2/16/19 - Whom

Neither I nor the Westside Collaborative staff can take credit for the alliance's recent successes.

For those who know the story, some time ago, wonderful local leaders locked elbows in the face of economic crisis. Facing vacancy rates of 40% and in some specific neighborhoods as high as 60%, the support services rooted in the faith-based community and nonprofit agencies were facing realities they had not experienced, despite their storied tenure in West Grand Rapids.

Necessity is the mother of invention.

Fast-forward a decade, and the Westside has been marked by transformation. From Clyde Park SW up to Richmond NW, from West Catholic down to Coit Park, our Westside neighborhoods have endured quite the “season” of change.

I say endured as opposed to survived as I do not believe West Grand Rapids is THROUGH it yet nor have we ALL been able to cling tightly to our community. Many of our loved ones, neighbors, friends, colleagues, business owners, and local leaders have since moved on. Some have made the decision themselves, but far too often, it has been the result of an influence outside of their control.

The Westside Collaborative was birthed and reared throughout these turbulent times.

Bucking the trend of national collaborations, the Westside Collaborative rooted itself in geography and place-making. While communities across the area and state desperately tried to pull together affinity groups to approach issues wreaking havoc on the masses, the Westside Collaborative was, instead, slowly taking root on the sidewalks and streets and in the homes of neighbors and friends in West Grand Rapids. 

Look for them anywhere. Any city. Any industry. Any age. You're sure to find these affinity groups continuing to evolve. They live on, sometimes in infamy, spawning new versions of themselves and struggling to break through their own perceived internal ceilings.

Possessing so much potential, these groups could well catalyze changes in industry that would draw the line in the sand, creating the “before” and “after” these changes. But too often, the market drives affinity-based team members into niche geographies or niche sectors within their area of expertise.

Consider housing.

If we want to resolve housing concerns, and we decide to pull all the housing people together, a couple of things will be true. Someone in that room is going to have a stake in the SE area. Others in the SW. Still others in NW. And so on, and so on. Additionally, each expert will have their sweet spots. They'll be the experts of some specific sub-sector of the industry itself.  They won't only be divided by “place,” but also by “type.” There will be an apartment expert, a condo expert, senior housing, assisted housing, shared housing, new development, redevelopment, etc.

Unfortunately, while we may assume that these differences will allow for greater transparency and trust (given that they all have their own "thing"), inherently the group will experience at least SOME of the very opposite. These are competitors, after all. They’re trying to acquire land, change zoning, maximize labor and material costs, win federal, state, and local grants, while at the same time competing for talent, market-share, press, and investment. Are we to assume that these groups will lay their cards on the table, face-up, for the greater good?

We know better.

Now, shift the narrative to a geographic focus, and conversations will change as well. No longer will groups focus on (just) their “expertise,” per se. These leaders from varying sectors of a region will be focused on a people, on an area, on families, and on their “place.” HOME.

As Executive Director of the Westside Collaborative, I take NO credit for the amazing position I find myself in. Gaining trust, relational depth, systems awareness, and community engagement at rapid paces, our alliance of nonprofit organizations is tackling issues many people EVERYWHERE only talk about (assuming they get that far). I am so very humbled to witness neighbors, business owners, public schools, elected officials, law enforcement officers, service agencies, support programs, and families rally around one another in authentic, vulnerable, trusting, and cooperative ways.

Change the conversation from what to whom! This is an important detail that can go missed when groups consider imagining the work before them as a geographic effort. DO NOT shift the conversation from what to WHERE. These (focus on) "where" conversations perpetuate the same lackluster impacts the "what" efforts continually stumble through in communities everywhere, including yours.

It is not the house, street, building, or the park that people will rally around. Sure, there are exceptions. Always. But, it is WHOM that will create authentic engagement, trusted partnerships, and genuine collaboration. These can be the scariest steps most people ever take, both personally and professionally.  Still, they WILL take them.

It is the people that live, work, play, worship, and serve in the community that will bring individuals and organizations together. These children, neighbors, families, employees, business owners, and leaders in the community make up the fabric of the place that connects with people in emotional and visceral ways. Only these types of connections will help individuals and groups invest themselves fully.

Turn your team’s efforts toward THEM; the WHOM. Be the leader that shifts the focus, changes the narrative, and established a shared vision. You'll almost immediately find yourself among partners, neighbors, and friends celebrating the impacts your team will soon be making.

