“Here’s my promise: I will know your first and last name by the end of the week.” This didn’t sound like much of a promise really; until you consider that it was a promise I made to more than 100 youth, most of whom I was meeting for the first time.
Early in my career I was put in charge of a four-week summer youth camping program. I was barely aged out of the “youth” category myself. (Looking back at that period, I ask, “What in the world were they thinking?!?!” yet, it was a position I held for 11 summers.) Each week we would receive a new batch of campers and each week I tried very hard to get to know each of them by name. Sometimes I was successful; other times I was not. Occasionally, I’d stand before the whole group at the orientation and make that promise. Always, though, even unannounced, I would do my best to learn and remember each camper’s name so I could greet them by it…at least once by the end of the week.
There were two reasons I made this effort.
First, being known by our names feels good. Who has not known the embarrassment of being known as that “other person” or “hey, you” on occasion? Or the awkwardness of being called by another person’s name…even if it does look a lot like ours? Or the irritation of being called a different name that is a mispronunciation of our name? (You can imagine how many times THAT happens to me, especially during the holiday season, with the last name of “Klaus.”)
When I work with people, even on short assignment, I do my best to learn and remember their names – first and last – because I know how important it is. Sometimes, I even rehearse the pronunciation of their names, especially when I mess up the first time. A few years ago, I was working briefly with a woman whose first name was a lovely Spanish name that was nearly unpronounceable to me. I kept Anglicizing the name – not belligerently or uncaringly – but because I just couldn’t get my mouth and tongue to make the right Spanish vowel sounds. She became frustrated and corrected me rather directly. I came home that night, consulted with my spouse on the correct pronunciation (Spanish is her first language), and I rehearsed like crazy. The next day my effort was obvious even if my execution was still imperfect. This experience, which was a bit difficult for both the woman and me, reminded me how important it is to know a person’s name and to get it right.
Second, getting know, and correctly using, the names of people is a simple yet solid community building activity. From the moment those campers arrived, my staff and I had only six days to create a sense of community among them, which we knew would “make or break” the whole camping experience for many of them. By learning their names and being able to use them, and allowing them to know and use our names in return, we were taking the first steps in community building.
Correctly learning and using the names of people is still one of the easiest and best strategies in community building and community change. Each of us can do it and we can do it all by ourselves. The only permission we need is the permission of the person whose name we are trying to learn and use.
However, knowing a person’s name does not equate to knowing the person. This is a mistake commonly made in American culture which values fame and celebrity. Just because we know the names “Beyoncé” or “Lady Gaga” does not mean we actually know them. In community work we need to go beyond just knowing names. We need to know people and we need to be known by them. We need to get to know people as we let them get to know us. This is the beginning of trust. This is important because, as you may know already, change happens at the speed of trust.
At another point in my career I worked at University of Iowa Health Care as a fundraiser for the children’s hospital. As part of my orientation I received a packet of information that included a wallet card titled, “15 House Rules for Service Leadership.” I still have it today because I think it offers some great advice for learning people’s names, getting to know them, and building trust. See what you think:
I was surprised (no, stunned) and honored with an invitation to the White House early last week for a meeting that took place at the end of the week. I was clueless why I received the invitation, especially on such short notice, so I called and asked if it was a mistake and, if not, what were they thinking? It wasn’t a mistake but the person I spoke with couldn’t tell me why I was invited (which is not exactly a confidence builder). It was all a bit mysterious but I went anyway thinking it was probably a mistake and I would either get thrown out or picked up by the Secret Service. Still, just in case, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity.
I was invited to the meeting as a way of introducing me and our work to the people in the Administration and around the country who are working on the President’s Promise Zones initiatives in 22 disadvantaged communities. (Also, my Midwestern self-deprecating roots tell me I should note that I was an easy “get” for the meeting because I live only 30 minutes away.) Because this is a 10 year initiative that is not tied to a Federal budget line, it is expected that the Promise Zones initiative will survive the change of administration later this year.
The unique, and apparently appealing, facet of our work is that it situates the social change phenomenon of collective impact within the larger framework of community development. Collective impact has been widely adopted by government, funders, and communities around the globe.
Many thanks, and kudos, to Norm Walzer, the editor of the special collective impact issue of Community Development. I’m sure Norm is always pleased to know when people are reading the journal.
