In our blog post on "Marketplaces" we described our firm conviction that poor communities need new kinds of marketplaces in order to reveal, generate and exchange the hidden value and capacity that already exists in people and place, and to connect those people and places to mainstream economic life.
Our daily work at Trusted Space Partners is to bring this conviction to life in partnership with community institutions and the private sector. Most efforts by foundations and non profits are programmatic or strategic "interventions" focused on a place, an issue or a population. These are - in many cases - wonderful "new seeds of change". The problem is that these seeds can be the wrong ones for the ground they fall on and often - as it says in the Bible - those seeds fall on on rocky soil - in communities where there is such disconnection and distrust that well designed and intentioned interventions die or yield minimal change.
At Trusted Space we are focused on helping residents and institutions uncover a new, more fertile soil on which to stand so that they can connect and innovate together. This soil comes from new habits of exchange and connection. This past year, we have been fortunate to design and help implement a unique community engagement approach with an exciting new intermediary in Boston - Boston Rising. The Mission of Boston Rising is to eradicate poverty and its principal approach is to unleash philanthropy through a growing network of diverse people in the Boston area which they call the new "Rising Class." Boston Rising's efforts are focused on a neighborhood in Boston called Grove Hall. You can find out more about Boston Rising and its approach at http://bostonrising.org/
Trusted Space Partners was initially brought into help the new and expanding staff of Boston Rising understand and integrate "connectivity" into their growing grant making and "catalyst" work (the direct support they provide to groups in Grove Hall to start, grow , develop and expand.) Prior to this point, Partner Bill Traynor had been involved several years before as one of 5 EOS Fellows selected to help guide the thinking and philosophy of the effort that evetnually became Boston Rising.
One clear choice on the part of the foundation at that time, was to attack poverty through activating latent and unrealized connections and capacity both within the neighborhood and between the neighborhood residents and he greater Boston community. This thinking and this commitment has required that Boston Rising face a tough challenge: instead of doing remote grant making, to try to develop deep, genuine and myriad relationships in the local community before making too many investment decisions.
The record of foundations and intermediaries building genuine, mutually supportive and effective relationships with community residents is, at best, spotty. It is a difficult proposition under the best circumstances. Foundations and intermediaries who are launching place-based initiatives are caught between landing too "hard" - being to prescriptive and directive, and too "soft" - wandering around for months creating a legacy of mixed messages. Neither approach helps accomplish what needs to be accomplished in the very early days of these efforts - the building of new relationships of trust. Often the default - or de-facto result - is to re-anoint established leaders and reinforce the existing and too-often non-functional community positional-power grid. Space and time are needed at the start of such efforts, even as that space and time is squeezed by pressure for results, case making and new resource development. Even more important than space and time however, is the right approach with the right "devices" for landing well.
Taking these dynamics into consideration, Trusted Space worked with staff at BR this past spring to design a 3 part "engagement strategy" designed to help BR 'land well' in the Grove Hall community and connect directly not only with established leaders and organizations - some of which had already happened - but to connect with and have conversations with hundred of community residents. The result was something we called The Q Campaign.
What is Q
1. STREET CONVERSATIONS
BR staff and some of its partners, accompanied by the "Q Truck" spent 6-10 hours 4 days a week on the streets of Grove Hall having conversations with residents. In a seven week period there were over 1,000 documented community conversations about the quality of life in the neighborhood. These conversations ranged from 2 minutes to 20 minutes and covered a wide range of topics -- all focused on how residents viewed the quality of neighborhood conditions, the state of commerce and small businesses, services, education and health and safety issues. The primary objective of the conversations however was not "extraction" of information but to connect with, talk with, learn from and build trust and relationships with residents.
2. THE QI CONTEST
Qi was a competition to identify the best up-and-coming Quality Ideas in Grove Hall. The competition had two parts - Quality small business ideas and Ideas With Promise - proposals to improve the quality of life in Grove Hall. Qualified respondents were invited to participate in a 5 week new business training program and then "pitch" their ideas to a panel of experts. In the end 7 Quality Ideas Winners were chosen with each receiving a $5,000.00 or $10,000.00 investment and a commitment of technical support and mentoring for a year.
3. THE WEEKLY MARKETPLACE
The center piece of this campaign was the weekly "marketplace gathering at the community center on Geneva St. in Grove Hall. Every Thursday night at 6pm residents and staff from BR gathered for a community mixer where good food, music, games and fun were combined with "The Business of the Network" table conversations, and the "Mini-Marketplace" a device for exchanging goods and favors. Over 400 participated in the Marketplaces over the course of the summer and this fall 12 residents agreed to be trained as the next generation of "Marketplace Hosts" to carry on this new Grove Hall tradition with on-going support from BR.
Together these 3 elements - with the "marketplace" as the central convening point - helped to create an environment whereby staff and board members from BR could interact directly with residents and visa versa. During the course of the campaign every member of the BR staff and Board spent time on the Q Truck and/or in the Marketplace.
Because the campaign was focused on understanding "quality" in the context of Grove Hall as articulated by residents - without the kind of external assessment or judgement that usually accompanies resident survey's and the like - the conversations surfaced both positive and negative aspects of community life and some of the overall perspectives about neighborhood life that can be illuminating. For instance the average resident has lived in Grove Hall for more than a decade, generally appreciates the level of neighborliness that they experience with close in neighbors, are happy about more recent developments (like the Mecca Shopping Center), wants to see more local and 'black-owned' businesses and is very wary of venturing beyond their block and especially at night because of street level dealing and frequent gang or drug violence. In addition, despite the relatively small size of the neighborhood, very few residents have a good idea of the range of immigrant, youth and other services and programs that are available.
These and many other views of street level life, and the relationships that have been built between BR and residents - over a relatively short period of time - are a great foundation of trust and mutual understanding for moving forward with both grant making and further network building in Grove Hall. In the months following the summer Q Campaign, residents are learning how to run the weekly marketplace with support from BR and are designing an effort to develop a "Customer Satisfaction" consumer action strategy, based on an Atlanta project and with help from the Center for the Study of Social Policy. In addition, the plan is for residents and BR to use the marketplace as a forum for planning the next Boston Rising Summer and Quality Ideas Campaign, as well as for helping the BR supported Grove Hall Trust develop and stay connected to a community constituency. A process such as the Q Campaign takes investment of time and money and intentionality at the front end of a new initiative but the potential downstream pay off in trust, new community led efforts and devices, is significant.