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In Brooklyn, Building and Strengthening Community Through Listening

September 23, 2013

By Hillary Richard
Project Coordinator, Building Strong Community Networks

Building Strong Community Networks (BSCN) is an action-research project aimed at meeting community needs through collaboration. Our partnership—the Heart of Brooklyn—is a consortium of cultural institutions in central Brooklyn: Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Brooklyn Children’s Museum, Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Public Library, Prospect Park, and Prospect Park Zoo. We started BSCN almost two years ago by examining our shared values and prioritizing the issues and groups our partnership sought to impact. The overlap was astounding. We are now listening to our community and working together to find programs that are not only at the core of our missions, but will meet the needs expressed.

Earlier this year, the BSCN Working Group hosted one of many community listening events. An expert panel was convened to discuss serving children and adults with developmental or learning disabilities, as well as autism spectrum disorder, and their families. Panel experts included Geoffrey DeBery, Eden II Programs; Aaron Feinstein, ActionPlay; Alicia Kershaw, GallopNYC; Elaine Stillerman, founder of Big Apple Oranges; Cindy VandenBosch, Museum Access Consortium.

The BSCN Working Group, institution members, and our consultant and staff attended this session moderated by Dr. Marcos Stafne, Vice President of Programs & Visitor Experience at the Brooklyn Children’s MuseumThe panel provided attendees with a better understanding of the needs and barriers to full access and engagement within our institutions. While there is a demand for social and cultural experiences for this community, we are beginning to understand the stresses that can undermine visits to our institutions. Long lines, distracting stimuli, and front-of-line staff unfamiliar with the visitors’ needs can detract from the experience. A desire for inclusive programming that is adaptable to visitors of all abilities exists, but there is also interest in opportunities designed for and catering to specific needs. While the speakers mainly focused on families affected by autism spectrum disorder, much of what we learned could be considered when serving other communities.

Following our BSCN model, we considered what we heard in the session and brainstormed with our colleagues about what we could do to address the issues raised. How can we improve our accessibility? We generated four ideas: creating new programming, combined training of staff, making a community of practice for access issues at our sites, and replicating the panel for a larger audience. Working Group members  voted on these ideas to which their institution could subscribe. We are excited that two ideas around sharing resources and staff training were supported by all HOB members! From there, we formed an Access Idea Committee tasked with making a formal proposal for our leadership to review.

This community is just one of the many that we have been working with in the past year. From teens to caregivers to community board leaders, we have been busy listening and planning. Next on the docket is emergent bilingualism and language barriers in Brooklyn. We look forward to sharing the programs that come out of it with all of you. Innovative collaboration is growing in the Heart of Brooklyn!

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