Inputs and Outcomes of Network Organizing

In a recent presentation to the Ways and Means Staff of The Community Builders, we discussed the primary inputs and resulting added value that the Network Organizing practice can bring to a service environment. This slide captures the essence of this. That in any service environment, if we can design Spaces that welcome and feed aspirations, Forms that encourage people to engage in reciprocity (mutual-support) and Practices that help people connect over differences, then we will see important added value in 3 areas: People showing up with their best stuff – energy, commitment, helpfulness and generosity. People helping other people achieve the outcomes that we all want. And people contributing as co-creators, leaders and stewards of the environment that we are creating.

 

Re-Post From Trusted Space Blog: GrassRoots Grantmakers Webinar on Community Network Building

Thanks to Janis Foster Richardson of Grassroots Grantmakers who invited Trusted Space Partners to address almost 100 local and community funders from around the country in a 90 Minute Webinar February 21st entitled ” Community Network Building:  What It Is, What It Takes, and Why It Matters for Place-Based Funders”. In follow up, we drafted some responses to the key questions put forth about Community Network Building by these community and local funders. See below:

QUESTION:  As funders, how do we spot organizations or people who are gifted Community Network Builders or are positioned to play an important CNB role? 

Because of the underlying theory and practice of Community Network Building, we believe that everyone can be a gifted network builder or should be encouraged to develop their innate gift/ability to connect with other human beings.   But, we have come to believe that there are some people who, because of a set of life experiences, are better positioned to both spark and steward NEW networks of diverse people, especially in more highly structured environments.   We also believe that there are certain community moments and organizations “ more ripe” for community network building than others.

Search One:  Does the person build authentic, human-based relationships?

The most important quality of a gifted network builder is their ability to enter each circumstance as a whole person or a real human being and not as a person holding a certain title or a position or carrying an unique interest or expertise.  The fundamental ‘lubricant’ of a vibrant community network is the authenticity of exchange and relationships between the people in the network.  Because most people enter exchanges at the community level from a place of fear and timidity or from a place of high purpose and pursuit, we often hide behind out titles or our expertise or our interest to manage this fear or our clear purpose.  The person who is sparking and stewarding a network approach has to model and practice, over and over again, authentic exchanges and relationships  in which he or she is revealing his/her humanity and is open to the humanity of the other person.

We are often asked, what does authentic behavior or an authentic relationship look like in the context of roles like an executive director of a nonprofit.  The answer to this is a work in progress, but here are some behaviors we witness among skilled Community Network Builders:

  • They are very open and easily share information about their personal and professional lives.
  • They are naturally curious about the other person in a way that feels safe and respectful.
  • They remember what they learn about the other person and often circle back to check in on them or make a new connection based on what they learned.
  • They do not talk too much and they do not over-emphasize any position or role or expertise.
  • They reveal their struggles and vulnerabilities to others in the network and know when and how to ask for help.
  • They know how to say “I don’t know” and “No, I can’t.”
  • They know how to say “I am confused or frustrated with what just happened, but want to understand better”.
  • They exhibit a natural sense of joy and happiness flowing from moments of connection with other people.
  • They verbalize their joy in a way that encourages other to open up and make new connections.

Search Two:  Does the person behave a bit like a “Mad Scientist”?

We keep coming back to the image of a mad scientist as one of the best descriptions of a skilled community network builder.  This image invokes – for us, at least – that delicate balance between pursuing with vigor a clear hypothesis, while constantly looking out for new learning and innovation, even if the new learning challenges your original hypothesis.  So often in community we come upon a good idea and we work to implement it fully or worse yet, to replicate it or take it to scale, with no space for continued reflection or learning.  It is only through constant reflection and asking the question of the larger network “What did we learn from that moment” do we really incorporate the voices of those who have alternative views/contributions and arrive at solutions and creations that are meaningful in that particular moment and that particular context.

Another reason we like the image of the mad scientist is that it implies that the community network builder is definitely walking around in the network with his or her opinion or assessment of what might work, while also staying open to the voices and input and contribution of others.  So often, people think that being a community network builder means that we should not offer our views or our opinions it order to give complete “choice and control” to the network.    This is an example of being inauthentic, in our book.   Community network builders inhabit the spaces they are in fully and honestly.  They are one of the network members, just like the next person.   The fact that they also play the role of steward – and not leader – can feel and appear maddening sometimes!  It is clearly a delicate but very fun dance!

Mad scientists are also risk takers and are willing to persevere when others make them feel crazy or resist trying out a new way.   Sparking and then operating inside a new network raises all kinds of issues that are uncomfortable for people used to a more traditional community organization or nonprofit structure.  The natural reaction is to be afraid of the new ways and to resist them, either directly or indirectly.  Community network builders need to be willing to go out on a limb and to encourage others to come with them. These folks leading the way out on the limb can appear at times to be a little crazy or “mad”.

Search Three:  Does the person hold up a steady mirror for others to see?

In the midst of the somewhat chaotic nature of a community network, it is important to constantly hold up the mirror for others to see the good things emerging as a result of the many exchanges taking place and the relationships being formed.  Sometimes the picture in the mirror is about a common message or narrative developing around a moment of opportunity, providing the necessary spark for action.  Sometimes the picture in the mirror is about an innovative and powerful new practice emerging as a result of all of the experimental activity in the network.  Sometimes the picture is a simple reflection of who is engaged in the network and all of the diverse talents and assets represented. These pictures and frames provide the next platform for the network to expand or from which to create a new form, program or initiative.  To do this “holding up a steady mirror” in a consistent and engaging way requires a person who actively listens, makes connections and can articulate the picture back in a manner that others can hear/see and feel inspired by.  It also requires discipline…the discipline of asking open-ended questions in every situation and of everybody, the discipline of making notes to look back on, the discipline of incorporating systems inside the network for collecting stories or “data”, the discipline of taking time to reflect and struggle with inherent paradox and conflicts.  People who talk a lot without asking questions….people who hold firm beliefs about what is true or right….people who have a hard time acknowledging failures and mistakes …..are not the best at holding up a steady mirror.

