ADHD and medicating for students all the way over to kids involved in the juvenile justice system. There was stuff about workforce conditions and how that contributes to parenting. All sorts of issues on this map, all interconnected. And so people were definitely validating. Like, yes, that sounds like the experiences we’re having, but we were all a little overwhelmed with where to begin.

Vichi: And there’s a concept in system thinking called leverage. And the idea is there are certain in any system or in any context that you’re in, there are some actions that are higher leverage than others. And what that usually means is with a little bit of effort, you can see an unexpectedly high amount of impact. And it might be because people are already talking about that. So we can build on something that’s already happening. It could be that we have the right people on the team who really know how to deal with that. It’s like a lot of different contextual factors. So what we tried to do was figure out in our community, are there places on this whole map where there already is leverage and maybe we could start there.

Vichi: And what we pretty much again, we went to a lot of these different listening spaces. We’d hand out the map to people and we’d say, could you mark on here? Where do you see people in the community already working on this? Where do you feel like there is energy for change and is there anyone where on here that’s frozen? Like, we’ve tried it, we’ve been trying to get that person to change and it’s not happening. Mark those things on the map physically and then we took all that data and put it together and interestingly, two or three areas really emerged as the most likely places for change. And those three areas were increasing people’s knowledge about trauma and what it is and how it impacts people, helping different systems shift away from punishment to more restorative responses when people are showing up with symptoms of trauma and then recognizing that when people experience trauma, they’re often isolated from school or work. Finding ways to help people reconnect to opportunities for school and work. Those were like the three areas. So that fed into our I mean, it became essentially our logic model or theory of change. And so we did eventually get to the part where we were being more directive about these are the areas we’re focusing on.

Vichi: But it came from all of this engagement to then say, hey, this is the highest leverage thing. Here’s why it’s high leverage. These are now the areas where we’re seeking partners in the community who want to collaborate to design solutions.

Tobi: Yeah, excellent. Yeah. I mean, at some point gang, it’s not a free for all. We’re talking about grassroots work. It’s not a free for all because then that just becomes like everybody’s just brainstorming ad nauseam until the end of time and we never get to a solution. At some point a decision has to be made and whoever makes it, makes it. And sometimes there’s a conversation about how that decision will be made, but sooner or later it has to be made. Like, these are the things we’re going to focus on.

Tobi: Here’s why. Here’s what we’re going to do going forward. I think resilience. It’s interesting that resilience is such a big topic and became such a big topic early on because it seems like it’s only becoming more of a topic now with COVID I think people are having a really hard time building back resilience from and it’s almost like a collective trauma, global trauma that is so common or maybe it’s more visible, I don’t know. But just the tiniest things that people who’ve had COVID, things that they take away long COVID effects. You’re having conversations with people and you’re like, oh, I have that too, or who feels tired right now? Or who’s quiet quitting at work. Well, because we’re all burnt out. It’s not because we don’t want to be hard workers, it’s that punishment thing.

Tobi: Right, so I see even that narrative going across like people doing quiet quitting. It’s all about people being lazy. No, it’s about people being burnt out from massive global trauma and disease. Right. Because many of us have had COVID. So have you had to make any shifts when you’ve seen this sort of energy I call this like an energy deficit right now in society in general. Has it impacted your programming at all or your response in the last couple of years?

Vichi: Yeah, I think COVID was really difficult when it happened and has definitely continued to show all of its downstream challenges. It’s interesting because to your like, before COVID happened, there was a lot of energy already around responding to trauma and trauma informed practices and resilience and a lot of it was coming from the public health field for us, like the health department. And then when COVID happened, COVID became the number one public health emergency. And a ton of people’s resources were diverted to that. And not just health care, but every teacher suddenly became a first responder. And the police fully shifted towards COVID response. And all the systems basically had to reengineer everything they were doing to respond to COVID and our work, including everything else. Our work took a backseat and a lot of for us as an organization, we navigated our way through it.

Vichi: But it kind of was like a slow time. We kind of had to step back and rethink our strategy and we were working remote, which is like, how do you engage community working remote? So it was a little bit slow for us and it went well, but we weren’t able to move forward on a lot of priorities. We were just kind of like staying the course. And then post COVID, I feel like on paper all the organizations and their leadership and everything were like, okay, switch back into regular mode and all those task forces and everything started back up and people started asking us, oh, can we pick up that thing we did before? But something that never got addressed was like the toll that that took on people. We just switched back. And what hasn’t been talked about was like before when we were asking schools and teachers to think about implement all these restorative practices. It’s not the same as it is now. Asking teachers to think about it’s become very clear that the teaching profession is very difficult, burnout central.