Thanks as well to Paul Born and Liz Weaver and their crew at Tamarack Institute for giving me the blogging and workshop space to vet, and vent, some of our ideas to their constituents in Canada. Tomorrow I head back to Toronto to be with them again in the Community Change Institute this coming week where I’ll be a learning lab leader and also lead a couple of workshops. It is always great fun to work with them!
Ed Saunders and I have enjoyed a long collaboration on program development, evaluation, theory development, and testing. It is gratifying to know that people are reading and finding value in our work. My work with Ed has been some of the most enjoyable and satisfying of my career.
It is even better if our hard work contributes to making the world a better place, especially for those who are disadvantaged and marginalized in our society.
It was a far more interesting and amazing day than I expected. I didn’t get thrown out or taken away by the Secret Service, but it was still an exciting day.
Baltimore is a city with challenges. Trials of the police officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray in 2015 are currently ongoing. Both this year and last, in the week before Memorial Day and in an unsettling coincidence, the city recorded its 100th homicide of the year. One television station even reported the mark was reached on the same day, May 27th. To many outside of Baltimore all of this seems a little too much like the fictional Baltimore portrayed in the popular television show of a few seasons back, The Wire. Despite both the reality and perceptions of Baltimore, there is at least one place with a deep, thriving sense of community.
I attended a community school…Morning Sun Community Schools, more precisely. Morning Sun, Iowa is a tiny rural community (population 836 in the 2010 census) in Southeast Iowa, only a few miles from the Mississippi River. Today, because of school consolidation that swallowed it up in the early 1990’s, it has only an elementary school. Nonetheless, that elementary school, with 145 students, is about the same size as the whole district at the time I graduated from high school. My graduating class was 24 students, which actually seemed pretty large to us at the time.
In my hometown the school was the center of community life. The school and its grounds hosted every aspect of social and cultural life in the town. It hosted scouting programs, the local Lions and Lionesses Clubs, summer Little League, Memorial Day and 4th of July celebrations, community dinners and dances, and the social event of the year: the Junior/Senior Prom. It was where we voted and received our vaccinations. It was the cultural center where band concerts, theatrical productions, and “donkey basketball” matches were staged. Okay, so maybe donkey basketball is not really a cultural event but the donkeys were pretty classy. It was the sports arena where we gathered to watch junior high and high school football, baseball, softball, basketball, and wrestling. Like today’s community schools, it was open every day of the week and it seemed like something was always happening there. Our school was the glue that held the Morning Sun community together.
In Baltimore there is another school, Wolfe Street Academy, which is doing something similar today to knit together its community within Baltimore. Wolfe Street Academy is a part of the Baltimore City Public Schools. The school’s focus on integrating academics, health and social services, youth and community development, and community engagement through community partnership causes it to stand out and bring hope to a city that too often struggles to find and hold hope. Wolfe Street Academy is a Pre-K through 5th grade school and historically has served the most recent immigrant populations. Today over 80% of its students speak a language other than English at home. Ninety-six percent of its students are from low-income households. As a community school, Wolfe Street Academy is a place which ensures students succeed academically, socially, and emotionally through a set of partnerships between the school and other community resources.
Wolfe Street Academy is a success story of deep community, collective impact, collaboration, and hope that needs to be told.
In the spirit of transparency, I have to admit some bias about the work being done at Wolfe Street Academy. I have been there a couple of times in the past to help my spouse, Clemencia Vargas, with her students and I have been amazed and moved by what I have seen. Clemencia’s students, though, are the dental students from the University of Maryland School of Dentistry who provide oral health screening to Wolfe Street Academy. My role is typically to take pictures and otherwise stay out of the way. I see enough, though, to know this is a special place for many children and their families. It is truly a community school.
The story of Wolfe Street Academy reminds us that community is defined by more than geography. Community is a place, a spirit, and a home where caring kindness wins out over rightness. May we all be so lucky to find such community in our lives and, then, welcome others into it.
Today my heart is full of appreciation for an incredible experience.
My assignment over the past few months has been to design, develop, and deliver two 2-day long training events in Denver, CO and Washington, DC for teen pregnancy prevention grantees on the topic of community mobilization. It was a capacity building training event that focused on teaching them to use a number of tools and processes to more effectively lead mobilization efforts in their communities.