Search Four:  Are there at least three or four people who share these qualities and who share the vision of a new network?

The most important answer to the question of how to spot a skilled Community Network Builder is that a new network can NEVER be sparked and sustained by one skilled person.  Our collective experience of 40 years of network building tells us over and over again that the innovation of community networks requires a core team of diverse people inhabiting the initial spaces we create and modeling for others the kinds of new behaviors needed, in order to help larger groups of people behave more interdependently with one another.  The team does not have to be large or consistently the same four or five people or equally skilled or positioned in the characteristics mentioned above.  But they do have to have a “fire in their belly” and they have to create a “collective fire in the belly” for the network.

The other reason a team of initial network stewards is needed is because of the huge resistance in existing community and institutional environments and the courage required to create new spaces and environments for exchange/innovation.  We both know that we couldn’t have tried out a new practice or innovated a new community network building device without knowing that we were in the experiment with a group of people…and that we had each others backs no matter what.   Another important characteristic of this core group of network stewards is that they know how to have fun together and to include others in their fun. We cannot over-emphasize the importance of bringing true fun into the work.  It is one of the “magic juices” that keeps diverse people hanging out long enough to develop the trust needed to tackle and persevere the hard work.  And by fun, we do not mean wild parties or big expeditions to an amusement park (of course, this can help), but rather a way of going at the work that is light and pauses on moments to laugh at ourselves and to enjoy each other’s company.

Search Five:  Is the moment ripe for a sparking a new network and long term transformation?

Some community contexts are more ripe and ready for transformation than others.  We discovered that our efforts to plant seeds of a new network and transformation were more effective if the following three ingredients are present:

  1. A Smaller and Contained Community Context: The community context should be small and contained enough that the people inside this community environment bump into each other naturally on a regular basis.  The larger number of direct contacts between those involved creates more opportunity to model new behavior and build the trust needed for others to experiment with new ways of relating to each other.
  1. Collective Pain within the Community Context:  A growing number of people inside the community context should be feeling and talking about a common pain that relates to the current community environment and how it operates.
  1. Positional Power Pain within the Community Context:  Although not essential, it helps if someone with positional power is feeling the collective pain that others are feeling and talking about.

QUESTION:  What are the primary challenges that innovative Community Network Builders  face?  And, assuming that one of these challenges involves money, how can we best position our funding  relationship with Community Network Builders so that we are truly helpful?

 

It is critical to understand that Network formation is not the same as institution building. It doesn’t comply with the same rules.  It has its own rules. Network formation is much more about building entrenched culture and habits than building institutional infrastructure. For this reason networks require a level of intentionality and careful cultivation on the front end that will pay off downstream.  To the extent that Networks are governed more by say the natural laws of self-actualization and demand , they do not grow in a linear fashion they grow exponentially in direct relationship to the quality of the environment.

Above all, the challenge for funders is the same as it is for network stewards of all kinds – to carve out and then protect the time and space needed for culture and habit to form – while being able to discern at any given time whether that process is going well.  Specifically, Networks need:

  • The kind of space and time needed to work on the underlying soil and fertilizer needed to grow and connect the many “vines” of a new network.
  • Support in helping recruit and retain the kind of people who are skilled at stewarding and skilled at supporting others to be stewards.
  • Help in resisting the natural tendency of everyone – internal and external – to create “forms” and “operating rules” in order to preserve an experimental, risk taking environment.
  • Resources that are specifically set aside for the kinds of expenses associated with soil development and fertilization.

Perhaps more than anything, Networks  need funders to figure out how to be ‘effective champions’ within their institutions as part of their commitment to the unfolding process: to resist the tendency to stay behind walls of professional detachment as a hedging of bets, and fight off the institutional fatigue or impatience that will inevitably come sometime in the 1st or 2nd year of network formation.

QUESTION: Is it appropriate for funders to embrace community network building practices? Or is community network building best done by community residents and community based non-profits?

Yes, there are several reasons why funders can and must embrace, and be actively involved with residents and community based organizations in community network building.

Because community network building is first a network of human beings who decide to be connected across differences, there is no room in a network for the detached “professional helper.”

 

The principal “human first” means that we don’t deny our positional power or the professional skills or resources that we bring to the table, but that we don’t lead with those things.  Our partner in many things Ms. Audrey Jordan of Boston Rising and recently of the Annie E. Casey Foundation has mantra which is ..”I need to know you care before I care what you know.”  Resources, skills, information – these are all needed and important things but none of those things get used well without trust and none of those things – on their own help to build trust. In fact they can get in the way – especially in the beginning of building relationships.

One of the principals of network organizing is that to effectively lead or steward, one must inhabit the space.

 

In Community Network Building we talk about “inhabiting” the space. This means that all of those interested and supportive of the network are first, members of the network . There is no us/them relationship.  Those that have a more intensive role in leading or stewarding the network have to be particularly careful to lead from within. This means – in a practical way – actively sharing the work. It also means being a part of the life of the network – learning and shaping the culture and habits that the network is forming. Because in community network building we learn by doing – we are constantly experimenting, reflecting and recycling our learning through the next round of doing. To be an effective partner in stewarding or supporting a network there is no choice but to inhabit, engage and participate. The learning – the insights – the impact are all embedded in the action and the “how.”  Funders, like other Network stewards, have to be as present as possible at these moment of innovation and adaptation and be part of the co-creation process.

