CULTURE OF COLLABORATION I

I had lunch recently with a friend of mine, a local community leader in the Gorge.  We’ve known each other for almost 20 years and we are usually on the same side of things.  As he sat down, he hit me with the question of the day… what’s the next hot issue?  You know, the one everyone rallies around and funders pour money into for 4-5 years before they move on.

The environment? Is that coming back? Housing? Food? Economic development?  Immigration?  In less than a minute he had rattled off a litany of community hot spots that we had, at some point over the past 20 years, worked in the community to address. 

I stumbled through an answer without really believing what I was saying. I was still trying to read the menu! Of course, all of those issues – and more – are still in front of us.  We had an entertaining and lively conversation; we don’t always agree, but we do always keep talking.   

I thought about his question for a few days.  And, then, the answer dawned on me as if I was looking for my glasses through my readers: all of them.

I think all of these issues are ‘next.’  And, I don’t think we can solve a single one of them without working on all of them at the same time. 

Throughout history much community do-gooder work has focused on one issue at a time.  Pick one… environment, housing, food, health care, jobs.  We single out an issue and then put everything we can into it with the latest, greatest solution. (Let’s set aside for now the influence large funders have on identifying both the ‘next hot topic’ and the solution.)

Every few years, the lucky winners of the Hot Topic Lottery throw everything they have into chasing funding and ‘best practice’ programs that implicitly (if not explicitly) promise, “if only…”.  Those lottery winners stand in the spotlight and do what they can for as long as they can.  Those watching in the wings, waiting for their star turns, continue to struggle with their same issues, as do their clients. 

With each new hot topic cycle, we go against our better judgment.  We start to feel like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football.  We know we aren’t going to actually kick it, but we just can’t help ourselves, because, well, this time may be different.  Aaugh!

Here’s my theory.  The only way to make any progress in our community is to work on all of our issues at the same time.  And the only way to do that is to work together. 

Call it whatever you want, collaborating, partnering, intersectionality – but the fundamental premise is the same: we can achieve more together than alone. 

To this end, I, and a great many others, have been working for years, to encourage, cajole, push, and pull community partners into collaborations.  As a result, we as a community have moved from relationship-based collaborations (collaborations of convenience) to systemic collaborations (partnerships required by an external drive). 

This most recent external drive has been that old standby, the promise of funding.  In this case, funding through the health care system.  Those big dollars drew people to the table much like any funder draws bees to their honey pot.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Pooh corner.  We decided to do it differently.  We, as a community, decided that ‘health’ and by extension health funding, included more than just medical health.  It included most of the ‘hot topic’ issues my lunch partner was asking about. 

By adopting a broad definition of health, one that includes housing, food security, transportation, jobs/economic security, immigration… we have taken away the single spotlight on stage and turned up the house lights.  Over the past 3-4 years we have been operating under the premise that where you live impacts what you eat, what you eat impacts how you learn in school, your physical health impacts your job and on and on.  Everything is connected.

I realize that this idea falls somewhere between an A-ha! moment and a Well, duh! headslap.  Nevertheless, the premise is accurate, and it provides a template for making progress in our community.  Not on just one issue, but on all of them. 

What makes us think interrelated problems can have independent solutions?  We can put all the air in the tires we want, but without gas, or oil, or a battery, let alone a steering wheel, the car is still going to sit on the side of the highway.

In the Gorge, we have built a structure, and importantly, an expectation, for having conversations about how we address issues, not just which one(s) we address first.  These conversations have included everyone in the theatre: the people onstage, those in the audience, those behind the scenes, and yes, those behind the curtains. 

These conversations have led to fundamental changes in our community: a common definition of ‘needs’ and a common method of addressing those needs: collaboration. 

With these two tools in hand, we are no longer fully subject to the whims of outside funders or academic, theory-based practices.  We know what our community needs – we have identified these together and we know what works best to address our needs.  Community-members, patients, clients, staff, board members, do-gooders, all have expertise we bring to the table; we know what we need, even if we don’t know how to get it.

The way to figure out the ‘how to get it’ part is by working collaboratively, with the house lights up.  We can find solutions, together.  Its called a Culture of Collaboration.

So, in answer to my friend’s lunch query, this Culture of Collaboration is the next hot issue.  It enables us to focus on all of the issues at once.  Make no mistake, collaboration is not an answer or solution unto itself, far from it.  However, it does help us find the solutions.  So, while we may be lining up to kick that football again, at least we are certain that this time Lucy is on our team and genuinely wants to kick the ball too.

---

As proof that we are building a Culture of Collaboration, in just the month of July alone, 9 community partners submitted 11 grant applications seeking a total of $1,553,000 for the Gorge community! From a $10,000 grant to build our collaborative capacity to $1,050,000 to address childhood obesity, these projects will support and utilize the expertise of more than 40 community partners and impact thousands of community members.  Funded or not, all of these proposals demonstrate the power and success of this community’s collaborative work.  For more info visit www.gorgeimpact.com.

We Find A Way - TEDMED 2016

     It was a throwaway comment.  It wasn’t the main topic of her talk.  Her actual talk was describing a new approach that directs cancer-fighting drugs to attack only the cells at the tumor site.  This idea effectively eliminates the damage to other cells that drugs cause on their way to the cancer site. 

     The speaker, Laura Indolfi, has an impressive resume that includes MIT, Harvard, University “Federico II” of Naples (Italy, not Florida) and Massachusetts General Hospital, among others.  But that’s not what I found most interesting about her or her talk.