Vichi: Everybody’s now doing more than just their job. And I think it’s been hard for orgs like ours, but really for anybody working in sort of the nonprofit public space, everybody just is overcapacity. So it’s hard to know we can’t really ask people to do more and yet there is more and more that needs to be done. And I feel like without a change at the higher level, like the policy level, to grant more resources, we’re in a difficult situation. And so we’ve definitely come upon that of, like, people are interested in picking back up a lot of these initiatives, but the reality is they do not have the same level of capacity to do the things that they wanted to do.

Tobi: It’s interesting. It does take a little bit of a pause. I wonder about these levers too. What is the most important priority? Can we focus on one thing instead of five things? Because people really don’t. I’m seeing exactly the same thing and there’s sort of like a post COVID, I don’t know, it’s like a second wave of impact, I think, when people realize they were going on adrenaline throughout the pandemic, we’re going on adrenaline and then, okay fine, now we’re done. We’re like, well guess what? We have another wave this fall. New vaccines are out this week. So it’s interesting to think about how we can be more careful with one another, but also more gentle and bringing in those restorative things that we know work, like meditation, for example.

Tobi: There’s things that we are going to need to build into our work and we’re probably going to have to do less for a little while. As we all restore and that’s okay. I think people are thinking they’re going to and we’re like in this collective haze of like, yeah, we’re all doing what we were doing last time. Yeah, we are. We’re as productive as we were before. And if anybody takes an honest look at their productivity in today’s world this month, this time, this point in the history of the world, I think we can all admit we’re not all like 100% there gang. Maybe you’re nodding and you’re saying yes as you’re listening or maybe you’re saying, what is she talking about? I’m back 110% for hard charging people. It’s a tough time, I think too.

Tobi: Well, hey, let’s take a quick break and we’ll be right back from the break with our discussion with Vichy Jagannathan about engaging communities in change. It’s such a great conversation and I hope you’re enjoying this sort of different look at how we engage volunteers and people in the community in creating a new vision for the world. So we’ll be right back, so don’t go anywhere. If you enjoyed this week’s episode of Volunteer Nation, we invite you to check out the Volunteer Pro Premium Membership. This community is the most comprehensive resource for attracting, engaging, and supporting dedicated, high impact volunteer talent for your good cause. Volunteer Pro Premium Membership helps you build or renovate an effective what’s working now volunteer program with less stress and more joy so that you can ditch the overwhelm and confidently carry your vision forward. It is the only implementation of its kind that helps your organization build maturity across five phases of our proprietary system, the Volunteer Strategy Success Path. If you’re interested in learning more, visit forward slash join.

Tobi: Okay, we’re back with our exploration of engaging communities and social change with Vichi Jagannathan. And I want to talk to you a little bit. Let’s get into a little bit maybe of your advice, given the work you’ve been involved in. I think that even more traditional volunteer engagement and traditional volunteer programs and more traditional direct service nonprofits could use I always think community organizing could maybe use a little bit of traditional volunteerism to do better at engaging volunteers, be more organized. But I also think traditional volunteer organizations and traditional volunteer involvement could use a little bit more of community organizing’s perspective, of really sharing power and bringing knowledge from the community up into program design. So I always like to talk about both because I think there’s like pros and cons to each and I think each can learn, each side could learn from one another. So how do you think volunteer organizations can help and leaders, both staff and volunteer leaders, can help community members sort of ground their volunteerism, become more self reflective, think about where they want to plug in. Where do community members how can they be more evaluative about where they want to volunteer, where they want to fit into the community? We’ve talked a lot about sort of figuring out what are the key leverage areas for making difference and talking to community members about that.

Tobi: At some point people are going to start to say and as you saw, people start showing up and when solutions start to get put on the table, how can organizations help volunteers connect with the solution? Or if advocacy, activism, direct service, whatever it is that they’re going to plug in and they’re going to find a place where they feel like there’s flow for them, where it has meaning for them that it’s not burning them out, that kind of thing. What are your thoughts on that?

Vichi: Yeah, that’s a great question. One of the things we talk about a lot, kind of for staff or volunteer, regardless of how we’re engaging with someone, we talk a lot about zones of genius. And this idea that everybody has genius within them, it just shows up different ways. And too often the spaces we’re in or the opportunities we give people have a really narrow lane where you either do things this way or we assume that you’re not good at anything or can’t fit in. But really there’s like a bunch of different ways to do something and so allowing people the space to discover their zone of genius can just create way more opportunities. So something we’ve started to do more when we are looking at opportunities for engagement and they could be paid, they could be unpaid. But if we’re saying, okay, we’re going to do this project and we need these different types of roles, is asking ourselves what type of zone of genius would do best here and making that super clear and then trying to connect people who have that expertise with that role? So as an example, we have a couple of people that sometimes volunteer with us. Sometimes it’s paid.