To be relevant and impactful, these networks have to be responsive, flexible and adaptive and require leadership that can come together and “do what works.”

 

The great hope of community network building is that it gets us closer to effective, impactful local environments by obliterating some of the boundaries that are traditional but ineffectual. Another powerful idea in Community Network Building is that we need to build environments where we can “All Bring Our Best Stuff To the Table.” The best ideas, the most resonant action steps, the most creative solutions – should win the day. Networks at their best are extremely tactical on a day to day basis, without having to constantly cut through the underbrush of personality or identity politics. This is exactly the point. All that trust and genuine relationship building ought to be delivering to the environment an easier, more fluid and more rich harmony of voices and partners in action which, in turn yields greater capacity, functionality and creativity.

But for this to happen, those holding positional power – including funders – have to find an authentic voice in the room. A voice that is not driven by positional power (I have the money so I get to say) but one that is not bound by it either (I have the money so I shouldn’t say.)

Happy Accidents: Improvisation and the Art of Weaving

Recently, a friend told me that she was reading Tina Fey’s new autobiography – Bossypants -and that there was one chapter that reminded her of what I had been espousing as some of the practices of network organizing, specifically the “art of weaving.”

The chapter “The Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Body Fat,” is all about how to do comedic improvisation. Improvisation of course is when 2 or more actors create a situation out of thin air and then act it out  to create a compelling, funny scene.  I have seen this on TV and live, and as someone who has done some acting (long ago) I always found it harrowing but also amazing and fun.

What does this have to do with weaving and building community? These days – in public life and neighborhood life – it can be very hard to connect with and have relationships with the ‘strangers’ in our midst. And more and more those ‘strangers’ are from a different country, cultural background and faith. But we all know that communities need those webs of relationships to be safe and function well. Network weavers help with this. By “weaving” we mean an intentional effort to help people connect to each other – even when they are very different and even when its scary or awkward.

We often talk about weaving as an act of genuine caring and curiosity – something that all people can do but find it hard to do because we are all so guarded. Weavers often need to be jumping into the situation – saying hi, making eye contact, starting a conversation, asking a question, offering to help, asking for help.

There is A LOT of improvisation involved in weaving. And improvisation – more than anything else – requires you to be present; to be in the moment  listening and observing only what is happening then and there AND accepting the ‘then and there’ as truth.

Tina Fey’s first rule of improvisation is to “Agree…and say YES” to whatever the situation that is presented. She writes “If we are improvising and I say ‘freeze I have a gun’ and you say ‘that’s not a gun its your finger’ ..our scene has ground to a halt. But if you say …’the gun I gave your for Christmas! You bastard!’Then we have a scene.”   This is the first rule, according to Fey because “it reminds you to respect what your partner has created and to at least start from an open minded place.”

The second rule is “Yes, And.” She writes “If I start a scene with ‘I cant believe its so hot in here’ and you just say ‘yeah’ then we are kind of at a standstill. But if you say ‘what do you expect we’re in hell’  then now we are getting somewhere” because the scene can’t go on unless you add something yourself. She says “Yes, And…. means don’t be afraid to contribute.” You and what you have to give – matters and part of being present is showing up with your best stuff.

The third rule is Make Statements – Dont just ask questions. Here she writes “If we are in a scene and I say ‘who are you? Where are we? What are we doing here? What’s in that box? Then I am putting all the pressure on you to come us with the answers. In other words, whatever the problem be a part of the solution. Dont just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles.”

Her fourth rule is There are No Mistakes only Opportunities. Writes Fey “If I start a scene as what I think is a cop riding a bicycle but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what? Now I am a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop everything and explain…who knows maybe I’ll end up being a police hamster whose been put on hamster wheel duty. In improv there are no mistakes only beautiful happy accidents.”

In real life this kind of improvisation is hard because we bring lots of fears, self-consiousness and judgements into a given situation.  But as we do this we are saying no to new possibilities and pre-determining the outcome. Essentially, instead of an improvisation – where anything can happen based on the situation – we can go through our day acting out a script based on what has always happened or what should happen. The weaver works hard to lose the script, to be present, to listen and react with caring and curiosity.

The weaver encounter is all about exploration, discovery and creation – of something that doesn’t yet exist, hasnt been explored and most often will never be discovered unless we take the leap to improvise! Perhaps the discovery today is a skill Ididn’t know you had, or a third cousin we share, or something to learn about whats going on in the neighborhood, or something I should definitely be aware of at my kid’s school, or a great deal at the market, or something I should be aware of about myself. Maybe its a new friend – someone else in the world I can depend on. Weavers create the space for exploration by taking risks, saying YES and feeding the scene with information, presence and new possibilities.

Ultimately, weaving is about creating the scenes in everyday life where happy accidents can happen.

 

LCW Opens Union Crossing – New Residential Community

Re:posted from Mass Housing Partnership newsletter

http://www.mhp.net/rental_development/news.php?page_function=detail&mhp_news_id=433

 

Lawrence: LCW transforms mill into new housing

December 21, 2011

Union_CrossingLAWRENCE — In this mill city’s ongoing quest to preserve its history and spark an economic renaissance, one constant has been Lawrence CommunityWorks (LCW). From working with residents, new immigrants and young people to engaging with civic leaders on big picture issues like stabilizing neighborhoods, LCW has been the city’s steady and consistent conscience for over 20 years.

