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In recent years, there has been a growing push for nonprofits to move to a participatory feedback model. But what does that look like in practice? Pace Center for Girls -- which serves more than 3,000 girls annually in 23 communities across Florida and Georgia -- is one example of how an organization can engage program participants, team members, and community members in producing information supporting equitable policies, processes, and best practices.
Pace believes that all girls and young women, regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status, should be uniquely cared for, supported, and encouraged to become the best versions of themselves through a path of healing and recovery. Pace focuses on helping girls improve their self-efficacy and advocacy skills, as well as their relationships with peers, family members, and adults in their communities.
At the local and organizational level, the Girls Leadership Council (GLC) is one of the strategies Pace employs to encourage and sustain the use of feedback. The GLC offers the chance for critical reflection and problem solving around issues affecting girls. It engages girls across different communities in conversation about issues relevant to their day-to-day experiences influencing their relationships with classmates and teachers, increasing personal confidence, and strengthening decision-making skills.
Partnering with girls through the GLC has been beneficial. The GLC amplifies the voices of girls and provides opportunities for empowerment while supporting Pace leadership with program information which strengthens the organization at all levels. The GLC is just one example of participatory feedback, which Pace’s research has shown to create more equitable, robust evidence of program impact.
When asked why she wanted to join the GLC, Naveah, a student at Pace Broward, said, “I wanted to have a second family and feel responsible for something.” Sophia, a student at Pace Treasure Coast, said that from her very first GLC meeting, she felt like her voice would be heard. “There were little things that made me think, this is a safe environment – I know that I can flourish and learn leadership skills while having fun at the same time.” Sam, from Pace Clay County, spoke on the different perspectives that girls across the various centers bring to the GLC. “The younger girls may see situations differently than the older girls do, and so when they get us all together, it was a bunch of completely different people trying to figure out the best way to handle a situation, and I thought that was really cool.”
Recently, the GLC worked on a participatory research project around improving caregiver involvement. They developed questionnaires for Pace girls and their families using their own experiences, gathered and analyzed the information - creating insights that benefitted all members of the Pace community. Sophia recalled that during their brainstorm, “a lot of girls came up with brilliant questions; I was amazed.” Through the project, the girls learned that caregivers want to be involved in their education. Still, life constraints like transportation, childcare, or busy work schedules affect caregivers' level of involvement. Program recommendations to facilitate caregiver involvement were offered by the girls.
Pace also utilizes organization-wide surveys to get feedback from the girls. Local GLCs discuss the survey results and contribute to their meaning. For example, through a feedback survey discussion at a local GLC, Pace learned there was a delayed response time between the request to see a counselor and having access to that counselor. Specifically, girls mentioned the use of the 'May I Speak to You' box, in which they submit a written request to see a counselor. The girls perceived it took too long for counselors to receive the request and, on some occasions, they were seeing counselors’ days after a request was submitted. Discussion of this finding helped team members understand the need to modify the process and check the box more often. Pace also provided the girls with information about situations that might impede an immediate response.
Using a participatory feedback model has provided Pace with rich, evident, and timely information. Sharing findings and seeking interpretations from its team members, girls, families, and community partners help to uncover key issues and root causes that allows Pace to adapt and innovate to create needed and meaningful impact. As evidenced by its work, girls are empowered by witnessing how their opinions are heard and used to inform solutions.
An effective participatory learning approach to research and evaluation should include the stakeholders who are closely connected to an organization to produce the most valid and valued results. Funders and philanthropists must support the expansion of this approach not only for Pace but also for other organizations applying this methodology. With deeper investments, Pace and others can continue to utilize a diverse pool of researchers and evaluators, who can influence conversations at the highest level and lead to equitable, sustainable change that directly serves the needs of all girls.