Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Task at Hand: Connecting to Community

[A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate to have been part of a Sustainability Design Assistance Team with the American Institute of Architects in Portland, Maine. Part of my assignment was to discuss how the neighborhood of East Bayside in Portland could 'connect to community'... I left them with these thoughts, some of which may be relevant to us here in Silver Spring.]

Connecting to community to work towards a robust, revitalized neighborhood is hard work.

Who is at the table of decision making; who did the inviting to dinner; who paid for the dinner; and, to what end are we eating together anyway?... These are but some of the critical questions we need to ask ourselves. And, assuming our intent is to have a broader, more inclusive and participatory process, these are questions that somehow must be asked by those - and of those - not normally invited to the table.

To have a community where people from so many different walks of life come together intentionally and by happenstance is something that has not normally occurred in most places. What we are trying to do here has not worked very well most anywhere in the world other than certain ports of entry (some parts of San Francisco and New York, for example.)

More often than not, culture segments gravitate to their own. More often than not, most of us still rather hang out with our kind. This is the case however you slice our culture: by age, ethnicity, social strata, or even tenure in place. Yet, in a growing number of communities in the United States, many of the stakeholders are embracing the values of togetherness, collaboration, and partnership.

But again: This is not easy. Challenging what some might term the ‘human intuition’ to ‘stick with our type’ is not a linear process; there is no quick fix; there are no clear and concise solutions.

This process is not like clockwork… Clockwork implies firm technical solutions; turn the dial and it is done; set the timer and let it go.

Rather, this process is much more like a cloud… It is not a linear process… It is not necessarily efficient… It is messy, fraught with false starts, wrong turns, and wasted times… But, like the cloud, it can bring much needed rain and sunshine… Yet, it remains undefined… It morphs… It goes away, and then comes back… This is a continuous, never-ending process.

Nonetheless, many remain committed to ‘making it work’; to ‘muddle through’ the unknown to a place that while we may not quite be able to describe, ‘we’ll know when we are there’.

This lack of definition, clarity, and murkiness may frustrate some - and, unfortunately, may also provide a ‘cover’ to some for inaction.

Yet, most in this community are willing to try… And, that is a good thing!

Much of this work is about relationships: Building, nourishing, and strengthening them. In the ‘dial of relationship’ – which goes from rejection, to tolerance, acceptance, and embracing, most in our community seem to have chosen “full steam ahead”: embracing. That is a noble, commendable, wise - and economically savvy decision.

Only cutting through the issues that divide us and finding where the agendas of the different segment of the community intersect will we move forward across age, ethnic, social strata, and tenure status. We could have chosen to reject the newcomers; only tolerate the youth; merely accept those from other cultures… Yet, it is evident that a critical core of stakeholders in this community actually embrace the changes at hand and are willing to work towards a thriving community that benefits all community members.

As mentioned earlier, this process is hard and difficult. Along the way, major stumbling block will appear that can derail good intentions. Key among these are:

- Moving too fast too soon “If we only dance together, they’ll trust us.” Not! The new immigrant population; the '30-somethings' moving in... New comers will continue to constantly come. There is no ‘instant integration formula’. It is critically important that newcomers be given the space to share and participate at their pace - and in their place!

- High expectations “If we only did this (or that) it would all be perfect.” Not! It will not be perfect. High expectations can mar sensible progress. Celebrate small victories; identify “little things that mean a lot.”

- Demanding instant results “If we just put a youth on the board, it will all be ok.” Not! Our culture is incredibly anthropologically complex. There is simply no quick-fix to most any of the issues we facie. While a new mural may help create a sense of community ownership, it will not erase years of disenfranchisement.

- Over analyze “Let’s analyze the situation more.” Not! Analysis is certainly a must. But, there is a time when we must say: Let’s make a decision and move on. Beware of “paralysis by analysis”.

- Demand Too Much Data “If we only had more information the answer would be obvious.” Not! Data is critical to the analysis. Yet, too much information can be overwhelming – and right down problematic to comprehend. Beware of “death by data”.

None of the ‘beware’ points above are ‘bad’ in and of themselves… We need to move on, have expectations, demand results, analyze, and have credible data… But, certainly beware of any of these – or a combination of them – becoming the ‘end point’.

The challenge remains to build and sustain trust to establish and nourish relationships… Then and only then can we invite all to the table of decision making with credibility and expect genuine, authentic, meaningful and enthusiastic participation. Before we get to the point of ‘decision making’ for sustainable, long term results, however, there is a community engagement process:
1. Embrace
2. Gain trust
3. Establish sustainable relationships
4. Identify leadership
5. Convene dialogues
6. Share power

Then and only then can we truly talk about – and walk the walk – of ‘making decisions together’… of “engaging our community”.

[] Detailed 'final draft' of my section of the report HERE
[] Official full report HERE
[] Portland Sponsoring Group Application HERE
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