Vichi: We call them community ambassadors and they are specifically really good at influencing certain people who will hold power in the community, elected officials and stuff, at influencing them to take action on something. And it’s super narrow. We don’t call on them for everything. But it’s like if I’m trying to get this county commissioner to respond to emails and he’s not, I’m going to call this specific person and tell them and that guy’s going to respond to my email really soon and that’s his job and it’s really clear and he experiences a ton of success by doing it. But we’re not then also saying like, hey, can you also put together this memo or do this other random task? And I think that’s been one of the ways for us. It’s been really helpful to plug people into very specific opportunities where they can demonstrate success and not ask them to do like ten other things also.

Tobi: Yeah, absolutely. I like that clarity too, being really clear and doing a little bit of an analysis of okay, what kind of skills, temperament, network. There’s all kinds of like as we talk about community capital, there’s all kinds of political capital. There’s all kinds of ways people can sort of spark or just offer to say, yeah, okay, I’m going to bring that forward. I’m going to put this into this effort. I like that. I like the idea that you’re being really clear and you’re thinking ahead of time. Like, what is it? What are the super skills that are needed to get this done? And who’s got this? And I can imagine when you approach people and you say, you know, I noticed that you’re pretty good at XYZ and we’ve got this job that needs somebody that’s really good at XYZ, that people actually feel really like, oh, thank you.

Tobi: You noticed me. You’re seeing me as a human who has special skills. I love that. Yeah. And it’s a way of valuing people, I think. I think sometimes people are afraid to ask people to do stuff, but when it’s something that’s in their zone of genius, you’re actually showing them that you value and respect them by asking them to deploy that zone of genius on your behalf or for your organization. What do you think are the mistakes or pitfalls that organizations should avoid when engaging communities in driving change?

Vichi: Yeah, I think we’ve touched on some of these throughout the conversation, but I think a lot of it is in the how many organizations I think have the right intention of we need community input or we want to engage the community to do this, but really, I think it’s more in how it’s executed. So, I mean, some of the things I’ve seen and a lot of these are things that we also mess up at first were like, creating a separate space and requiring people to come to it rather than meeting them where they already are. A lot of it, I think, is creating all these barriers or hoops in order for people to be part of this movement instead of saying, people are already moving and so where are they already moving? And how do I remove every possible barrier to then create the opportunity for them to participate? I think that’s, like, many, many of the mistakes that we made fit under that umbrella of making it really complicated. Like, oh, come to our 12:00 lunch meeting in this random building, and everybody is like, why? Because tomorrow we’re all going to be at a 12:00 lunch meeting at this other place. Why don’t you just come to that? And it’s like, that makes sense. And I think also not being aware of the different power and leadership structures, like, we have made the mistake sometimes of going to a space and saying something like, oh, we don’t know anybody who is already doing X, so we’re going to create that. And then people will be like, wait, have you heard of those people? And we’ll realize, let me look really quick. And then you realize there actually is like a whole structure for doing whatever thing we were about to reinvent but we just didn’t find out and all that stuff.

Vichi: I think erodes trust or frustrates people. So just really learning our place in the community and trying to plug into what’s already going and not making assumptions seems to work a lot better.

Tobi: Yeah, absolutely. I love that you said people are already moving. You’re not creating a movement. People are already moving. It’s like there are currents. Like a community is a body of water and there’s currents that have been forever and ever and ever flowing a certain way and if you can just figure it out, it’s much easier than trying to swim upstream and once in a while you get caught in a whirlpool, pull yourself out of it. You know what I mean?

Vichi: 100%.

Tobi: One other thing I wanted to just explore we’re almost to the end of our conversation and it’s been such a fun one. I just love your energy and I love what you guys are doing and just really being able to be humble and say, hey, I have a beginner’s mind, I’m here to learn, help me understand and I’m here to be of service. When we talk about volunteerism, I talked earlier about top down management. Aside from gathering information from the community, what are ways of sharing power that you could recommend to maybe volunteer leaders that are in more traditional programs? Is there anything like small baby steps they could do to just start sharing power more? Because I feel like the more you share power, the more impact you have.

