Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Getting Connected-- Engaging Your Institution and Community

Post by guest-blogger Meredith Danowski*, PhD student in Astronomy at Boston University.

You've got a group of people together, committed to a cause. You have ideas and goals, you want to blaze a trail, you want to solve problems. Anyone can plan an event, anyone can voice an opinion, so now we're down to the hard part. To be an effective organization with a voice, you need members, you need to fill a niche, you need to become a part of the fabric of your environment. Regardless of your size or intended audience, fostering relationships between your organization and the greater community is a way to ensure success.

A crucial step forward is to begin a conversation with those in positions of power. Talk to department chairs, university deans, and leaders of your community and get them invested in your cause. Show them how the goals of your organization are consistent with their goals--diversity breeds excellence. Beyond financial support, these individuals can provide ideas, contacts, and administrative resources. Their support of your cause can open doors and encourage the community. They can provide feedback on the impact of your work. And in turn, your organization enriches the academic environment and supports the community.

To extend our connection to the community beyond singular meetings with our departments and college deans, Boston University's GWISE formed an advisory board. With the goal of hearing feedback and engaging seemingly disparate portions of our community in a larger conversation, we invited those leaders to sit together for a discussion. To begin, we sat down and devised a list of people to invite-- we included influential people involved in university administration, individuals engaged in promoting STEM diversity (from other local universities or groups), female leaders in their fields-- those whose input would only help us strengthen our impact.

Once a semester, the leadership of our organization meets with our advisory board. We discuss our recent events, our future plans, and we revisit our mission. We share how our organization is benefiting the community. We talk about areas for improvement, and ask for feedback. Are we accomplishing our goals? What could we do better, and how? Are we serving our membership? How might we increase the participation of our members? We solicit ideas and collect input from a variety of viewpoints.

The key to longevity is to foster a symbiotic relationship between the organization and the community, and this advisory board meeting serves to strengthen that relationship and encourage conversations. Instead of fighting for independence or against the structure around us, we strive to work well within it-- to become an invaluable part of the community. We want to be a part of the conversation, a part of the solution, an instrument for improving the environment. The support of the individuals on the advisory board, the institution, and the community are instrumental in helping us thrive and continue working toward our goal, and hopefully, one day, making us obsolete.

*Meredith Danowski is a PhD student in Astronomy at Boston University and this is her second guest blog at the Women in Astronomy Blog. This is the second in a series where she describes her experiences with GWISE-- she discussed how to get an organization started, and she'll be back to discuss how to build partnerships to effectively provide unique programming.