The OAH staff was terrific to work with. Jacque McCain and Tish Hall were the “point people” on this project for OAH and I could not have asked for two better folks to work with. They thoughtfully considered the training design and materials I submitted, provided useful feedback, and were willing to let me do a few unconventional things to make the training more meaningful and memorable for the grantees. In DC, ten of the OAH staff were also able to attend and it was great to have them there too.
Meeting with David & other members of the Choctaw Nation.
Work group from Alice, TX & El Paso, TX
Charlotte & Tea, both on the job for less than a week, were honored with Red Noses.
Music with Maryjo Oster!
Workgroup members from Tennessee and Florida
CM Game “Chairs & Vice Chairs” in Denver
Workgroup members from New York and California
Maryjo Oster and Kristine Andrews of Child Trends were the official liaisons between me and OAH. They were also training colleagues who were willing to do whatever was needed to make sure both events ran smoothly – from managing handouts, to helping people use the Catchbox microphones, to assisting grantees with their learning activities, to providing orientation instructions for “The Community Mobilization Game.” Even more, despite the long hours and hard work, they kept their wits and senses of humor about them. I especially appreciate that they were willing to try some out-of-the-box participant engagement strategies with me. For example, Maryjo, who is also an outstanding professional musician, brought her guitar to both events and led the groups in just the right songs at the right times.
Margaret Black and Stephanie Hines of Capital Meeting Planning were incredible for their ability to manage the travel and lodging arrangements for nearly 250 people, deal effectively with hotel and audio-visual staff, and also manage all of the materials I needed for the training events. They did all of this…and more…with grace and humor!
Finally, the 235 grantees (120 in Denver and 115 in DC) attending the events were absolutely amazing! They participated with wild enthusiasm – whether they were listening to a mini-lecture, engaged in one of the many group activities, doing some reflective writing, giving in to the Cha Cha Break, speaking up into the Catchbox mics to share their ideas, trying on Red Noses, throwing themselves with gusto into “The Community Mobilization Game,” or smiling and laughing with one another throughout the event. It was incredible – and was made incredible – by the grantees! Grantees traveled from all over the United States and the Marshall Islands to attend the training events. I feel honored and humbled by the efforts each made to be with us.
Finally, as you will see in these pictures, Red Noses were an important part of these events. There are two reasons. First, Thursday, May 26th is Red Nose Day and I made sure I gave out about a dozen Red Noses as prizes, recognitions, and just for fun, all to call attention to the day. You see, Red Nose Day is about raising money to help children and youth who are in poverty. Last year about $33 million was raised in the United States for this cause. This brings me to the second reason: May is National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month in the United States, which was founded by my late colleague and close friend, Barbara Huberman. The correlation between poverty and teen pregnancy has been well-established. Community mobilization, Red Noses, & National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month – to me, they all just seem to make sense together.
Whether it is Collective Impact, or another collaboration framework, our collaborative posture is a critical underlying factor in success.
Recently the Collective Impact Forum featured a terrific piece by Sheri Brady and Jennifer Splansky Juster on the Collective Impact Principles of Practice. These eight principles to guide efforts to put Collective Impact into practice are long overdue.
There is still something missing. Each of the principles help collaborative groups operationalize the five conditions of Collective Impact (which you can probably recite by memory now: common agenda, shared measurement, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and backbone support). Yet each of the principles assumes members of Collective Impact groups possess the collaborative posture to enact the eight principles. I am wary of this assumption. I fear most people will read the CI Eight Principles of Practice and respond much in the same way they did to the CI Five Conditions: “Yep, makes a lot of sense. Got it! In fact, we’re doing those things already.” My experience in creating new collaborative efforts, and helping to repair existing efforts gone awry, has taught me that the best principles and conditions in the world will not make any difference if members have poor collaborative posture.
