In many urban and rural places in America, it’s getting harder and harder to talk with one another, and our decisions tend to favor one group over another. How do we nurture a new narrative between people that leads to better decision-making and stronger, more inclusive communities? How do we design and encourage a civic dialogue that truly engages people, leaves fewer out, and restores peoples’ sense of building something together rather than having something taken from them? From Maine to Virginia to California, I’m part of local, on-the-ground efforts to answer these questions.
My greatest skill and passion is intercultural facilitation and the making of allies. I help to build power and relationships among people, community and organizations through exploring history, deep listening, building skills, and making agreements that lead to effective shared action. At the very core of this work is helping to make visible that which is often invisible whether that be history, people, and the patterns of relationship between them. Talk with me about what this may mean in your work.
In Virginia, I’m part of a team working in a predominantly African American community to build relationships with the primarily White city government to co-design a “shared win” between the community and the city that builds relationships which address a specific threat and builds over-all capacity to create a more resilient community. As African American residents with long generational roots in the community look to the future they must consider the reality of climate change and sea level rise. Because large, critical parts of this community are below sea level, we are making allies who will create community solutions such as a realistic evacuation route that will build resiliency and avoid Katrina-like disasters.
In rural Maine, I’m helping to sustain a productive dialogue within a specific place struggling with increasingly controversial land use decisions as the community becomes more and more separated by class and history and divided by the community’s orientation to production or consumption. By initiating and sustaining very honest dialogue that explores the history of changing land use – and who has been included and who has been left out- we are slowly re-creating a culture of listening that will enable this community to make decisions about land that are less polarizing and more inclusive of different goals and histories. Read more about my work in Western Maine.
In Milwaukee, I’m facilitating a year-long relationship building initiative between a regional public water authority, a community based food security organization, and a local land conservation trust to work toward the shared understandings and agreements necessary to acquire land and farming expertise to provide local, healthy food to an entire zip code in the city. They seek to do this in a manner that builds their respective organizations, builds healthy soils and protects freshwater resources. To succeed, they must make visible and then leverage their own differences and create agreements that allow them to work in their different worlds as allies to one another.
Whether working directly with people or with organizational intermediaries, these on-the-ground efforts to build relationship and shared vision are called Making Allies. We reach people (not “stakeholders’) who aren’t typically “engaged” in a civic process by demonstrating that their story within that community is seen and understood. By making the less visible more visible, we bring people into the narrative rather than exclude them further.
I’m participating in enough dialogues on the inside of communities about how they want to live in relationship to each other that I can begin to share principles. In some projects, I’m asked to help a community resolve and heal from a crisis that divided them; other projects aim at learning from the past and building agreements that will address future challenges; still others are opportunities to build trust and direct relational muscle toward a focused challenge that none could meaningful address alone. Making Allies is not conflict resolution; it’s about community-building and finding a durable narrative that leaves fewer people out of the civic dialogue and yields more inclusive, successful public policy.
There are some common principles to Making Allies that exist when working directly within communities or between organizations:
- Begin by mapping and naming the human parts of a community that are more visible and less visible from your vantage point and why.
- Explore the forces of economic and social change that have created and which now sustain these different shades of visibility of people. Name them.
- Seek an understanding of the history of land loss and land use change that has accompanied or been caused by the social and economic change. Share that history openly.
- Humanize that history by making it visible in the faces of people we know. This fosters empathy.
- Be explicitly committed to respecting and, when possible, repairing that history. Seek solutions that more forward in ways that respect that history.
- In building dialogue together, the differences between people (or organizations) who seek to be in relationship are named, made visible and leveraged, not avoided.
- Understand how people and organizations, though different, relate to one another within a community. Be explicit about power dynamics between most visible and least visible. How are they connected and disconnected? What do they need from one another?
- Seek to bring together the most affected with the most connected to create dialogue with clear agreements about what’s needed to sustain this.
- Identify self-interests of people and groups. Openly discuss where there is reciprocity between self-interests and when there is not.
- Commit to a process before committing to a product. Create a process that people are actively invited to be part of that does not too early lead to a vote or a product that divides them into winners and losers.
- Create and revise agreements between parties at each step for how power and decision-making is to be shared.
- Go deep in one place, resist the temptation to scale up.
Recent clients for this Making Allies work includes The Environmental Protection Agency (Virginia), The College of William and Mary's Coastal Policy Center (Virginia), The Bethel Area Nonprofit Collaborative (Maine), Land Trust Alliance (Wisconsin), Sustainable Southeast Partnership (Alaska).