When I first got hired to be a community liaison for Center Theatre Group’s Popol Vuh: Heart of Heaven project in collaboration with El Teatro Campesino, I Googled “liaison.” I had heard the word before, but I wanted to know what it meant and what my job would entail. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a “liaison” is “a person who helps organizations or groups to work together and provide information to each other.”
So, my job was to connect people who work, play, and live in the Boyle Heights community with Popol Vuh: Heart of Heaven. The project set out to introduce participants to theatre, both through on-stage performance and the work that takes place behind the scenes. Phase one was to recruit community members to participate in performance workshops led by El Teatro Producing Artistic Director Kinan Valdez.
Our recruitment strategy was to target places where groups of people with a vested interest in the Boyle Heights community—community leaders and drivers—were already gathered. We also wanted to target people with a proclivity for the arts, as well as people who were already searching for these kinds of activities, even if they didn’t know what they were searching for.
“Drivers” are the people who drive people to community programs, or people who are well connected to the community’s heartbeat. The main driver of Center Theatre Group’s The Shop program has always been Jesus Reyes, the program manager for CTG’s community programs. Jesus lives, works, and plays in Boyle Heights and has a great deal of passion for the community and connections within it. One of his connections is Yolanda Rodriguez, a driver involved in a variety of programs in Boyle Heights and the Eastside who had attended The Shop programs in the past. She handed me her calendar of events and gave me the names and phone numbers of the people setting up these events. We hit gold with Yolanda because her connections turned out to be very fruitful.
Once we found the right people, we had to figure out how to convince them that our project was worth their time and would benefit the community. Below are what became my guiding points as we sought out to engage the community of Boyle Heights, and how we got close to 200 participants at our workshops:
Trust: Let the community’s drivers know who you are and what you are about, and gain their trust. They are community leaders, so their interest is already in the right place. If you are offering something good (and free), chances are they will be glad to have met you. They want the best for their participants, too!
The Ask: Ask the drivers if you can come and make an announcement at their next event or meeting. Ask for what you need, but do not push, and be respectful of the organization’s needs. Fit yourself into their agenda.
Pitch & Passion: Your pitch at the meetings will be different every time, but it also has to be truthful every time. I listen to the organization and what the people are passionate about, and I try to find a way that their passion intersects with our passion. A liaison not only connects people but connects the dots.
At the core of community-based work is the idea that our stories are connected, and we are one story. Theatre is connected to our everyday life because we tell those stories, and everyone has a story.
Deliver: Make the workshop accessible (in our case, this means all workshops are bilingual, easy to get to, and open to all levels of experience). The content should be fun and not just informative, but relevant to participants’ everyday lives.
My fellow community liaison Tiana and I attended so many events, made so many calls, and connected with so many people, but at the end of the day you never know who is going to walk through the door. We are lucky enough to have exceeded our expectations for the workshops we’ve hosted so far. Not everyone we talked to attended, but those who did were enthusiastic and committed. Many of them brought friends and family along, and we now have a strong group of regulars.
Ultimately, I realized that it’s not about “convincing” people to come, but about getting the word out to the right people and filling a need in the community. It is such a joy to see the work of the people we’ve encouraged to come, and to witness their joy and appreciation in turn. It gives all of the work meaning. So much of getting to know the community is becoming part of the community, and we are having lots of fun doing it.
Read fellow Popol Vuh community liaison Tiana Alvarez’s account of the experience here.