How do you do ‘community engagement’ with kids?
As I was reporting “Notice to Quit,” a series on the effects of eviction on Connecticut’s families and children, I talked with a lot of kids who had questions about how eviction worked.
Many were scared or anxious about what would happen next. They worried about school, and when they would have their new room.
I also talked with their parents about how they approached the subject with their children. Lots of those parents told me that it was a hard conversation to begin, especially when they didn’t have many of the answers about where they’d be living long term, whether their kids would be able to go to the same school, or even where they’d be staying that night.
After those conversations and after publishing the project, we wanted to publish something aimed at helping the kids understand evictions. They were the central part of the project, so it made sense to try to offer a book geared toward them.
It took several conversations with linguists, child development experts, and educators as well as reading piles of children’s books to decide on the style of the book.
What we ended up producing is a short children’s book called “Home Again.” The text is paired with coloring pages so the kids can interact more fully with it.
The goal of the book is to help facilitate conversations between parents and kids and help kids going through eviction understand that they are not alone. We uploaded the coloring books as a PDF on our webpage and had 400 copies of the regular book printed.
This summer, we are embarking on an engagement effort to make sure that kids have access to the book. We’re starting with several scheduled storytimes across the state, beginning in Hartford, Connecticut.
Throughout the project, the Connecticut Mirror organized several community engagement events, including with legal aid groups seeking to connect with adults who were being evicted. While setting up events for kids has several differences, there are also a couple of common themes.
Set up partnerships
Whenever we attempted community engagement, it was made better by working with another organization. More people came to the events, and they were more engaged.
These organizations already have connections in the community. They know people and what they need better than a journalist trying to make that connection for the first time.
For our storytimes, this meant partnering with libraries and housing organizations that work with families. They helped us hugely by setting dates and letting the families in their networks know about it.
Our first storytimes were very well attended, and we have more ongoing throughout the summer.
Mix your messaging
The organizations we worked with for the storytimes did some of their own messaging around the events. They posted on their websites, put up flyers and shared the events on social media.
This was helpful, since people were already accustomed to looking for events and services through these organizations. But in order to reach a variety of audiences, we did some advertising about the events ourselves.
We posted on social media, emailed people we knew were interested in the topic, and wrote up a newsletter to people who had subscribed to updates on “Notice to Quit.” This was important because it allowed us reach a broader audience.
Even when some people couldn’t make it to the storytimes, many learned about the book through our outreach. Several people emailed and asked for a copy for their organization or family. Others wanted to know where they could download the coloring pages.
Having this variety of messaging helped us to connect with more people and got us closer to reaching the goals we’d set ahead of the book’s release — to get out 1,000 copies, either by way of the printed book or coloring page downloads.
Make it fun!
The biggest difference between community engagement events and the storytimes we held for kids was that with kids the emphasis was on having fun.
While the topics of eviction and housing are heavy, and our end goal is to provide this information as a resource for children experiencing housing insecurity, groups of kids are not going to participate in the same way if the programs are not fun.
In order to make it fun, we tried a couple of things. The book includes a recurring line about how the main character scrunches her eyes closed and counts to three to calm herself down. So every time we read that line, I asked the kids to do the same thing as the character.
I also brought in the coloring pages and a big bucket of crayons with as many colors as I could find. Kids get excited about 120 packs of crayons.
I also started every storytime by playing music — “Can’t Stop the Feeling” from the Trolls movie. We jumped around and danced to the song for one minute at the start to get the energy out before sitting still to read the book.
Then we would do another minute at the end — just for fun.