Much of what has been written about Collective Impact has focused on what people do to achieve it. This is not surprising because many people crave the comfort and certainty of formulas, recipes, and best practices – even though these are not very helpful in addressing complex issues. Underlying and supporting all of the doing is being the kind of people who can do what is necessary. I could use several of the eight principles that Brady and Splansky Juster identified to illustrate what I mean but I will focus on this one to make my point: “Include community members in the collaborative.” Specifically, the authors define community members as “those whose lives are most directly and deeply affected by the problem addressed by the initiative.” I fully agree with this principle but, realistically, it is difficult to do and often resisted. The most common protests to doing this are typically related to logistics: “We meet during the weekdays, can they come at the same time?,” “How would they get here?,” “Could they come to where we meet?,” and “Do they really have the experience to know how to interact with our group?” The answers are really pretty straightforward to these barriers: “Change you meeting time, provide transportation and/or make the location more convenient to community members, educate members about the content, and orient them to, even train them in, the process of your meetings.” I do not believe the logistics are really to blame. I believe the problem lies within the will of both individual members and the group. Remember the old saying, “Where there is a will, there is a way?”
Possessing a collaborative posture is about being the kind of people who find the will to do what it takes to engage people in the community and to actually do the other principles.
What does it take to achieve a collaborative posture? Let me suggest at least three things. I touched on these back in January and here I will expand on them just a bit:
Checked Egos. Ego is fueled by the perceived right to authority. There are many things that cause us to feel like we have a right to make decisions on behalf of others. Some of these things include, but are not limited to, education, wealth, status, race, formal position, the depth of one’s personal experience, and even the honor of membership in a social change collaborative group that is going to “help” others. When we humans come together in a group to make decisions that affect the lives of others, it is so easy to feel like we have been given authority over others, even if only a little.
When we “check” our egos, we willingly lay down the right to have the final word in decisions that affect the lives of others.
When we must make those decisions, we do so as inclusively as possible and, even then, with a sense of awe, respect, and care. I know. This does not sound practicable in a world that moves as fast as ours. Yet we mostly accomplish this capacity by living into an attitude of humility.
Crossed Boundaries. To cross boundaries in collaborative work is to invite others to work with us, and especially those who are not like us and may not even trust us. Why in the world would we ever do that? Simple; because we cannot make change happen by ourselves. It is completely human, when we form groups, to gravitate toward those most like us and whom we find most agreeable. This ensures our comfort in the group and comfort is important. You know what I am talking about; you have seen it yourself. A coalition or collaboration forms by gathering “the usual suspects,” those individuals and groups already known to one another because they have partnered on the same or similar issues in the past. They know before they ever meet they are all “on the same page.” This is not horrible, but it is very inadequate because it often leads to doing “business as usual.” What if a collaborative group were to form among individuals and groups who shared a similar goal but had very different ideas for how to accomplish it? For one thing, everyone would feel a lot less comfortable.
I used to teach groups that the first step to crossing boundaries was to take a good look at their group and see who was not in it and yet should be. I have given up on that strategy. There is a stronger tendency toward group self-preservation than I ever estimated. Once it has achieved a particular comfort, it fights to maintain the status quo. As a result, groups often conclude most everyone who should be in the group is already in the group.
What I have found to be more effective in teaching groups about boundary crossing is to ask this question: “What individuals or groups do you feel most uncomfortable including in your collaborative group, even though they may agree with your ultimate goal?” Once they have listed those individuals or groups, I encourage them to reach out to them and begin the process of inviting them to participate.
Crossing boundaries has to take us out of our comfort zone or else we have not crossed anything.
Shared Power. Power sharing is rooted in a deeply held belief in the expertise of others. A few years ago I was in a meeting with the leadership team of a collaborative group that was responsible for implementing social service interventions in an urban community. I had just finished a day-long meeting with the full collaborative group and, during this debrief, I had merely observed to the leadership team that I did not meet any people in the group who actually lived in the community they were serving. The response I received was stunning in its arrogance as a team member pounded the table and said, “Why would we have them here? We are the experts!” Oh boy.
When we convene our Collective Impact and collaborative groups, we tend to seek out experts on the issue we are trying to address. This makes sense because we want the very best to help us solve the difficult, complex challenges we are facing. Experts are people with extensive skills and/or knowledge of a specific field, area, or issue. Does expertise include status, wealth, connections, and even celebrity? We must believe it does because we often prioritize recruitment of members with these qualifications. While it is important to include them in our collaborative groups, I do not believe any single area of expertise (including these) qualifies anyone to hold power over the lives of others.
