In our work to spark new local networks of mutual support and collaborative action, we have discovered that the difference between failure and success often comes down to some simple, but highly nuanced behaviors or steps. We try to help community teams – especially the key organizer - understand these nuances. But sparking a power sharing relationship with residents is harder than it looks, especially in the ramping up moments of building a new network.
Last month, I had the privilege of serving on a team with Spencer Bulchholz and Bill Traynor, two of the most skilled community builders that I know. I had a very small role on the team, and devoted most of my energy to observing Spencer and Bill at work. Over a two month period of jointly planning a resident party in an apartment complex, they worked with a core resident team in a way that fully received their gifts and personal powers, while also moving the larger network building agenda forward. I am writing this post to capture what I observed and to try to articulate these nuanced behaviors for our own, and other’s learning. In this piece I will focus on 8 critical steps in the process that they followed, along with a discussion of the nuances in each:
Here’s the background story:
Spencer is the lead organizer at Lawrence CommunityWorks, a large community development organization in Lawrence, MA. About five years ago, LCW converted an old mill building into affordable housing and artist studios called Union Crossing. Since the initial excitement of inviting these new residents into the LCW’s diverse network, LCW’s organizing team has not been able to devote as much focused attention to follow up and relationship building at Union Crossing as originally intended. About six months ago, after the glow of the honeymoon period of new housing ended, residents began to voice to LCW some concerns about the building and how it was being managed. One of the issues bubbling up related to safety and the limited use of security guards. Some of the residents were very angry about a few late night incidents in the hallways. Spencer recognized these painful exchanges as a new moment of opportunity for expanding and deepening the network, as well as resolving the immediate concerns.
While this short history was unfolding, Bill and I had opened up a new community space in Union Crossing called Qniversity, the purpose of which is to support regular people in discovering and exchanging the wisdom we can offer each other. Qniversity is not a program or a nonprofit, but an intentional, fun space for people to use for a wide range of gatherings and informal classes. ( See our web site http://www.qniversityatlawrence.com/ ) One of the uses of the space has been a monthly Friday night gathering called Viernes Juntos or Fridays Together. We’ve planned and executed these gatherings in partnership with Spencer, as a device for building the LCW network and introducing the concept of Qniversity. The monthly 90 minute gathering is a cross between a party, pot luck dinner and a community meeting. We facilitate participants in building relationships, exchanging small favors and hosting 20 minute small table conversations about issues of common interest. Because Qniversity is located inside Union Crossing, we’ve made an extra effort to reach out to the residents and as a result, Bill, Spencer and I have developed relationships with eight to ten residents over the last year.
Ok, now here’s how Spencer, with Qniversity’s support, acted on the moment of opportunity mentioned above.
Step One: Understanding the Moment of Opportunity
The first thing that Spencer did with skill and awareness was to recognize that the moment of opportunity was larger than simply resolving some of the immediate concerns of the residents. He knew that the heat of this moment both identified real issues to be resolved as well as a desire for residents to connect with each other and make a claim on this big building as their “home.” The moment provided the opportunity needed to: (a) demonstrate the value residents bring to each other and LCW in solving practical, housing-related problems (b) invite some of the residents to become active in the network, including various “action pursuits” within the network, such as better schools, increased financial opportunities, more responsive local government etc.
Step Two: Assuming the Risk to Jump In and Taking an Informal Step
In the midst of this moment, Spencer and Bill decided to host a small informal “dinner” with a group of residents that we had gotten to know at Viernes Juntos and at other Qniversity sessions. (For example, two of the residents were regular attendees to the Saturday morning zumba group and another resident enjoyed a recent impromptu sangria and painting session that I helped to sponsor). Ostensibly this meeting was to brainstorm the kinds of things could happen in the building if we all worked together. There was no ‘outside’ push on either LCW or Qniversity to do anything. The building’s manager assumed she, alone, was responsible and was dealing with the concerns on a case by case, one on one basis. Spencer did most of the outreach. He did not create a flier or invite everyone to the meeting. He went door to door sticking to the list of folks that he and Bill had had contact with. He was careful to invite the building manager but not to ask for permission. She told him that she wants to propose a community watch team and training. Through earlier experiences, Spencer has learned that community watch teams – while helpful and good – often divert the attention away from more fundamental steps in creating a connected and aspirational community. Instead of arguing with the manager, he made a plan for including her suggestion in the meeting, but not letting it become the only focus of the meeting.
