By Laureen Laglagaron

Community-based organizations (CBOs) and advocacy groups can be important allies that identify discrimination and assist investigations and compliance reviews. CBOs and advocacy groups can introduce you to potential victims or witnesses, explain complex neighborhood dynamics, and serve as a voice for underserved populations facing bias or prejudice. But, like all skills, fostering productive working relationships with CBOs and advocacy groups takes practice.

We encourage you to share how you have effectively built relationships with CBOs and advocacy groups through website, publications, and internally. Share any tips, anecdotes, or “Lessons Learned” with us, at FCS.CRT@usdoj.gov, that we can include in forthcoming issues. Please let us know if you would like the thoughts and suggestions you share to be published anonymously.

Communicate. CBOs and advocacy groups will not know if your agency takes action (or even receives) their complaint or concern unless you tell them. CBOs and advocacy organizations invest considerable time and resources in preparing a complaint or approaching you to voice a concern. Priority Mail, email, or call the complainant when you receive their complaint, especially if you act on that complaint. It’s neither necessary (or wise) to provide a lengthy explanation of your review nor legal to divulge confidential information, but a simple acknowledgment of receipt or explanation of initial action and the name of an agency contact can go far in building that initial cooperative relationship.

Explain Your Process. How long did it take you to decipher all the acronyms in your organization?  On your first day, was it easy to understand the role of each section, division, mode, and component within your agency?  If you think it’s hard to navigate from the “inside,” it’s even more difficult for a CBO or advocacy organization to understand an agency’s structure or chain of command. Be patient. Take some time to explain your office’s roles and responsibilities, approval process, and any limitations in authority or remedies. Helping a CBO or advocacy organization understand your intake process for complaints, the typical timeline for a compliance review, or how an allegation of discrimination works its way through your agency can help manage CBOs’ expectations. If you are working on a case or matter with multiple federal agencies, be sure to distinguish your own agency’s role and how it may (or may not) differ from that of the other agencies.

Do Your Homework. Gathering evidence of a systemic violation is very hard to do without reliable local contacts. Before you reach out to a CBO or advocacy organization, spend some time researching their mission, work focus areas, constituents, and current and past projects. Ask your colleagues, especially if they work in the same geographic area, if they have any experience communicating with this particular CBO and familiarize yourself with any recent news involving this organization. Work with a diverse mix of CBOs to avoid relying on one organization to speak on behalf of a particular group or community. Doing your homework and understanding a CBO or advocacy organization before you contact them saves time and helps you ask more informed and directed questions.

Listen. In rural or remote locales, communicating with you may be the rare (or first) occasion that a CBO has to interact with the federal government. Consequently, you may hear complaints or concerns that are unrelated to the matter at hand or outside of your office’s jurisdiction. Be open-minded to the topics that may arise, the conversational style, or the number of conversations that may take place before you can elicit information helpful for your investigation. For some CBOs, you remain their only connection to a representative of the federal government. Listen patiently to their concerns, explain your process (see above), and, if possible, refer the CBO to other government agencies for issues/matters that your office cannot address.

Speak Their Language. Effective communication can only occur when both parties understand each other. If you know or suspect that you will be speaking with community members who are limited English proficient or are persons with a disability, have a plan in place to ensure that you have interpreters (live or via telephone) and/or assistive technology in place to ensure that you can bridge any communication barriers and that the meetings take place at a location that is accessible. Do not rely on a CBO to provide you with interpreters or to serve as interpreters in any meeting or interview or to provide or pay for any reasonable accommodations. It  is important that you use neutral and accurate parties as interpreters during an investigation, keeping in mind that agencies are responsible, under Executive Order No. 13166, for providing meaningful access to individuals with limited English proficiency. Relying on community-provided linguists may also trigger ethics questions insofar that your agency receives a “gift” of translation or interpretation from a CBO.

Keep in Touch. To the extent possible, provide updates to your community contacts even after the initial conversation or interview whenever there are important developments. In some cases, CBOs can also suggest remedies, set priorities, and play a formal role in monitoring compliance. Staying in touch with CBOs and community contacts throughout the course of an investigation can unearth new facts or witnesses or simply inform you that conditions remain the same. Don’t assume that CBOs or community contacts will update you when important developments arise – they may assume you already know them! 

Respect People’s Time. Allocate enough time for interviews or conversations. Schedule interviews or conversations at a time and place that is accessible and convenient for your community contact. Be on time. Establish a point of contact and communicate any delays or time constraints. These simple courtesies can go far in creating an environment conducive to frank and candid conversations.

Understand Your Role. There will be times when your agency cannot take any action because of jurisdictional, legal, or resource constraints. Manage expectations and avoid overpromising results at the outset. Although it’s tempting to satisfy everyone’s concerns, it’s more fair (and realistic) to explain these limitations and be honest.

Update Your Community Outreach Database. Keep the information about a CBO or advocacy organization up to date by entering data about new personnel or position changes during breaks between meetings, flying home from a site visit, or as soon as you get back to your office. Maintaining accurate information about your contacts will make it easier for you (and your colleagues) to keep in touch over time. For developing or maintaining contacts in remote locales, consider joining a national organization and attending nearby events in an effort to stay abreast of issues that continue to affect those remote areas.

Share Your Contacts and Stay Connected. Eliminate having your colleagues recreate or reestablish contact with your connections by maintaining a community outreach database and staying in touch with your community contacts. Staying in touch, even after a matter is resolved, helps you monitor compliance to ensure that no further discrimination takes place and may help you build connections for future cases and matters.

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