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Shared Leadership – Community and Government

Posted by frankieblackburn on June 5, 2009

I have been involved with some form of community development work for nearly 30 years – both inside and outside local government. Throughout this time, I’ve read about and encountered countless attempts to bring government and community together as partners. While I have certainly participated in projects that looked like a partnership between government and community, all of these experiences really represented a transactional moment or a protracted negotiation, where one of the parties – mostly government – maintained the power and control throughout the entire process. Even though I admit hesitancy in acknowledging this next point, I believe the emerging relationship between IMPACT (with our Community Partners) and HHS/Montgomery County represents a moment where the people involved are working to put aside positional power in order to authentically share leadership and co-create a new way of delivering emergency services (and beyond) to diverse residents. To illustrate this early assessment, I will share the story of a recent set of conversations and meetings between the people involved in opening up the first two Neighborhood Service Centers, as part of our Neighbors Campaign to reach out to those in crisis, linking them to services and sparking new networks of mutual support.

This leg of the journey began for me at a weekly meeting of HHS staff people (and a few community partners) concerning the operation of the Neighborhood Service Center in Gaithersburg. After a discussion about whether the Community Connectors who staff the Centers should sit in on this weekly meeting, I realized that we all had pretty different visions for how these Centers should look and feel.

I called Uma, our partner in this project and the head of HHS, and shared my reflections, as well as the thoughts of other team members. (Notice that I feel comfortable calling her our partner, before I mention to you her position of power). We typically check in with each other every two weeks or so – over our cell phones – as each is driving home after a long day. She agreed that we needed to pull some of the team together to pose the question – do we have a shared vision for these centers?

About ten days later – right in the middle of a very difficult County Budget season – seven team members gathered early in the morning in the cafeteria of the County Council office building to hold a “visioning session” in a 60 minute time period, to accommodate Uma’s busy schedule and the fact that she had to appear before the County Council to defend her budget at 9:00 a.m. Even though I would not call this the ideal circumstance for a “visioning session”, we were able to run the meeting in a way that surfaced everyone’s specific visions for how these centers should look and feel one year from now.

I can only offer my personal reflections after the meeting. I urge others to post comments, sharing their thoughts. To be perfectly candid, I left the meeting thinking that we were pretty far apart in terms of the one year vision – and the division was occurring across the government and community lines among the team. I was so clear about my assessment that I strongly urged our community team – in follow up meetings – to lower our expectations regarding change and transformation of government processes, and to return to our primary focus on building community strength and shared power within a community context. In these meetings with community partners Jayne Park and Tim Warner and my IMPACT colleagues (Winta and Megan), we began to get excited about crafting a Neighbor Corps vision, flowing out of our door knocking.

Several weeks went by. Some particular circumstance occurred – which I cannot remember – to prompt another late afternoon call to Uma, again as we were both driving home. I shared with her my assessment – very calmly – given my passionate tendencies, and described for her our decision to place more emphasis on building the community network to wrap around the centers, instead of focusing so much on the centers. To my surprise, she immediately pushed back and revealed (uncharacteristically, for a government official…at least in my experience) that she had really been thinking a lot about the conversations held in that barren cafeteria room. She told me that she wanted to forge ahead with some action steps to build a better, more welcoming connection between the Centers and the residents of the community. She warned me that this process will take longer than I might want, but that we cannot let up in listening to and learning from each other. When I hung up the phone that day, I said to myself….I have never experienced a “partner” with that much positional power openly acknowledging that he or she spent a lot of time mulling over the input from the community and actually shifting their viewpoint regarding how to proceed. We agreed to pull the team together again for a series of action planning meetings. I remember she said to me – We need to roll up our sleeves and really start taking action to create more welcoming and inclusive Neighborhood Service Centers.

Yesterday, we held the first of these meetings, from 4 to 7 p.m. in a HHS conference room. Again – we were in an environment I have typically found non-conducive to sharing power across government and community lines. Uma walks in with a smile on her face and a bag of chocolates. I then admit how much I need coffee, but that chocolate will be a great substitute. She offers bottles of water and goes to get them herself, not calling a secretary in to serve us…. Winta (from IMPACT) jumps up to go help her bring in the water. This led to a conversation about food. I then made everyone go around (without some formal exercise) and share their favorite comfort food or birthday dinner. I admitted how much I like to indulge in very salty potato chips and dip late at night…

Ok – I admit that sharing these little details may seem crazy to some of you, but these are the simple behaviors that start to create a “room” or an environment that can foster risk taking – which in turn fosters some level of trust – which in turn helps people from different backgrounds solve problems or create shared visions.

We went on to have a very productive meeting and came out of it with new understandings, an initial vision for crafting a Neighbor Corps leadership program that would actually include HHS staff people and a series of next steps to begin implementing this vision together. As our team left the meeting, we acknowledged that we went into the meeting thinking that we would focus more on the Centers or the role of the Community Connectors. We actually admitted to a few moments of fear in the meeting when the conversation was so focused on what we consider to be our domain – the process of recruiting and supporting emerging leaders from the neighborhood. But, we looked at each other in the elevator – almost in disbelief – that we were walking away with a shared vision for connecting our community organizing with the established system and how this feels so much more powerful and impactful than our traditional, rather quiet approach of gathering people in a far corner outside the inner circle of positional power.

I taped closing comments of everyone on my Flip Camera but the sound did not come out (anyone want to donate $200 for the better Flip version? ) The video is embedded below so you can at least get a visual image of who was involved. I offer a few reflections that I remember from the comments, with no attribution and I list the name of all of the participants:

Some reflections:

  • We focused on a specific issue and connection between our worlds and made progress.
  • This was very different than the meetings I typically attend.
  • We took the time and space to really listen and ask clarifying questions; we were all really trying to understand where the other was coming from.
  • We are beginning to be able to use and understand the same language; at times our differences are so nuanced, that language has been a problem….I see this shifting and it feels good.
  • The spirit in the room was different…it felt like people entered the room with an open heart and an open mind. People used humor well…took risks…spoke honestly.
  • I felt so included and welcomed in this setting; so appreciated this – I do not often feel this way.
  • I feel like I am finally understanding the process of community organizing at a more concrete, practical level.
  • I know the journey is long and full of many twists, but this meeting and past meetings really help give me the motivation and energy to keep going.

Listed in order of appearance on the video clip:

Uma Ahluwalia, HHS

Kate Garvey, HHS

Winta Teferi, IMPACT

Megan Moriarty, IMPACT

Jayne Park, Montgomery County Community Foundation

Sue Gordon, HHS

Betty Lam, HHS

Frankie Blackburn, IMPACT

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