You are Intentionally Invited!

Intentional Invitations – exploring a mechanism to accelerate social inclusion

Marginalised people are under-represented as community participants. This limits their opportunities to make unique contributions and results in significant loss of human potential.

Developing Best Social Inclusion Practices
Working with staff from community development organisations, we will demonstrate the impact of this facilitative approach, and in the process, will provide their leaders with evidence as to the added value of ‘Thinking Inclusively’. We address invisible participation barriers and aim to show how such barriers recede during authentic interactions as people realise that commonality of interests supersedes differences in abilities.


By Intentional Invitation, we mean a deliberate process by which we approach a disabled person and explain how we are genuinely interested in organising an encounter where everybody is welcomed and diversity is valued. Though at first glance this may seen simplistic, our experience is that for a disabled person to receive such an explicit invitation is very rare – against more current invitations to exclusive events, such as for instance events dedicated to disabled people.

This idea builds on findings from our work with the ‘Think Differently’ Arts2Gether project. Arts2Gether demonstrated that experiencing with extending and receiving Intentional Invitations is a powerful game-changer, that generates unique micro-interactions. The project explored potential shifts in attitudes and behaviours of people, both disabled and mainstream, through ‘participatory’ art: people of varied backgrounds gathered to create these encounters together, which in turn fostered new experiences of togetherness. Arts2Gether piloted interventions in different settings, each time with the purpose of magnifying the micro-interactions taking place where evidence of shift may be traced. Community encounters were planned to gradually increase in scope so that we could benefit from cumulative learning in real time and the feedback received from the community leaders and participants involved. Our results confirmed that the Intentional Invitations developed specifically for this intervention were successful in engaging disabled people, and that shifts in integration can occur when different groups, including marginalized people spend time together. We are in the process submitting these results for publication in relevant professional literature. Our approach is inspired by contemporary social inclusion thinking as summarised in Cobigo’s literature review, emphasising that “for social inclusion to be successful from the perspective of the person with a disability, it should result in a sense of belonging … interrelated with notions of community connectedness, personal inter-dependency and social capital… it cannot be simply defined and measured by an objective presence in the community” (Cobigo et al., 2012, p.80).

Whilst in years gone by, disabled people have been specifically excluded from community life, this is not the case anymore as most organisations communicate - and sometimes even boast of inclusive values. However, statements of intent that are not backed up with specific systems or protocols to implement inclusiveness are insufficient.

Organisational leaders seemingly assume that when ‘protective’ mechanisms against exclusiveness are put in place, inclusive outcomes naturally follow. Most organisations with which I have worked do not offer any mechanisms for their staff to specifically include marginalised people: This leaves inclusive matters to the personal interpretation, or lack thereof, of individual frontline staff and often results in latent exclusion.

Our experience over the past decade working with community development confirms observations in the community-building sector that inclusion does not just happen – it needs to be facilitated. As described by a community event organiser: “Last year I organised more than 25 community events attended by over 50,000 people– this involved full time scheduling and logistics and sending notices through our networks. We don’t have any policy to specifically include marginalised people and our reporting does not include such categories either – so this goes un-noticed and un-reported. We do have a Disability Strategy, but I have no idea what it means on the ground”. In fact staff are so busy with logistics and organisation that inclusiveness becomes another task on otherwise crammed days. Even when frontline employees are passionate about participation, they need to invest extra energy towards inclusive outcomes – which may then go un-noticed.

In light of the above, we propose to test an integrative mechanism whereby staff can facilitate inclusion.

Inspiring organisational leaders to adopt Best Social Inclusion Practices
Once community development staff harness Social Inclusion mechanisms, or develop their own in the process of this work, they will experience the strength of the impact and be in the position to report on inclusive results. Presenting these results to organisations’ leaders will provide the impetus to implement ‘Intentional Invitations’ – or apply other inclusive mechanisms developed during the project.

We will combine ‘bottom up’ and ‘top down’ approaches working in two stages - co-creating our intervention with the collaborating network mentioned below. We first develop a set of tools, protocols, and templates that are easy and fun and test the effect of different Intentional Invitations formats based on our previous results. At the second stage of the project, we build the Best Practice model with a group of leaders who then implement plans to spread these initial micro-changes throughout their organisations.

Starting by working with early adopters, we will assist them create local change. We, of course, first agree on the project’s aims and definition of engagement. We pair managers so that a collaborative approach helps them overcome organisation-specific hurdles. The work will consist in analysing their workload, assessing past inclusive outcomes, past measures of disabled people’s engagement and contribution, or lack thereof, noting baseline measures of engagement and contribution from people with disabilities. We will co-design a strategy to embed Intentional Invitations that is congruent with their organisations and observe/interview implementation.

This work will produce a Proof of Concept that leaders can recognise as valid. In order to spread initial results, we will co-design with leaders the Best Practice that they will roll out throughout their organisations where potential areas for improvement have been identified. This will also uncover opportunities for these organisations to raise specific inclusive issues with local government as a group.

The outcome stories will support the vision of the 2015 Disability Action Plan for all New Zealanders to experience equal rights of citizenship and two of the Person-directed outcomes:
1. Increase employment and economic opportunities and
2. Promote access in the community “I feel welcomed by my community. I feel respected for my views and my contribution is received on an equal basis with others”.

Stories will demonstrate workplace principles, as per the responsibility that sits with MSD under the “Increase the number of disabled people, including long-term unemployed disabled people, in paid employment and self-employment on an equal basis with others” priority of the Disability Action Plan.

Who will carry out this work?
The Fast Track Inclusion Trust is an active member of the Network for Community Hospitality (NCH), whose members include 40 organisations in the Waikato. Inclusion is a core value of the network, and its members have identified the need to build supportive inclusive mechanisms.

Our strategy is to start working with 2 organisations, and then expand our work with the whole network members. This two-stage design ensures that leaders first see in place a working proof of concept and the value of purposely acting on inclusiveness rather than waiting for localised ‘random acts of inclusiveness’ to simply happen.

Data will be collected by and by the academics on the Network for Community Hospitality in collaboration with their community organisation members. In the past decade, we have published in peer-reviewed journals, the interviewing and storytelling methodology used to capture such sensitive and specific data. The cultural appropriateness of the methodology is ensured through participants’ speaking their own voices during interviews that are edited in collaboration with them. Participants have told us that they find this method empowering. Informed consent and procedures will be followed as per academic standards.

Proposed results and evaluation
We choose to first address social inclusion practices in the workplace. We feel strongly about the media angle that we will adopt: we do not present disabled people as heroes who have overcome barriers, rather we focus on the added value of a collaborative approach in which people, disabled and non-disabled, work side by side to achieve a common result. Stories will describe disabled people adding value to their communities by being actively engaged in the workforce. The message embedded in these stories will be that it is the collaboration between diverse people that produce benefits for our communities. Our evaluation will present evidence on:
  • Change of behaviour/professional practice: Appraising how staff integrate Intentional Invitations
  • Participation of disabled people: Comparing the engagement of disabled people before and after receiving Intentional Invitations
  • Contributions made by disabled people: Real engagement is judged not by the presence of marginalized people but by the difference they make. For instance member organisations of the Network for Community Hospitality show the added value of disabled people in achieving their organisational goals.

Project in planning.
To be continued…

Annick Janson,
Associate, Centre for Applied Cross-cultural Research, Victoria University of Wellington

Reference: Cobigo, V., Ouellette-Kuntz, H., Lysaght, R. and Martin, L. (2012) Shifting our conceptualisation of social inclusion. Stigma Research and Action, 2(2): 75-84.