Step Three: Clear and Personal Invitation Process to First Meeting
Like all good organizers, he reached out personally to the ten people he knew and who had demonstrated an interest in making connections with others in the building with a specific and personal invitation. He knocked on doors, held a few one on one meetings, made phone calls and circled back to each person a second or third time the day before the meeting. More importantly, in these informal conversations, he both listened to the concerns shared by the residents and he carefully explained that his intention in hosting this first meeting was to consider how to pursue the longer term goal of a network of relationships, beyond the immediate resolution of specific concerns. He shared some examples of how he had seen this happen in the past and emphasized the importance of taking time to get to know one another to build an initial sense of comfort in reaching out to provide mutual support, take action etc.
Step Four: Delicate Balance of Careful Facilitation and Openness to Next Steps
In the first meeting, Spencer definitely played the dominate role, but he used his influence to signal that this meeting was a different kind of “tenant meeting” than the others might have experienced in the past. He held the meeting in a sun lit common area – kind of like a lobby – around a circle of couches. He had a platter of sandwiches and cookies and drinks off to the side. He started the meeting with a check in called New and Good and took a few minutes to explain the purpose of the check in and why he uses it and how to do it, without going overboard. Bill and I were in the circle with him and looking for ways to connect and make people feel welcomed. As an organizer in a formation moment like this, it is so important to not go it alone and to have a few people (residents or friends or fellow staff people) committed to helping you bring positive, upbeat energy into the space, no matter how small and informal the moment might be. Spencer did have a flip chart and easel and markers and a simple agenda on the paper and he stood up as he facilitated the group through a simple set of questions: What is working well? What activities do you want to do together in the building? etc.
As he expected, some of the residents began voicing their specific concerns. He supported this and began capturing these comments on a separate sheet, while also working to bring back folks to the questions he was raising. At one point, the building manager, who was sitting in the meeting, proposed the formation of a community watch team and training. Spencer proposed that a follow up meeting be scheduled to discuss this and he facilitated the selection of a meeting date/time and a list of people who wanted to attend. This is a critical step: often there is an attempt to move a hard discussion to another time and place. But Spencer took the time and the initiative to get everyone committed to an actual date one week into the future. This felt concrete and helpful to the group. The building manager left the meeting soon after this was settled, creating more comfort in the room for residents to share with one another.
At one point, it felt like the meeting was devolving into a bitching session, as it is so often the case. Spencer stayed calm, but also resolute and he kept asking the question: what can we be doing together to increase our quality of life? One of the residents who had been doing a lot of the talking said that he felt that people still did not know each other and could not support or hold each other accountable around some of the concerns they were talking about, so he proposed the kind of party that would support everyone getting to know each other. He went on to say that while he appreciated the formats of Viernes Juntos and other LCW meetings, he felt like this moment needed to be “non-programmatic” and organized by the residents as a real party. He offered to help organize it, but he also expressed his personal limitations around time.
Step Five: Immediate Action and Clear Commitment
Bingo! When Bill heard this proposal, he recognized a very important shift in the energy and the direction of the conversation. He wanted to support this key spark in igniting others. Even though he had not said much in the meeting, at this point, he said that he really liked this idea and offered to throw in $200 from Qniversity to help make it happen (and he didn’t express any strings or conditions). In reflecting on this moment, he talked about feeling like an inhabitant of the building and authentic participant in the moment…and not a professional organizer. He was present as a human being and had a right to participate as one – and his human instinct was to commit to the event and to contribute to it.
Spencer followed his lead and offered to commit lots of tangible supplies like speakers for music, tables, chairs, utensils etc. As the others witnessed this collective and clear expression of commitment, they started chiming in with ideas for how to decorate, what kind of food and music was needed. The group even had a conversation about whether alcohol could be served. Spencer remembers feeling nervous when this was brought up, but decided to hold off on offering any “institutional” response to this idea. His key focus was on finding a time for a few of the most enthusiastic people to meet again in the very near future.