Do we also believe in the expertise of the people who are living day-to-day with the issue our group is working to address? Do we believe drug addicts understand the addictive process better than we do and have solutions to offer? Do we believe the observations of people living in poverty concerning how policies and practices in our community are actually barriers to their getting out of poverty? Do we believe gang members and victims have insights on how to stop the violence? Do we believe poor people can offer solutions to their own situation? Do we believe people struggling with obesity know something about eating healthier? Do we believe parents of children who have been removed from the home and placed into the foster care system can also help us think of better ways to do child welfare in our communities? Or do we merely see all of these as people who need the help only we, the experts, can give them?
If we do not believe that every person has expertise, then we will cling to power, and our community and our collaborative initiative will struggle. When we release the power and share it with others, we will not only learn from one another but we will grow participation and ownership of the solutions.
A buzzing sound can mean many things.When I was a kid growing up on an Iowa farm, a buzzing sound usually meant bees were near by…typically a scary thing since I was pretty sure they had me in their tiny stinger sights. Ah, but there are buzzing sounds that are not at all scary and indicate good things are happening. I heard one just like that last week in Buffalo, New York.
It intrigues me that I can almost immediately distinguish the type of buzzing that is happening, even before I know the source or the cause. Last week in Buffalo there was definitely a strong, positive buzzing sound. It was the buzz of genuine participation.
For the past few months I have been working with a group of volunteers in the community who have come together to see what can be done about teen pregnancy in Buffalo. Last year the community was funded through the Office of Adolescent Health (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) to replicate prevention programs and facilitate referrals to youth friendly health centers in an effort to reduce the teen pregnancy rate by 30% over the next five years. That is a tall order. The effort, known as the Buffalo Collaborative Community Initiative to Reduce Teen Pregnancy (BCC), is led by Cicatelli Associates Inc. (CAI Global). The BCC includes partnerships with key organizations and groups throughout the community, including the Erie County Department of Health, numerous community based organizations (CBOs), the faith community, and “just plain folks.”
The group, known as the Community Action Team or CAT, was originally convened about six months ago and I had my first meeting with it in December 2015. I was asked to help the group get a better understanding of its community mobilization work and how it relates to the overall project. In that meeting the group was still new and forming and there was not much to buzz about…except for just a little bit of confusion about its role. This is pretty typical for new groups in the early stages of development.
Last week I returned to Buffalo to work with the group again. This time there was a different kind of buzzing. Early in the meeting I led the group through a series of exercises that were designed to get them moving about, meeting other CAT members, and having substantive conversations with one another. There was a buzz at that time because the members really put themselves into the exercises and, yes, they were participating.
But the real buzz of participation was the one I heard after the exercises were completed, and the CAT divided into its five different “action groups” and went to work. Now, overall, the CAT has responsibility to lead effort to mobilize the community in support of the teen pregnancy prevention work. I decided to sit in with a group that was working on a survey for new and recent parenting teens. As part of their contribution to community mobilization, members felt it would be motivational for the community to know more about what it was like to be a parenting teen today compared with “back then” (10 or more years ago). Mostly I listened in to the conversation and only occasionally asked questions or offered ideas.
There was this moment when my ears and mind, though, were pulled away from my action group by a buzzing sound. The room was alive with buzzing, and not a bee was in sight. All five groups were meeting in the same large groom and the sound that had arisen in the space was the strong, positive buzzing of engaged people working together in genuine participation. Wow! What a sound! What a moment!
How is that groups come to make this kind of sound together?
I believe it happens when we, the “experts” who are often asked to lead such groups, allow it to happen. To allow it, though, we have to let people actually participate meaningfully. Meaningful participation is, in part, what I mean by genuine participation.
The temptation we often face in leading community change is to be in charge, set the agenda, make the decisions, and “demonstrate” collaboration by recruiting members to a group like the CAT, yet without really allowing them to have a meaningful role. That is, we create the appearance of community participation without actually having community participation.
Look, I know just how tempting it is to do that. We often work with tight deadlines, and too few staff, so we feel pressure to shortcut the process by convening groups and, mostly, having them “rubber stamp” our ideas and plans so we can “check the box” of community involvement for the annual report to the funder. I have observed a lot of that and research I have recently published with a colleague supports that observation. (See the contact box below to request more information on this research.) Also, frankly, I have experience doing the same darn thing…much to my embarrassment and shame.
