Posted September 12th 2012 at 11:05 pm by
in Stories from the Field

Community Festivals as Sites for Community Engagement

Incorporating Community Festivals as Sites for Engagement

Landscape of the North Fair Oaks Community Festival.

I was recently hired by a nonprofit organization (Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley) in San Jose that is led by the former mayor of the city, Ron Gonzales. One of my key responsibilities on the job is to figure out how to engage with the diverse Latino population in Silicon Valley – over half a million people. I was assigned to organize a simple community engagement activity at the 11th Annual North Fair Oaks Community Festival in Redwood City (approximately 30 miles south of San Francisco).  This festival draws 35,000 people each year – primarily Latinos, most from low-income and immigrant neighborhoods. For the event, my organization sponsored a 10×10 booth for an eight hour period. While most booth sponsors used the forum to give away souvenirs or informational pamphlets, we wanted to go one step further and learn about what this particular community of Latinos cares about. This is what we did and what we learned:

Creating a Game to Engage

Incorporating Community Festivals as Sites for Engagement

Above and next to the branches are labels with five quality of life issues: health, environmental sustainability, education, financial stability, and housing. The red apples symbolize ideas from community members in regards to each quality of life area.

We wanted to make sure that the engagement of Latino festival-goers was enjoyable yet valuable for knowledge-exchange between our two groups. To help us, we partnered with an organization experienced in developing “games” used for engaging with the public[1]. They came up with the idea of using a tree with apples.

We designed and digitally printed a tree illustration on a 6×4 foot plastic surface and attached it to the frame of the booth[2]. The tree contained five branches — each limb symbolizing a distinct quality of life area (education, health, environment, housing, and financial stability)[3]. We used Post-Its sticky notes pre-cut into the shape of the apples. Apples represented ideas, suggestions, or opinions.

Here’s how the game is played: If a person cares about a specific quality of life issue, he/she reports the concern to our facilitator who then jots down the idea onto the apple — the idea is later entered into an excel sheet. The apple is pasted on a tree branch corresponding to the relevant quality of life. Additionally, an observer assists the facilitator in capturing important details that, while they may not fit on the apple, contain insight on key examples regarding problems or solutions in a particular community.  Notes taken by observers are written on 3×5 inch index cards that are matched up with the apples.

Example of a conversation:

Facilitator engages middle-aged Latino man and asks if he’d like to play the game. The man consents.

Facilitator: Tell me about an issue in your community?

Latino male: There aren’t enough trees in my neighborhood.

(Facilitator writes down “lack of trees” and pastes the Post-It note on the “Environment” branch of the tree diagram)

Facilitator: Why do you care about these issues?

Latino Male: I have children and that I worry that they will grow up in a world where global warming negatively affects their lives through crises like major regional mountain fires.

(Facilitator writes down “global warming” on the apple and sticks it to the tree).

Facilitator: Do you have ideas on how to address the problem?

Latino Male: I’ve thought about creating an ordinance requiring cities to plant one tree for every child born, even naming the tree after the child, and committing to take care of it.

(Facilitator writes down “ordinance for trees” on a note card and sticks it to the tree)

Such conversations happened throughout the day, some more in-depth than others.

Marketing to the Specific Audience

One of the biggest challenges in organizing the event was figuring out how to attract new audiences to our booth. We had no established relationships in this particular community. Success hinged on creating a buzz throughout the festival that the public, especially among Latino groups.  We hired two interns — both fluent in English and Spanish — who helped conceptualize and develop bilingual materials (i.e. brochures and banners) that emphasized our mission and programs. The information targeted different audiences (mono and bi-lingual speakers).

Furthermore, like other booth sponsors, we gave away free merchandise (reusable bags) that contained our logo. Yet, we only provided bags to game participants. The individuals that played the game could use the bags for carrying other souvenirs from other booths at the event or later on while shopping at a supermarket. The bags implicitly helped us accomplish various objectives. They promote a positive behavioral change in the environment. They help Latinos conform to new laws in California where certain municipalities are phrasing out plastic bags. Lastly, they ensured that our booth was one of the most popular at the festival (indeed it was).

Being Genuine

One of the main reasons we were successful at the event was because we could identify with the people at the festival. Our staff and partners either lived in similar conditions as the participants, shared cultural/ethnic ties to them, or empathized with the ideas shared. A recent report by Pew Hispanic Center  states that Latinos tend to distrust unknown groups or individuals. However, what I learned is that if Latinos recognize you as sincere in commitment towards their interests, they will begin to trust and engage with you.

Incorporating Community Festivals as Sites for Engagement

Latino community members engaging with the Nuestro Futuro (tree) activity. Notice in the foreground the man in the blue shirt. He has finished playing the game and is now filling out a contact / follow-up form. Also notice the black reusable bag on the right—we gave these bags out to people like the man for participating in the activity.

In fact, many Latinos embraced us and understood what we were doing via the tree game. They wanted to share their ideas. So far, preliminary analysis of the data shows that this community cares deeply about two major topics including housing and education of parents who want to understand how the American educational system works (so that their kids can get into college).

Community engagement does not have to be difficult. When I asked my colleagues what surprised them most about the event, many of them responded that they were told “thank you” from people who said they have never been asked for their input about how to make their neighborhoods better. Thus, I hope the information shared here helps guide more advocates and leaders to follow a similar path in horizontal and equitable planning of low-income and underrepresented areas.

Post by Jeffrey Juarez-Araníva. Jeffrey is a program associate for the Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley and an alum of the MIT City Planning Department. Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley is a public foundation in San Jose (CA) dedicated to inspiring community philanthropy and engaging people to invest in the health, educational achievement, and leadership development of a thriving Hispanic community in Silicon Valley.


[1] Every Voice Engaged Foundation EVEF) is the name of the group referenced. They have a track record of using interactive social engagement games to prioritize municipal budgets or get residents to commit to volunteering projects.

[2] Previously, EVEF used butcher paper and markers to draw a tree.

[3] The five areas coincided with a previous study conducted by my organization. For more information on this report (Silicon Valley Latino Report Card) visit:

7 responses to “Community Festivals as Sites for Community Engagement”

  1. Vilma Villatoro says:

    Awesome! This is such a great idea. It involved the Latino community in a great way. Their voices were heard and taken into account. Not all communities give Latinos a voice.

  2. Luis Villatoro says:

    Great work! I think this was a great way to inform the Latino community that their voices are heard and together positive changes can be accomplished.

  3. Christina says:

    What a powerful activity. So enlightening that in the end the participants were just thankful to be asked. Highlights the enormous lack of public engagement and how shockingly simple it would be to make huge changes to improve communities for the people who live in them: just ask!

  4. Great work! Jeffrey Juarez-Araníva represents an ideal role model for young Latinos and Latinas seeking higher education and creative, positive change for their communities.

  5. The HFSV comes up with more and more creative ideas. Kudos to that!

    Nice way to gain an accurate feedback and solutions to implement. What a best way to serve the community by listening to the community.

  6. Sonia Perez says:

    It is great to hear that HFSV is reaching out to the Latino community and taking their concerns seriously. It would be nice to see more organizations that work with the Latino community work together so we could create a much larger impact. Thanks for your great work!

  7. James Rojas says: