Understanding the Community You Serve by Melissa Ponce

One of the many things I love about Chicago, besides all of the food options, is the diverse culture and community interwoven into each of the neighborhoods. As of the 2010 Census, the top four races represented in the city are 31.7% Non-Hispanic Whites, 32.9% Black or African American, 28.9% Hispanic or Latino origin, and 5.5% Asian. Living or working in such a city comes with the responsibility to make sure that you understand the community and families you need to reach.

Part of my job at the Chicago Area Immunization Campaign (CAIC), a project of the Illinois Maternal and Child Health Coalition, is to promote immunizations to communities with low immunization rates. That means targeting the “hard to reach” populations. So how exactly do you reach the hard to reach? Well, it depends on who you are targeting, e.g., adolescents, diabetic Asians, or uninsured African Americans. However, there are some general tips that the CAIC promotes in our immunization trainings that may help.

Understanding the community that you serve is an ongoing learning process. What works for one person may not work for the next. I have learned numerous things through trial and error, and it always helped to maintain a positive and friendly approach.  I have learned that certain cultures do not believe in handshakes, that drinking coffee for some religious entities goes against their beliefs, and that while some women may not be able to look at me in the eye, it does not mean that they are not paying attention to me.

You also need to be careful, and avoid focusing on your preconcieved notions, which may not be accurate. Maintain a non-judgmental attitude at all times. Just because I am Latina does not mean that my thoughts and attitudes are representative of all the Latino community.  We all know what can happen when you make assumptions. Look beyond your own biases and look for other possibilities and solutions.

Thinking outside of the box, will help you get out of your comfort zone. For instance, if you prefer to do correspondence through email or phone, but the population you are trying to reach prefers face to face interaction then it is time to put on some comfortable shoes and hit the pavement. Try to reach everyone but also accept that you are not going to reach everyone.

Materials distributed to the community should be easy to read and understand. When I create any materials, I have a second or even a third pair of eyes review my work. How I may interpret something may not be how the population I am trying to reach may interpret it. If possible, have the materials translated into the language of your targeted population. Even if the whole document cannot be translated, try to at least translate the key points.

Overall, having an understanding, respect, and compassion for the people you serve will go a long way.

Melissa Ponce is the Senior Project Coordinator for the Chicago Area Immunization Campaign, a project of the Illinois Maternal and Child Health Coalition. She works to increase immunization rates and prevent disease by promoting the delivery of safe, effective, and timely immunizations. She has over seven years of experience working in the non-profit sector to improve the well-being of communities. Previously, Melissa worked for the Albany Park Community Center, educating and providing services to families in order for them to live in a healthy community.  She has a BA from Northwestern University in psychology.

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