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.

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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.