So it was no wonder that more than 100 people came to Lawrence earlier this month to celebrate the grand opening of Union Crossing, LCW’s ambitious $40 million redevelopment of one of the city’s old mill buildings into 60 new affordable rental homes and 19,000 square feet of commercial space.

“Not that many years ago, it would have been unimaginable to have a nonprofit do a project like this,” said MHP Executive Director Clark Ziegler at the Dec. 13 grand opening. “Not that many years ago, it would have been unimaginable to have a nonprofit working in partnership with the city to attract millions of dollars in investment. This is a milestone in community leadership and we’re delighted to be a part of it.”What LCW has done is tackle the first phase of redeveloping the massive Southwick Mill complex, a set of three buildings that used to produce materials for Brooks Brothers suits up until a few years ago when Southwick moved to new facilities in Haverhill.

Having already worked to help change the zoning so that mill buildings could be redeveloped into mixed-use properties, LCW stepped up and tackled the biggest development challenge in its history, redeveloping one of the Southwick buildings into commercial space on floors one and two, and 60 units of affordable housing on the third, fourth and fifth floors.

“The leadership of Lawrence CommunityWorks brought the entire community into the process of rebuilding this neighborhood and they have proved that the power of collaboration is the way to get things done,” said Greg Bialecki, the Patrick Administration’s secretary of housing and economic development.

The $23 million housing aspect of Union Crossing was supported primarily through federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) and federal historic tax credits awarded by the state. TD Bank North and the federal government’s Tax Credit Assistance Program (TCAP) invested in the tax credits. The Massachusetts Housing Investment Corp. was the tax credit syndicator.

MHP used its privately-funded loan pool to provide a $1.5 million first mortgage commitment and a $600,000 second mortgage from Home Funders, a program MHP offers to help developers make more rental homes affordable to lower-income families making less than 30 percent of area median income.

Union Crossing also received strong support from the City of Lawrence, which provided $930,000 in federal HOME funds. Additional support was provided by MassDevelopment, the federal government’s Environmental Protection Agency, the state Office for Energy and Environmental Affairs, The Life Initiative, the Community Economic Development Assistance Corporation, NeighborWorks America, the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston and Boston Community Capital.

Union Crossing features three one-bedroom apartments, 30 two-bedroom apartments and 27 three-bedroom apartments,  all affordable to families below 60 percent of median income or no more than $53,700 for a household of four. Twenty of the apartments will be set aside for families below 50 percent of median and 12 apartments are for families below 30 percent of median income (no more than $26,850 for a household of four).

Union Crossing is located within a quarter mile of the city’s bus terminal and is within walking distance of downtown. LCW Co-Director Jessica Andors said that energy efficiencies will result in the building using 50 percent less energy than the typical redeveloped mill building.

Andors served as master of ceremonies and took the time to introduce and express LCW’s heartfelt thanks to every organization that supported Union Crossing. Also speaking for LCW were project manager Maggie Super, board president Sandra Mouzon, and board member Armand Hyatt, who pointed out that the grand opening coinciides with the 100th anniversary of the Bread and Roses Strike, another significant occasion in the history of this mill city and its people.

In addition to the funders, public officials speaking at the event included Mayor William Lantigua, state Sen. Barry Finegold, state Rep. David Torrisi and June Black, aide to U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas. Former state Sen. Susan Tucker was also recognized for her support as was former LCW executive director Bill Traynor, now a strategic advisor to LCW.

This is the second loan MHP has made to LCW.  In 2006, it committed $230,000 in first mortgage financing and a $750,000 second mortgage for Farnham Court, which involved the acquisition and rehabilitation of 11 rental units in four multi-family buildings in a south Lawrence neighborhood hard-hit by foreclosure.

For more information about Union Crossing and MHP’s financing programs, contact Senior Loan Officer Amanda Roe at 617-330-9944 x273.

9 Leadership Practices for Community Networks

Networks require leaders who have a genuine understanding that personal power is different from positional power. The positional power levers in effective networks are few and far between. On the other hand the spaces for nudging – influence, guidance, reinforcement – are wide and many and need to be occupied by a deft player.  Networks need leadership, they just don’t need the kind of leadership the one typically finds in traditional organizations.

As the Executive Director of Lawrence CommunityWorks for more than a decade – a traditional CDC that over time morphed into a hybrid CDC/community network – I had to learn a different style of leadership that challenged me – as a person – more than any other time of my life. To be an effective leader in this environment meant I had to genuinely check my ego, my compulsion to control, my instinct to pick the shortest straightest route between two places. But over time I learned a very valuable lesson – that an ounce of control by me would yield a pound of ambivalence, detachment and capitulation on the part of the group of people – staff, members, board – with whom I truly wanted to co-own the organization, the work, the decision. Why? Because the expectation of leader-control is so strong and so baked in. To generate true co-investment (a requisite condition for a true network), the leader has to overcompensate for these forces through a genuine, demonstrated commitment to “inhabit” rather than control. At various times in the last 5 years or so I have been asked to comment on the key leadership behaviors needed in network environments. This has led to a number of workshops and trainings for all kinds of networks in all kinds of places – through which these ideas have been shaped further. As a summary I have charted a list of 9 Leadership Practices that I think are the work and challenge of leadership and stewardship – as well as systems and protocols and contrivances that one can use in these roles. These are:

Self-Knowledge and Transparency – Our fundamental capacities for human interaction get tested in this role because these are the abilities that shape our personal power. Our natural curiosity, generosity, self-awareness, as well as the ways in which we compensate for fear, stress, uncertainty. Being a real, learning and growing individual in full view of others is the fundamental leadership behavior.