Vichi: Yeah, I think probably the simplest, most impactful thing we’ve done here is we formed a community accountability board probably a year into us existing. And what catalyzed it was we got our first multi year grant and immediately we had this feeling or realization I guess, that there’s a lot of community members and organizations that struggle to get funding like that. And partly because of our outsider status, we were able to get it and we really didn’t want to misuse it. And the clearest path to transparency felt like actually constructing some way for others who have community expertise to be able to see how we were using it and feedback up to us or catch us if we were off track. So we actually wrote into that grant funding for a community board. And mainly, I mean, it’s not a lot of money but food for meetings and stipends for people to come. But basically we sent out a public nomination in like a newsletter email that was like anybody that we’re making this community accountability board nominate people, explain why got a good number of nominations, met with people, shared the commitment and it was is pretty low lift. It’s like get on a zoom, call or meet us, meet us in person.

Vichi: Once every couple of months we will share what our initiatives are how we’re spending money, and like a couple of key areas where we want your input on what we’re doing next, you all vote. And then they could also just bring up questions and stuff. So that we started out with five members and it’s grown a little bit now. Like, we’re going to about nine, but that group is still in place and I think at the very least, it’s like one built in catch where if we forget to get input or we’re off track on something, at least the community board will eventually find out. And on more than one occasion they have pushed back or told us something we didn’t know about or helped us catch something. And it’s like, okay, you’re only off track for three months, so I think it’s not too hard to spin up. But having something like that in place at least provides one catch for input on decision making. There’s like way more we could be doing and even we haven’t been able to put a lot of those other things in place. But this one has been really positive.

Tobi: Yeah, and you feature them on your website, I noticed. Yeah, so it’s public transparency is such an important thing in today’s world. I mean, nonprofits are suffering from a crisis in public trust, let’s be clear about that. I mean, there’s data on that, right? It’s a topic of conversation in the sector. So anything you can do, not to mention just the brain trust you have behind you, is just fantastic. To have that brain trust there, like you said, catch you, but also to bring resources to them and to become ambassadors. They’re going to talk you up in the community. So it’s definitely trust building.

Tobi: Let me ask you one more question, because we’ve been talking for almost an hour here. I hope our audience has been enjoying this. It’s just such a fantastic thing to see people engaging in different kinds of models. Gang, there’s no need to always do it this way or that know, today’s world requires innovation in order to thrive, I think. So tell me, Vichi, what are you most excited about in the year ahead? I always ask everybody this question at the end of my interviews, but I’m always curious, what are you most excited about?

Vichi: Yeah, every year is different for us because we’re only six years old, so it’s always exciting. But this year we’ve grown from a team, just me and my co founder, to a full time team of four. And I feel like this team of four is really super high capacity, very mission aligned, committed. So we are kind of all getting into our groove. But in the year Ahead have identified just like a couple of priorities for growth, some partnership areas we really want to go deep on, workforce development being one of them and ramping up some of our community engagement, trying to rethink how people can be involved post COVID. So I’m just excited to see what this team can come up with because it feels like we’re ready to just level up in terms of community engagement and taking on some ambitious projects. So that’s probably my biggest hope.

Tobi: Awesome. Congrats on your scale. Scary words. Thank you. Yeah, she gave me a little grin there, Gay. You can’t see Vichi on the camera, but yeah, I get it. So just final for folks who want to get in touch with you, learn about more of what you do. I know you do some training on community mapping and things.

Tobi: Where can people find you?

Vichi: Yeah, so I think Ruralopertunity.org, our website, is probably the best place. We have a couple of things we offer to folks so we can do trainings. We have a bunch of community leaders who can lead trauma informed trainings. We have a couple of tools that you can take a look at or purchase some flashcards with different trauma informed practices and things. But also we’re pretty committed to sharing everything we’re learning, just open source for anyone. So there’s a number of reports and guides and papers of different programs we’ve been able to implement so you can just look at it for free, see if anything resonates for you. And we’re always down to talk more, provide support if anything is of interest.

Tobi: Awesome, thank you. This has been great. So gang, check out the website, rural Opportunity. I will post a link in the show notes. Also, for those of you interested in Teach for America, why not? We might as well because, hey, it’s a great breeding ground for community leaders like you. So, hey, you know what, we’re going to post it in the show notes. So thanks everybody and thank you Vichi, so much. It’s been a great conversation.

Tobi: Gang, if you liked or enjoyed or found value in today’s episode, would you share it with a you know, the way we reach more people is through our shares and ratings and reviews. So if you would take just a moment and give us that five star rating because you know what, it’ll help us reach more people like you. So that’s it for this week. We will see you next week, same time, same place on The Volunteer Nation. Take care everybody.

Vichi: Bye.

Tobi: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Volunteer Nation Podcast. If you enjoyed it, please be sure to subscribe, rate and review so we can reach people like you who want to improve the impact of their good cause. For more tips and notes from the show, check us out at Tobijohnson.com. We’ll see you next week for another installment of Volunteer Nation.