     In the middle of her story, Ms. Indolfi was describing her research, where it came from and what comes next.  She mentioned not knowing how blood moves in a certain, very specific way.  And she said, ‘we find a way to do that’ and then she went on with her talk. 

     We find a way.  That simple, unassuming phrase provided the foundation and inspiration for my entire experience at TEDMED 2016.  It wasn’t a question, it wasn’t a hurdle, it was a statement of fact.  This is what we do.  We find a way to solve that problem.

     The ‘we’ I am talking about is both the group of incredibly well-educated people assembled at TEDMED, most of whom have a bowl of alphabet soup after their names, and the people from our community, the Columbia Gorge, which includes a combination of people with alphabet soup after their names and people with a bowl of life experiences they share.

     I was fortunate enough to attend TEDMED 2016 at the invitation of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as a representative of a Culture of Health Prize winning community.  It was inspiring and hopeful; the most worthwhile conference I have attended in a very long time. 

     The speakers and the setting made me think about what we are doing in the Gorge and how we can do more if it – and do it better.  It reminded me that we are not the only ones trying to make people healthy and build healthy communities.  There are people – smart, dedicated, relentless people – across the country and around the world working to improve health in every sense of the word.

     A few of my favorite speakers included Mona Hanna-Attisha. The pediatrician who discovered and exposed the dangerous levels of lead in Flint, Michigan’s drinking water after testing blood lead levels in her patients.  She said she doesn’t want her community to be defined by the problem, rather she wants to be known for how they respond to it. Mona is finding a way.

     Lloyd Pendleton, an elder in the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City who led the effort to reduce homelessness in Utah by 91% by simply finding and building more housing for people.  (Ok, there’s more to the story, but it is pretty impressive.)  Lloyd is finding a way.

     Sue Klebold, mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine shooters. She started her talk by apologizing to anyone in the audience who may have suffered because of what her son did.  She has become an advocate for brain health awareness and intervention.  Mrs. Klebold is finding a way.

     Kaitlyn Hova, a professional violinist, coder, neuroscientist and synesthete–someone with the ability to see sounds.  When she hears musical notes or letters, she sees colors.  It is a condition that affects 1 in 23 people in the US.  She also created a program to 3D print musical instruments.  Kaitlyn is finding a way.

     David R. Williams, identified in 2014 as one of the World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds. He has developed the Everyday Discrimination Scale, currently one of the most widely used measures to assess perceived discrimination in health studies. He also led the study that shows “Blacks with a college degree have a lower life expectancy than Whites with only a high school diploma.”  David is finding a way.

     Like Ms. Indolfi, all of these people and more, are looking at the parts we haven’t figured out yet and saying, ‘we find a way.’  In the Gorge, we are doing the same thing!  We are finding a way.

     Whether it is changing city and county policy around housing, creating the most robust veggie prescription program in the country, or collaborating across health care, social services, philanthropic, and government sectors, we are making people healthier and building a healthy community. 

     And, when we come to something we don’t know how to answer, we get together, put a bowl of our collective soup on the table, and find a way.

Encouragement

By now, hopefully, you have heard that the Columbia Gorge region (Wasco, Hood River, Sherman, Klickitat, and Skamania counties) have been recognized by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for creating a culture of health in our region through collaboration and innovation.  If you haven’t heard the news, check out the full story at www.rwjf.org..

While the RWJF recognition is significant, exciting, and humbling, it is not an end to the work.  We have not figured everything out yet. This award is a pat on the back for a job well done…so far! 

This pat on the back is not just for those of us working on these issues today.  The work of creating a healthier Gorge community and meeting the needs of community members has been going on for decades… and longer.  Few of the current innovations, ideas, and initiatives would be successful without the tireless work of those who came before us.  People like Dr. Tina Castañares, Micheal Mehling, June Knudsen, Lou DeSitter, Maija Yasui, Joella Dethmann and many, many more, as well as those compassionate community members who started the United Way, The Next Door, FISH Foodbank, Opportunity Connections—all launched more than 40 years ago.  (Not to mention the thousands of community volunteers over the years). 

I’m sure those who came before us would say that their work was built on those who came before them, people like Anna Springs who was instrumental in starting the first Hospital in the Gorge, and the Women’s Club who built the Hood River Library in 1912.

Forgive me, I am not intentionally leaving out any predecessors in The Dalles, or Sherman County or in Washington.  I simply don’t know the names of people who have worked through the years to build a healthier community in those areas.  I have no doubt that they existed.  This recognition from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is for them too. 

But, make no mistake, we are not done!  Not by a long shot.  Ask anyone involved in this work today or yesterday, and they will all say the same thing, we still have too many people going hungry, too many people without safe, secure housing, too many people with chronic disease, too many people without… and not enough solutions yet. 

We in the Gorge are committed to trying new ideas, learning from our challenges, and building on our successes. We are certainly honored and thrilled to receive the Culture of Health Prize for our work so far, but we will not rest on any laurels. We are moving forward every day, as a community, building a stronger culture of health.

Please click on whatever you need to click on to receive this blog.  I will attempt to use it to update, explain, and highlight the continued work of creating a healthier community.  

And, don't forget to check out the website www.gorgeimpact.com for more info about the programs, background, and partners in this collective impact work.

Paul Lindberg