Holding the Narrative – More than any other construct, human beings get clarity and location and clues about what to do and how to act from a “narrative” – a story that is believable, that squares with evidence and that is actionable is the most powerful tool for motivation. with all the swirling parts and all the change and adaptation in a network environment it is very hard to recognize and hold onto a coherent narrative. The leader has to do this and has to do it well. The leader is adjusting and re-telling the story in every interaction.

Cultivating a Demand Environment – An open co-creation environment will quickly invent its own rules of engagement which includes its process and decision making structure, and in this people gravitate to structures that concentrate power. The leaders of the network have to actively cultivate processes that counteract the concentration of power and decision making. The Board of Directors at LCW eventually embraced “cultivating the demand environment among members” as one of its primary roles, right alongside due diligence and policy making.

Creating and Protecting Space for Creation: A successful network quickly gets busy “doing”  – programs, projects etc. The infrastructure then bends to that purpose – delivering things at a degree of quality and withing a time frame. This work crowds out new innovation and co-creation and its infrastructure is impatient with new ideas and with change. In the midst of this the aware network  leader needs to focus on and pry open new space for creativity and creation.

Shaping Provisional and Flexible Management Systems – One of the challenges of a network environment is that change is scary and when fearful people tend to grasp for clarity and location and predictability – which they feel they will get from structure. We need to define our roles! We need a better division of labor! We need more supervision! These things maybe true to a degree, but they are not the path to an effective, adaptive environment. The path is through high quality individuals with great communication skills who understand and share the narrative and act accordingly – this capacity requires a different set of systems.

Developing Descriptive and Provocative Language – At LCW we borrowed language from architecture, science, mathematics etc. to describe what we do or were trying to do. Calling a “program” a “value proposition” instead reminded us every time we used the language that there needed to be a “give/get” in everything we do. Using “form follows function” as a core management principal reminds us always that we should be building only the structure we need to get the job done – no more and no less – which keeps us nimble and flexible. My philosophy with language is that we use it to provoke thinking and practice – not to paper over distinctions. When we are sitting around talking about the meaning of a word – like on a recent night when a bunch of members were looking up the word  “contrivance” which we use to describe little devices we use to help people communicate better – I know we are in a moment of empowerment as a group.

Intentionality and Micro Practice – “Oh we do that!” “There is nothing new about that!”  These are the common refrains when we talk about some of the  community building practices in network organizing. There is nothing new about the idea that when people have really good relationships and connect well – good things happen. The trouble is its harder for people to find those spaces and we DONT do enough to create them. It matters what we say when people walk into the space.  It matters how we start the conversation when we are knocking on a door. It matters what we do when we start a meeting and how we end it and everything in between. It is the details that matter and how well we do things and how often we do things well.

Commitment to Peer to Peer Engagement – I was often in the habit of asking staff — “Why do you have to do that? Why are you in the middle of that? You need to get out of the middle of that problem or situation.” The leader in a network has to make sure that connections are being made and that “brokers and brokering” is happening less. How many peer to peer touches are happening – in a classroom, in a program environment, in a meeting? Create environments where people need to solve the problems they are part of creating – or shape the next thing that they want to happen, looking first to fellow members, class mates, neighbors FIRST for partners.

Real Time Learning – Networks adapt by learning and learn by doing. The quicker that cycle can happen the less expensive are the mistakes. It is often said “fail often but fail quickly.”  The network leaders has to create an environment where two rules are clear and present.  1. “Try it.” We will learn more in a half hour of trying something than in a month of talking about it. 2. “Let it Go” lets not get too enamored with the blush of our or others’ creative moments – lets let go of things that dont work and lets do it quickly to save pain and money and time.

A Convening of Community Network Builders

This is Blog Post submitted by Bill Traynor and Frankie Blackburn to the Knight Foundation. A reflection on a convening of community Network Builders that Bill and Frankie co-organized and led in Miami in November of this year.

Community Network Building Convening – Miami 2011

Blog Post for Knight Foundation by

Bill Traynor and Frankie Blackburn

25 senior Community Network Builders’ from around the country converged in Miami this past fall to talk about their work in an effort to generate what they called “actionable knowledge” about what they do, how they do it and why they think this work is distinctive and impactful and needed now, in struggling American communities. Invited by the Knight Foundation and Grassroots Grantmakers, with our help and facilitation, the convening was designed to engage each participant as BOTH a practitioner and a ‘thought leader” in the field.

Five headlines emerged from what we consider a first ever gathering of this type:

  1. Our primary intervention is to create, protect and preserve intentional community spaces in our local areas for connection and co-investment.
  2. Well designed and effectively stewarded spaces unleash significant capacity for creative local solutions and cultivate important new connections across class, ethnic and racial, geographic and generational divides.
  3. As stewards of these intentional spaces, we must fully inhabit these spaces, expose our own questions and vulnerabilities and work to diminish the impact of positional power on the co-investment process.
  4. The organizational forms needed to support this work must be more flexible, less boundaried and more adaptable than traditional community-based organizations.
  5. The case for supporting community network building is clear to practitioners, but needs a relationship-based approach to engaging funders, policy makers and others in co-creating a data/narrative for external case making.

