Elevating Voices: Equitable Stakeholder Engagement

Monday, May 22, 2023
Briana Falduti
Senior Associate

Ensuring that education delivers on its potential to serve as an engine of economic mobility begins with listening to the experiences of those trying to navigate these interconnected systems. At Education Strategy Group, we are strong believers in the importance of elevating stakeholder voice to shape strategy and drive action rooted in the experiences of those closest to the problems. 

Stakeholder engagement is an essential component of the work we do. The most impactful policies and programs are those that understand and respond to the needs of the community; but too often, decisions are made by those who do not have to navigate complex systems and overcome the barriers to educational attainment and fulfilling careers. 

Stakeholder engagement serves to broaden perspectives, and in some cases, counter recurring narratives within communities. At ESG, we are especially committed to elevating the voices of students of color, students experiencing poverty, and first-generation college students, as these students are often systematically excluded from conversations that impact them. While our organization does not engage in direct service to students and families, we believe that communities and the learners within them should have voice and representation in our work to increase educational opportunity and ensure we are building toward equitable access and success. Below are some of the lessons we have learned through our efforts to increase stakeholder voice in our work as well as examples of projects where stakeholder voice has been critical to success.

Build intentional diversity and representation. A key component to ensuring successful stakeholder engagement is both human-centric and equitable is inviting a diverse set of voices to the conversation and having systems in place to ensure these conversations are representative of the communities we are working in. That means employing strategic outreach to fill any gaps in representation.

  • In ESG’s work with Kentucky’s Commonwealth Education Continuum, the Continuum wanted to ensure its recommendations were driven by stakeholder voice. When the Continuum first launched, ESG helped conduct interviews and focus groups with Kentucky students, parents, educators, and administrators. In our efforts to ensure broad representation, we 1) partnered with the state’s regional education cooperatives, and 2) kept a detailed log of participants. The partnership with the regional cooperatives helped ensure geographic spread in interviewees and facilitated outreach via established relationships. When doing this type of statewide outreach, it was important that we kept records of who we spoke with to ensure the voices we were hearing were reflective of the experiences of Kentuckians across the state. We kept track of participants’ role types, locations, and demographic characteristics in order to ensure we had a representative sample. This was useful when, for example, we realized we had not spoken to enough educators of color, prompting one of our cooperative partners to organize a focus group of educators of color. We were able to speak to 166 individuals across the state including over 40 counselors and nearly 20 students.
  • Last year, ESG supported the Woodward Hines Education Foundation (WHEF) in developing a five-year strategic plan. WHEF and its education service branch, Get2College, supports Mississippi students all across the state. It was important to ESG and WHEF that ESG understood the context in and spoke with people throughout Mississippi—from Jackson to the Delta to the Gulf Coast. WHEF and Get2College staff helped organize focus groups with students, parents, counselors, teachers, high school administrators, and college staff from across the state. We spoke with more than 100 individuals in total across all of these stakeholder groups.  

Commit to empathic listening. Once a representative sample has been invited to the table, it is time to listen. Empathic listening is a key component of stakeholder engagement. Empathy means listening with humility and trying to more deeply understand the experiences, perspectives, and feelings of other people. Empathic listening plays a critical role in enabling stakeholders to feel more engaged, supported, and can help leaders in identifying and addressing the needs of their communities. 

  • As part of the Accelerate ED project, ESG had the opportunity to work with Community Design Partners to train teams on how to conduct empathy interviews. These interview techniques employ open-ended questions such as, “Tell me about your plans and dreams for the future,” and “Tell me about a time you felt your dreams were supported by someone.” Interviewers followed a semi-structured approach that centered on deep listening and probing questions. Teams were also trained on how to build comfort and attend to power dynamics with interviewees.
  • In 2022, ESG and our partners at the Association of Community College Trustees sat down with over 80 students pursuing non-credit credentials—an often overlooked type of learner in the postsecondary ecosystem—to better understand their unique needs and educational aspirations. The results of these semi-structured interviews were clear: Students in non-credit programs want degrees. And yet, too often policymakers and leaders in the field default to the narrative that those pursuing short-term training only want to upskill for employment. While this may be the case for some learners, postsecondary education leaders have an intimate responsibility to get to know their learners on a deeper level to unearth their ambitions and help them reach their fullest potential. Empathetic listening helped us connect with learners who are beginning their higher education journey for the first time and who have educational aspirations beyond our knowledge to better orient and shape our work to support them. 

Apply stakeholder input to shape the work. Empathizing with students and other community members is a key beginning step, but organizations should also consider how to engage students in the programs and policymaking decisions that will impact them. 

  • ESG’s Building Social Capital Equity in STEM Pathways project included a student advisory group that met three times throughout the school year to more directly incorporate student voice and perspective into the work communities were doing to integrate social capital development into their college and career pathways. Students were chosen by school faculty and staff to represent their communities. During meetings, students shared their experiences with the strategies communities were using in their pilots, reflected on why they find social capital to be valuable, and provided advice on how to continue to help students build, expand, and mobilize their networks. 

Equip others to carry out ongoing engagement. While ESG will continue to engage stakeholders in our work, it is also important to us to build the capacity of the organizations we support to be able to sustain engagement efforts. We do this by training our clients in stakeholder engagement practices (such as the empathy interview training described above) and helping clients build processes for ongoing stakeholder engagement.

  • At the start of the Kentucky Commonwealth Education Continuum’s second year, ESG and Continuum members wanted to empower the Continuum’s workgroups to go out and speak to stakeholders throughout the state. ESG helped design interview and focus group protocols, questions, and guides for workgroup members. We also created note-taking documents and a process for tracking interview participants and gathering key takeaways. This process is something that the Continuum will be able to replicate with future workgroups in the years to come.

We want to hear from you: How do you engage stakeholders in your work? Are there other foundational rules or best practices not captured here? Reach out to us by email or on Twitter to share your thoughts.