The first rule of connecting with other people, no matter who or where: Be a person.
So often in public health we get hung up on labels and demographics. We focus on the differences between people, and often lose sight of our shared humanity. For instance, we are often looking for the right person to lead a program or communicate a message, based on demographics or look. Having a person that the intended audience can relate to is important, but that relatablility is not only dependent on demographics or skin color. Even if you find the perfect peer to lead your program, if that peer isn’t also a friendly, reliable, honest person…well, you’re screwed. Your program is likely to fail, or at least not be as effective as possible, and you are going to lose some of your street cred. And when you’re dealing with hard to reach populations your street cred is everything.
In my day-to-day life as a public health practitioner, I spend a lot of time interacting with folks who look nothing like me, didn’t come from the same socio-economic background, and are my senior by at least a decade or two. Even though there are many good reasons why we shouldn’t connect, we do (most of the time). Why? Because I’ve earned their trust by being real with them, sharing my values (their values) , protecting the safe space we share, and being reliable.
When I say “being real”, I don’t mean it as anything more or less than being authentic. If I’m having a crappy day or am tired of someone’s disruptive behavior, I tell them. I also talk about my family with them, ask about theirs. We share laughs and tease. I praise their accomplishments and mourn their losses. You know, treat them as I would like to be treated. This takes time and trust, it’s not something that happens easily or quickly. But over time, people see that I am the person I show them; I am really this silly, geeky lady who cares about inequalities and our city. This isn’t a show. But equally important are the boundaries I have established about what I am willing to do for them, how we talk to each other, and what is appropriate behavior in our shared space.
You can’t earn trust by being the smartest person in the room. I have learned this the hard way. So many times I tried to sound like the authority or drown them in facts and data. People don’t want to hear all that. They want to know why they should care, why you care, and what we can do about it. Save the data and wonky business for your wonky nerdy friends (or me, I like that stuff). How do I share my values? I say it out loud. I also ask them what they value. We discuss big things like inequality, racism, HIV stigma, sexuality, addiction, our histories, you name it. Some people will shy away from those big -isms, but I don’t know how you can address the big public health problems without acknowledging the contexts in which they occur. Especially not in a city like Philadelphia.
We can have these honest conversations (sometimes very silly and TMI conversations) because there is a defined safe space, a circle of trust. I protect that space by modeling non-judgement, sex-positivity, and stigma-free language. We protect each other’s confidentiality, and follow a set of ground rules. It’s not easy to foster trust when you combine 20-30 people with a variety of experiences and backgrounds, but it is a must for long-term participation and community buy-in. Sometimes it is very hard to keep my straight face or bite my tongue, but I do it (except for that one time).
And that last bit is the easy part: reliability. Do what you say you are going to do. Show up. Just by showing up, you win.
I have to end by saying, by no means am I perfect or always comfortable with every interaction. Oh no. I’m nowhere near perfect. I believe the group forgives my shortcomings because I do my best to embrace them for who they are, to really see them.
It’s either that or the free Snapples. I’m not sure.