There was consensus that this is an intervention with a strong bias. The bias is that there is a lot more value and power to build on in poor struggling communities than is recognized by most community development, community building or social service interventions.  But this power and value is locked up or unrealized because the spaces that these interventions create are not designed to genuinely explore, reveal and then put to use what people have to offer each other and their community. Sometime they say they are and sometimes they try to be. But community network builders would say it doesn’t take much to miss the mark, but when you miss it you miss it by a mile.

Each of us knows instinctively the community spaces where we are welcome and where we are not….. when we are genuinely needed and when we are not….when we are genuinely recognized and when we are not.  And none of us spend more time than we have to in spaces where we are not welcome, not needed and not recognized.

While the Community Network Builders at the Miami convening can be found working in a range of disciplines – community organizing, community building, human services support, engagement in faith communities, health care – they have a common perspective and a common approach: to offer the optimum environment for people to engage, bring their own best stuff, build trusting relationships and co-create.

Over the two days, participants – organized beforehand into Session Teams – led Open Space small groups discussions and fish-bowl reflections sessions around 4 areas of inquiry:

  1. Practice: What are the distinctive elements of network building practice at the local level?
  2. Leadership and Stewardship:  What is needed from us to lead and guide these efforts?
  3. The Forms:  What are the new organizational issues/challenges that arise in network building?
  4. Case Making: What is the case for this work and how do we make it?

Here are some key conversations:

The Practice and Urgency of Creating Space

Community Network Leaders see their practice as creating aspiration-driven spaces – rooms, meetings, physical space, moments of community life – that help people connect across differences, build supportive relationships, engage in value exchange, generate action and co-create with each other.  They see their work in these spaces, wherever they may be, is rooted in an essential bundle of activities and behaviors explicitly designed to create the force needed in the moment.

  • A Connecting Force –  sparking deeper relationship building within existing networks and bringing organic networks of people together across differences
  • An Affirming Force  - helping people explore, reveal and exchange actual value
  • A Flattening Force – challenging and neutralizing positional power dynamics derived from professionalism, race and class so that those sharing the space can engage as ‘people first’.
  • A Revealing Force – providing the time and opportunity to engage in learning and exploration, around issues, neighborhood life, life skills
  • A Generative Force – facilitating the time and space for organic generation of new campaigns, movements, collaboration, new community institutions and organizations

In these kinds of spaces, a community can re-discover its functionality and power.  Some of these spaces exist but there are nowhere near enough of them to constitute the ‘connectivity infrastructure’ that is needed in today’s world. There needs to be a concerted, intentional and strategic effort to generate these spaces. If today we have 10 such spaces, tomorrow we need to have a hundred and the day after that a thousand.  A community that is populated with this kind of connectivity infrastructure will have a higher degree of self-determination, will be able to do lots more with the less they are left with, will be populated by more people who have a actionable sense of their own power, and will have the aggregate and collective power to stand up for itself in a regional and global economy.

 As Leaders and Stewards, Trading Control for Co-Investment

It is a challenging irony that to effectively lead in a network environment requires one to lead with one’s own needs, questions and vulnerabilities. Community Network Builders see their primary role as ‘creating, recognizing and protecting spaces for co-investment.’  But the leadership/stewardship role in a network like this creates a fundamental challenge to the leader – to work to diminish his/her own real and perceived positional power in order to create space for others to lead, create and engage. This is more than leading by example. This is the primary set of acts and behaviors that is the leverage to pry open spaces where trust can be established and rule. Community Network Builders work in environments where mistrust is heightened and the pain of being invisible and diminished is palpable and present in many people and therefor in most of our interactions. It takes radical acts of surrender to counteract these forces and we as leaders need to surrender first; surrender control, pre-conceived notions about what will work, pre-determined views about the outcomes that will result.

If surrender is the first role, bold experimentation with “devices and contrivances” designed to bring people into mutually supportive relationships is the second.  The network steward is not a passive facilitator but the first in the room that voices the need and desire for new connections and relationships and the ‘mad scientist’ who comes up with contrivances like The NeighborCircle, the NeighborNight, Tuesday’s Together, The Check In, the Hello Circle, Speed Friending, The Weaver Explore – all simple devices to encourage connectivity across differences.

The 3rd primary role is to protect this kind of ‘connectivity space’ when the network is successful and gets busy producing the programs and projects and campaigns that inevitably and quickly grow from all that great connectivity. The need for these spaces does not diminish with network growth, but the ability to protect and sustain them becomes more challenging and complex.

In each of these roles, there are essential acts and behaviors that need to be performed and proliferated though the network environment. Some of those featured are:

  • Inhabiting the Space – Being intimately engaged at all levels of network functioning. Don’t lead from the outside.
  • Helping people name power, power relationships and power driven dynamics that usually drive decision-making and outcomes in other community spaces and get in the way of genuine co-investment
  • Introducing and reinforcing network-centric, and relationship strengthening  practices
  • Magnifying and raising the profile of positive norms and outcomes when and where they emerge

Forms Designed to Bridge Different Worlds

Local network building is challenging traditional ideas about community based organizations and blurring some lines between and among silos and the helping professions.

Because the orientation is to work through networks of relationships, the forms that are emerging to support this work are needing to be more flexible, less boundaried and exceedingly adaptable.

Because they are challenged to create shared spaces – shared by people and organizations that have not and would not typically share space – they are pushed to cross traditional neighborhood boundaries, professional boundaries and institutional boundaries.