Step Six: Transitioning from “Creating a Room” to Building a Team of Relationships
Spencer and four of the residents from the previous meeting gathered the very next week to talk. (quick follow up is a core skill and step, while energy is high and everyone remembers the previous collective moment and agreements). In this moment, Spencer was very intentional to transition into a much “softer” role, but still an important role. He came into the meeting with a very “practical hat” on, while also paying attention to connecting warmly with others and helping them to do the same. This step of informal connections is so often missed by professional community organizers. It requires remembering little details that you may have learned about a person the week before and then checking in on them in a way that others can participate. For example, “How did that doctor’s appointment go – the one you mentioned in the check in last week?” Again, this step is about being human and behaving the way you would with a group of friends, and not as a professional organizer.
Spencer asked questions about the party and any thinking that the residents had done since the previous meeting. The small group quickly fell into making a series of decisions about food, music, timing, etc. They did not divide up into tasks – isolating one another. Instead they tackled the basics together and then assigned follow up steps. Spencer was careful not to facilitate but rather served as the “noticer” – the one who recognized when a decision had been made and re-stating it. He did not have flip chart paper and he did not stand up – as he had in the previous meeting. He also kept reinforcing that this party belonged to the residents and while he participated and had ideas, he did not lead or dominate.
Step Seven: Repeated Informal and Friendly Contact with the Lead People
As is often the case, one or two people emerge as the lead people in getting tasks done and the others fall away. It’s important to be ok with this and to not forget about the others. This is a natural rhythm in informal planning and execution moments. An older woman (but one who is very young at heart and appearance) had the time, desire and energy to keep following up. And, she had a great buddy in the apartment building to support her – her adult daughter who teaches at one of the local high schools. For the next two weeks, Spencer had almost daily contact with her. Sometimes they had scheduled to meet to accomplish one of the specific tasks and sometimes she called him or vice versa. But, each time that they connected, Spencer was intentional about checking in with her and about checking in on the progress towards getting ready for the big party. The relationship between this woman, Spencer and the woman’s daughter developed into a friendly threesome, each learning a lot about the other.
Step Eight: Re-engaging the Original Team Plus New People
Spencer encouraged the lead resident to host a short final planning meeting and to reach out to all of the original people who had come to the first planning meeting and anyone else who seemed to express interest. This meeting became the magic moment where a larger group of people – recognizing that a cool party was going to really happen – jumped in to help take on a final list of tasks, cooking jobs, etc. And, it became clear that all of the efforts of the lead resident had pumped new energy and life into the building and some others were started to emerge to offer their help. You might say – one injection of positive energy resulted in another injection of positive energy and the ripple effect took off!
Spencer attended this meeting, but only for the first 30 minutes – and then took off. He shared: “ I could feel some of the anxiety in the room – and all eyes were on me for the answers”. Bill and Spencer talked about the tactic of coming up with a reason to not stay at a meeting or to skip a meeting altogether – and how this can work to help transfer control over to a group of residents. But, they also shared that you should use this strategy only after you are sure that there is energy and progress and shared commitment.
The party was a huge success, attended by about 80 or 90 residents, including a large group of kids (about 20 to 25). The decorating and set up crew worked for about three hours before the party setting up and having a blast doing this together. (They had the music system plugged in and were dancing and laughing as they debated where to arrange the tables, hang up all of the fall motif supplies etc). As the time for the start of the party arrived, the food began to flow out from the elevator into the common area where the party was being held. People were mixing and mingling….the music was going nonstop….the kids were enjoying the balloons and popcorn from an old fashioned popcorn machine. Some folks had brought coolers with wine and beer, but alcohol was not the main feature. A group of people played dominos (a favorite Dominican past time) in one corner. The highlight of the evening was a fun and festive door prize game, one for the adults and one for the kids. One of the more creative residents had devoted a lot of energy to beautiful gift bags and little prizes. The party went on for nearly four hours – it was a huge success. See the pictures below.