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Seeking unconventional partnerships in Buncombe County (NC)

Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has an unwavering vision of the future she wants to live into.

Her most recent challenge "…To forge new and unconventional partnerships with the goal of building a Culture of Health that benefits all" provides a strategy for living into a safer, healthier community.

Her challenge hit home for me given a recent experience I had.

Part of the funds we received from the MARC grant were allocated to holding a 2-day workshop in managing in complex systems.1 Fundamental to the structure of the workshop was that we would bring community leaders and employees of our health and human service agencies together and learn more about the messy work of managing in complex systems.  We had 23 people attend and 12 were from the community. We opened with an emotionally touching ceremony of exchange, where people felt heard and seen, did some great experiential exercises and then things got real.  The community representatives were not going to go any further until the agency people understood how institutional racism factored into the work of “community resiliency.” And it got really rocky.  People had to leave and take a walk. There were tears, exasperation and anger…things we like to run from. 

At the end of the day, I debriefed with the facilitators.  The stakes were high.  We wanted success.  We talked round and round until we realized that we should lean into this discomfort because life in a complex system is messy, and only by leaning in could we learn more about the current reality; what patterns were we managing in? The way forward was in understanding the reality of our current now.   

The next day we were surprised to see that everyone returned. And here are a few highlights of our opening discussion that morning:

  • A woman who represented both agency and community stood up and asked her peers to put aside their need to focus solely on current inequities. She indicated that those had been well established by the discussion and now it was time to do what we had come there to do—to learn about how to lead in complexity. She asked her peers to let the facilitators do their job so that they could learn some skills to help them move forward.
  • The policeman explained that he was angry and offended by hearing terms like white privilege and supremacy. He left feeling marginalized and targeted. When he woke up and had his coffee, he had an epiphany and realized that how he felt was just the smallest window into how people in non-majority populations feel each and every day.  And he came back because he was ready to listen.
  • The woman, who had taken the brunt of much of the comments the first day, indicated that she came back because she realized that just as other’s wanted their perspective heard so did she, too, need to have perspective heard. She came back to contribute and to listen.

From this start, an opening was formed where the diverse perspectives in the room found space.  Through the work on the second day, over 20 commitments were made to nudge our community toward greater resiliency. All of them in some way involved forging some new and unconventional relationships.

  • The police officer and a woman, who is of Latino heritage who works with families who are targeted for deportation, are working together on different ways they can form and build relationships in the community.
  • A woman decided to create a project called “The Heard Project” where emotional/social support is offered to low income individuals. The co-facilitator who is a presence-based coach is offering her assistance.
  • A child protective social worker made a pact with a community member that he was going to start playing ball and eating at the neighborhood restaurant so that people would get to know him and he would get to know them with the goal of dropping their mutually held preconceived ideas about each other.

By embracing multiple perspectives, we can unchain ourselves from the limited way that we frame and “solve problems,” and lean in to new, emerging patterns of thought and behavior that will nudge us toward a different future. 

Our police officer left the first day feeling threatened and attacked and it would have been easy for him to discount what was said.  You can probably fill in the blanks – “They don’t know anything about me and my life....”  But he chose differently, he let go on his grip of seeing himself as someone who had been attacked and instead opened himself up to a new and deeper way of making sense about the relationship between law enforcement and non-majority members of our community.

It is in the richness of different perspectives –new and unconventional partnerships- that we can forge a new path outside of the well-worn, frustrating, and often ineffective ones we have relied on.

1The workshop grew out of the work of Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston’s book, Simple Habits for Complex Times: powerful practices for leaders.  Carolyn Coughlin, partner at Cultivating Leadership, led the workshop with Doug Silsbee of Presence-based Leadership Development.

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