In addition, local community networks have three unique features that also challenge traditional forms:

  1. Networks don’t occupy the same kind of institutional space in local communities as CBOs, principally because they represent different layers of community life. In fact, participants described community networks as layers of connected relationships  – much like a lasagna – that can lay on top of each other without getting in each other’s way.  The way that one can be a member of a health club and a church and a buying club and a sewing club – picking and choosing which to be invested in in a given week, this is the kind of layer the community network represents – “the connecting with other local community members club. “ It was felt that far from competing with local block clubs, associations and CBO, a healthy community network can feed these forms with engagement, expanded networks, and people who are more informed and more skilled in effective participation.
  2. Community Network Building works to identify and support and sustain natural networks in neighborhoods while challenging them to cross lines of difference – to bridge.  This is a challenge but also an opportunity to create new functionality in divided communities. This work is not about getting institutions to collaborate but rather about a careful cross stitching of individual relationships that are ‘surprising’ and that begin to weave networks that wouldn’t otherwise be weaved.  Intergenerational, cross professional, neighborhood residents and leaders of large institutions, and of course cross ethnic and racial.
  3. Networks also generate infrastructure for aggregate power in addition to collective power. Networks are best at offering many options for many people – all loosely linked together.  Some of the new community organizing campaigns cited by community network builders were focused more on creating a kind of ‘market demand’ for change rather than traditional community organizing collective demand. During the convening we called this “aggregate power” which is more akin to voting or consumer purchase power than it is to constituent based advocacy.

These and other dynamics are shifting the way that Community Network Builders are crafting the infrastructure – funding, staffing, internal management needs, technology needs – that they require to cultivate local network development.

The Griot’s Role in Community Network Building

The word “Griot”-  the traditional name of the West African storyteller – comes from French and Portugese words for “servant.”  The Griot’s role is to hold and pass on the powerful narratives that guide moral choices and community life. The Griot is a servant of ‘the truth.” Capturing and disseminating the truth about the impact of  Community Network Building remains a difficult challenge for a number of reasons but the conversation at the Miami Convening was hopeful and instructive. First, because we all realized that we need our own version of the Griot – a network of people from a range of disciplines who work together as servants of the truth and tell the powerful story that is emerging from this work. There are 4 elements to this powerful story that can be developed:

  1. Effectively Capturing the Tangible Outcomes – what are the raw programmatic and/or community building outcomes that spring from this work.
  2. Finding and Unleashing powerful voices who can testify about ‘Life Inside the Network’ – the infrastructure for ‘bringing to life’ the essence of the network experience is still out of reach.  Powerful nuanced stories require strong storytelling skill and broadcast medium. These elements are needed.
  3. Proving Differential Outcomes: Being able to illustrate the “net value” of the network environment to programmatic and other outcomes through indicators like retention, effective use of resources, leverage, mutual support and so on
  4. Convincingly describe the Paradigm Shift; developing the language and imagery needed to make a compelling and clear distinction between Community Network Building and other interventions.

Given the newness of this work and the few resources that have been dedicated to developing the practice, the challenge today lie in capturing the essence and importance of “a good spring season” of turning soil and sowing seed – always hard to truly measure until the harvest.

But, as the group agreed, it’s all about telling a powerful story: having a powerful narrative that is backed by powerful evidence, some of which can be/should be quantitative data. But the task is not a narrow one of being able to identify and commit to a data set and tracking technology. The task is to generate a broad partnership willing to work closely to develop and disseminate a powerful narrative in an environment characterized by skepticism, a short term outcome orientation, and an unwillingness to commit the resources needed to do this well. This will take relationship building across lines of difference between and among a special group of people who occupy the “practitioner, funder, policy maker, evaluator” spaces, but who are all willing champions and, even more importantly, willing to be Griot’s in their own complex and rarified environments.

These are just some of the thoughts and knowledge that emerged from our convening that we know are driving action today in communities around the country. There are great notes, graphic illustrations and video and photos available that bring our moment in Miami to life as well. There are new connections and new trusted relationships among experienced community builders that were started during our convening that will bear fruit for years to come. There is energy and there are strategies for continuing the network building we began in Miami – with cross city learning, regular group Skypes and conferencing and further convenings.  All of these things will be pursued in a network-centric way: demand driven and with shared leadership.

We are often pressed for the “elevator speech” around this work. We don’t have that.  But because community network building is about engagement and conversation, we conclude this piece with an “elevator conversation” that we could imagine taking place once we have engaged (trapped) a foundation leader, corporate CEO or policy maker in an elevator that gets stuck for a little while on the way up to the 50th floor. Does that work?  J

How can I/we best spark change in my neighborhood?

  • Create a community network where lots of community members can get active and connect with others across lines of difference.

Why is this strategy the best answer?

  • Times are tough, our communities need positive change and we need all of our members to be doing well and contributing to community life.  But today there are not nearly enough positive ways to engage. A community network brings people with different backgrounds, perspectives and gifts together to build trusted relationships and to shape and implement visions of change, be they small or large.

How do I/we develop a community network?

  • Networks need spaces where people can connect and spark new ideas and action. Community network builders focus on finding and create lots of different spaces (indoor and outdoor places, gatherings, meet ups) that are welcoming to a wide range of people and that facilitate relationship building, mutual exchange of value, learning and co-investment

How do I know if I am creating a good network space?

  • People come. People come back. There is a steady influx of new people coming. New ideas for action and connection emerge. There is no one leader. Responsibilities and roles change and are shared. Relationship-building and exchange traditions/protocols that get established. People begin to steward/manage the space themselves.

What does this take?

  • A diverse team of people to create the space and do the inviting.
  • A carefully crafted invitation to draw people into the space.
  • An intentional effort to ensure that the space is comfortable and engaging
  • A clear invitation to come back to the space and help manage it

What do we do in these spaces, as they evolve?