We can do better though, right? Of course!We will know we are doing better by the kind of buzzing we hear. Listen carefully. Token participation creates a buzzing from discontent, disappointment, frustration, and irritation as people grow to feel ignored, over-ruled and used. Genuine participation generates the buzz of excitement, enthusiasm, hope, and empowerment that comes from having a meaningful role in community change. I know which kind I want to hear.
Recently I have been ruminating on the difference between community engagement and community mobilization. “Ruminate” is a great word for a Leap Day because the extra day gives us more time to really think on something, right? In the United States, where I do much of my work, we seem to prefer the term mobilization more than engagement, though we sometimes refer to mobilization as engagement and vice versa.
The more I have studied and practiced both, the more I find the mixing of the two terms to be confusing, problematic, and incorrect. I can hear at least a couple of my colleagues say, “Whoa, Tom, aren’t you splitting hairs? It’s all the same, come on.” I will grant this much: there are elements of each in the other. However, the priority and emphasis we give to each is important because they are not fundamentally the same.
Whether we choose to prioritize and emphasize engagement or mobilization, it will make a difference in how we work with the community.
In my efforts to parse the difference between the two, I have identified some important distinctions. These need to inform our choice of engagement or mobilization and how we do them.
Personal v. Public Approaches: Engagement is a relational approach that taps the power of personal social networks to systematically build an ever expanding circle of participation and support. Mobilization is a more public approach as it tends to use group and mass promotion and marketing strategies via traditional and social media.
Less v. More Resources: Because engagement is relational, it requires fewer resources. Often it just needs people who have friends or acquaintances and a social network they are willing to engage. Okay, maybe it will sometimes cost the price of a soda, a cup of coffee, or another beverage to lubricate the conversation. However, mobilization can be more resource intensive because many traditional outreach strategies are expensive. Even social media is increasingly finding new ways to charge for expanding one’s reach.
Empowerment v. Compliance: A key aspect of engagement is empowerment: it draws communities into meaningful participation which also empowers them to be the decision makers for their own future. This is because, in the best engagement scenarios, the agenda for change is generated by the community, with the community, and for the community. In this sense, community change through engagement is intrinsic, arising from within it. Mobilization tends to enforce an extrinsic, pre-determined agenda on a community. Communities may go along (comply) with the agenda of the funder or a powerful local group or organization. Often they do so hoping they will eventually get what is really needed in the end. Sometimes it is merely to get along with the powers-that-be in the community to make life a little bit better.
Ownership v. Buy In: Engagement and empowerment fosters ownership of the community issue and its solution as people become invested through relationships and personal stories. These make it “personal.” Mobilization build interest, and even some commitment, as people acknowledge the importance of the issue. Yet, because of the impersonal nature of mobilization, people may be less likely to fully participate in the change or feel a sense of personal empowerment and ownership.
Long Term v. Short Term: Community engagement may not be as flashy as the strategies used in mobilization, but engaged communities which change through participation, personal empowerment and ownership tend to maintain the change longer. They are also more resistant to “snapping back” to the way things were before. Mobilization strategies can get faster change, which may be why they are used instead of or with engagement strategies, but it may not be change that is deep enough to last. If you want something to “stick,” engagement offers greater promise.
This brings me to this final distinction between community engagement and community mobilization.
Slow Food v. Fast Food: Community engagement is like eating and sharing food cooked with friends, made with fresh ingredients, and enjoyed together. It often results in a meal that is satisfying and an experience that lasts in the collective memory of the group. Community mobilization is like fast food. You can get it by yourself through the drive-up window, you can get a lot of it, it feeds your hunger, and yet it is not particularly memorable nor long-lasting. In fact, you may be back at the fast food window in just a couple of hours to get another dose.
My bias toward community engagement is pretty clear in this blog, and many others I have written. Community mobilization does have its place. Sometimes mobilization has to be the choice because that is what the funder, the timeline or the circumstances support. Also, there are some mobilization strategies that do support quality community engagement.
Nonetheless, whenever you have the choice, choose engagement. The dividends are higher. Even when you must choose mobilization, look for ways to infuse it with engagement.