Jim Davis serves as Executive Director

of the Westside Collaborative

aligning nonprofit agencies for maximum impact

to better serve the neighborhoods

of West Grand Rapids and their residents. 

The Westside Collaborative is a

proud lead geographic partner

with KConnect, West Michigan's

leader and backbone organization

to regional collective impact efforts.  

1/31/19 - the low ceiling

Collaboration is a bad word in 2019. Despite our organization's name, we can't help but see the argument. Collaboration has been tossed around in workplaces for decades like bad word art in a powerpoint presentation. It was everywhere, but nobody liked it.

Failed collaborative attempts have spurned many to address the myth of collaboration. Their observations aren't wrong. But not being wrong does not mean that they're right.

The use of the word collaboration, like gentrification and racism, seem to shut down critical conversations on urgent matters before they really begin. Simply put, these charged terms spark hurtful memories of relationships, projects, and efforts that were stalled, halted, and/or forgotten. Stuck in the rut of what is and what isn't, lost in translation, people, teams, groups, and organizations got caught up in WORDS while failing to look past the language itself to find perspective and seek understanding. Inevitably one or more sides call it quits before they even got started. 

I think of this as the low ceiling of collaboration. Before you get in the door, you've already hit your head.

This happens ALL THE TIME in collective work. While most players within the Collective Impact system understand (and forgive) the jargon and collabortive-colloquialisms tossed about, the words chosen in the arena of collaboration will inform those on the periphery whether they are insiders or outsiders. As people peek inside the world of collaboration in earnest attempts to consider joining the efforts, they are made aware that they have no idea what they're doing. The leaders of the collective work might as well be speaking Greek. This happens in all arenas, not the least of which is the Western Christian church.  But we have to break through the ceiling (raise the roof?) and get people further than the proverbial front door.  

I don't mean to approach this topic lightly. It's far more serious than it sounds. Not only is it perpetuating the criticisms of collaboration, but it is also stalemating the work of the champions inside the system! From the outside looking in, it sure looks like collaboration is a lot of talking and not much doing. It looks like people show up to work together, but there doesn't appear to be much sharing at all. So what's the deal and how do we fix it?

Talk about it. Admit that collaboration is a charged word. 

The boomer generation currently leading most organizations has every reason to roll their eyes at the suggestion they should be "more collaborative." They've seen this reality. They've hit  the low ceiling and it didn't take them long. In fact, while everyone was busy kicking the tires on what collaborating might accomplish, they went ahead and actually did something. In many cases, it's how they ended up in leadership.

It is the responsibility of the leaders most comfortable in collective work, who understand collaborative strategies and solutions to break down all the barriers preventing partnerships. Invite people in. Eliminate the acronyms. Stop making inside jokes in group settings and then wondering why new visitors didn't come back for your next gathering. Slow down. Allow people the time and space to move slowly. Work at the speed of trust. Most importantly, stop assuming you're right.

Stop pretending that people will collaborate with you when they realize you were right. They won't. Whether you work in neighborhoods through Asset Based Community Development, or are studying under the masters at Public Agency through our member organization, WMCAT, in Design Thinking strategies, you cannot wait for others to "see it your way." A single methodology is not adequate. A specific framework for working an issue will inherently miss the system at large effective outcomes. This is the VERY POINT of effective collaboration. Impact improves with diverse perspectives contributing toward outcomes. Stop trying to convert them to something other than what they bring to the table. Even the leaders of the leaders in Collective Impact work are admitting that their way isn't the be all end all. (JUST READ THIS: CollectiveImpact3.0.pdf then read it again

In nearly every industry, collaboration is still in developmental stages. Assuming of course, that it is being actively practiced, measured, iterated, and improved. This also assumes that the "experts" in the arena of collaboration are willing to make the changes stunting collective work's growth in any particular field. It's going to require all of us out making moves on this particular dance floor to shift our thinking, change our behaviors, invite people in, speak their language as they learn yours, build trust, share by example and without expectation, be patient, be considerate, forgive, and apologize when you admit your mistakes. These behaviors will immediately create more space for more partners in your arena. Quit lowering the ceilings. Quit bumping your heads. 

Bust through that thing. Only then can yon begin the urgent work in helping ALL people break through the glass ceiling

But, more on that later.