  • Help people connect and exchange information and opportunity and spark action
  • Involve those who come in to help in creating, protecting and preserving  the space going forward.
  • Create new and better ways to share power and leadership and welcome new people in
  • Help people turn their ideas into new community organizations, campaigns, programs and interventions
  • Create a forum for deep, thoughtful conversation based on real information
  • Actively listen to and capture all of the stories flowing from the exchanges, using them to shape and share a collective narrative for the others to see.
  • Embrace all sparks – be they conflict or innovation – and help others use sparks to make the space better or create new spaces.
  • Support and hold others accountable for actions flowing from an exchange or a series of exchanges.
  • Resist attempts to convert the space into a form that will no longer be welcoming to new people or facilitate mutual exchange.

No One Rises Alone – Re-Post of Boston Rising Blog Entry

Bill Traynor: No One Rises Alone

Bill Traynor is the Co-Facilitator, with Frankie Blackburn, of the Connectivity Task Force at Boston Rising. The Task Force is staffed by Talia Rivera and includes Imari Paris Jeffries, Paul Johnson, Chrismaldi Vasquez, Alice Stein, Sam Novey, Damon Cox and Brittany Parker

The New Marketplaces of the Rising Class

The Connectivity Task Force at Boston Rising ensures that relationship building is at the center of every aspect of our work and central to the goal of eradicating poverty in Boston.  I want to share some thoughts about how we see ‘connectivity’ in the context of the Rising Class.

All the aspects of poverty that we experience in our own lives, and witness in the lives of others – economic, spiritual, emotional – those born of injustice and those born of isolation or fear – are the handiwork of a community that can neither imagine nor realize its interconnectedness. These communities are destined to be trapped in an ordeal of perpetual pain and distress – the evidence of which is the colossal investment that is made in things like insurance, health care, law enforcement, incarceration.

Great disparities in income and wealth in our country has increasingly yielded economic poverty for many and a poverty of awareness, spirit and action for most. Greed, for instance, is an action born of fear and detachment. Aspiration is an impulse born from a sense of personal power and connection. Which of these was fed in the real estate bubble/financial services collapse? Toxic assets can only be peddled in a toxic environment.

The Rising Class is an idea put forth by Boston Rising signifying that the solution to multi-generational poverty is to clear the way for, and feed, the ambitions and aspirations that lie in the heart and mind of all people, the “poor” being no exception. This idea is based on few simple apparent truths about “rising;”

  • That none of us rise alone.
  • That relationships in a diverse network of support create the pivotal moments of opportunity in life
  • That our interconnectedness as a community – for better or worse – is a fact, not just a lovely idea.
  • That the things that prevent us from seeing and realizing this fact – class, power, race, geography, professionalism, paternalism, fear, bad habits these things cultivate poverty of one kind or another and isolation in every corner of our community.

 

The Rising Class is an interesting sideways idea about “class.”  Instead of seeing “class” as a stamp – a determinant of a specific economic condition,  the Rising Class’s identity is rooted in a more a universal condition (We are all rising and we all need each other to rise), a call to a new conversation (What is the truth about rising?) and a call to action (Connect-up people!)

What the Rising Class is interested in is this: greater connectivity among people who are different from each other – a vast robust marketplace for all the unrealized value that we have to offer each other as we all try to rise and contribute to community.

But in this, the Rising Class has a problem. The world is not organized to facilitate this deeper and broader exchange – between the neighbor in 1A and the neighbor in 1B, the school principal and the parent, the Wellesley resident and the Grove Hall resident, the teen and the grandparent, the new immigrant and the old timer, the homeowner and the renter.  And it is definitely not set up to reach out to connect the most isolated and most de-valued of us to the broad current of the mainstream economy.  The “poor” are offered help in exchange for control, not invited into the marketplace to explore their value.

So the Rising Class needs to build its own marketplaces, by shaping new kinds of “trusted spaces” that are explicitly designed to confront these barriers by offering:

  • New networks of relationships across differences,
  • Intentional ways of revealing hidden or suppressed value, and
  • New methods of, and spaces for, exchange.
  • Ways of marshaling aggregate (market)power, in addition to collective power, as a way to make change

 

Neighbors who live next door to each other for years but don’t know each other have no exchange value – even the minimum needed to defend their street. These same neighbors who have met through a Boston Rising NeighborCircle, who share dinner and life stories, and then go on to look out for each other’s children, exchange favors, appreciate and smile at each other on the street, take on local issues together – these neighbors are exploring, revealing and exchanging value in a trusted space, the exact function of a marketplace.

Families who come together through the Family Independence Initiative (FII) cohorts are invited to exchange help, networks, advice, favors and to offer each other opportunities and they do. In the process they are expanding the resource base to feed their own and other’s aspirations for jobs, homes, education and small business ventures.

Whether through a simple NeighborCircle or the elegant FII approach, a small business accelerator space or neighborhood controlled trust fund to stimulate local connection and action, all these serve as early examples of the new marketplaces that Rising Class demands; 21st Century trusted spaces where a deeper and broader exchange can take place, where hidden value is revealed, and when new resources are unleashed. We will need hundreds more of these examples, especially those kinds of trusted spaces that specialize in connecting people across different socio-economic backgrounds.

This then is the life and work of the Rising Class – to engage in ‘rising acts,’ to create new trusted spaces for exchange, to push us all to a greater place as a community, all fueled the unleashing of the still great and powerful aspirational spirit of human beings as we strive to connect, contribute and rise.