Grassroots leaders develop innovative engagement programs

Literacy program staff and alumni help refresh the Key to Community Engagement Project

California State Librarian Greg Lucas meets with Resonja Willoughby, Faye Combs and Alma Hernandez Miller to hear their vision for the Key to Community Project. Taking the photos: Susan Clark, Common Knowledge and Linda Sakamoto-Jahnke, Berkeley READS

In the early 1990’s, Susan Clark and her colleague Harriet Mayeri (initial founders of Common Knowledge) conducted research about who does and does not vote in California and why. New voters and experienced voters shared that they really wanted nonpartisan information they could trust and opportunities for learning-oriented dialogue to help make sense of election issues. At that time Susan had also become a library-based literacy tutor. (California Library Literacy Services supports over 100 literacy programs across the state which provide confidential one-on-one tutoring.) Susan was fortunate to partner with the Bay Area New Readers Council, made up of adult learner leaders from library literacy programs. Drawing on their insights about what helps people choose to engage, this group helped co-develop and co-deliver a comprehensive voter engagement program that doubled voting turnout. The core of this breakthrough was based on moving past traditional “get out the vote” strategies and, instead, started by asking people: “What do you care about in your community?” And thus the Key to Community Project was born.

Many people are familiar with one part of this project, the popular Easy Voter Guide which has been produced for every California statewide election since 1994. The Easy Voter Guide is now hosted by the League of Women Voters of California Education Fund. With support from the California State Library, the League of Women Voters invites Common Knowledge and adult literacy students to help develop content for the guide to make sure that the concepts and language are accessible to a wide audience.

Last year, a new combination of adult learner leaders took up the task of refreshing this work in today’s environment of increasing social media and partisan divides. Discussions at Berkeley READS and Oakland’s Second Start with students of all backgrounds reinforced the original premise that beginning by listening to what people care about at the community level is a strong place to start in supporting increased civic participation. The team also wanted to make sure that people understood that voting is just one way to make change. And that people are already doing many positive things in their communities that can be lifted up and celebrated.

“What you give your attention to is what grows. The more you pay attention to the good, the more it will grow.” Resonja Willoughby

So far in 2020, the Key to Community team has:

We welcome your feedback about which of these activities has been most helpful to you. Let us know at And we invite you to join us in Growing the Good in Our Communities.

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