The Sustainable Southeast Partnership is the most inspiring, well thought out and long term commitments I've seen to bring conservation and community together to create something new and powerful for all. It is a decade long commitment of partnership between Native corporations, rural Native communities, environmental and community development groups who are learning the practice of long term collaboration and partnership to create a different future for their home. The heart of the partnership is a collaboration between a dozen catalysts, half of whom live and work in rural Native villages and half of who work for conservation or community development organizations. Their partnership -human-to-human- is what will lead to great projects and great successes, and I was engaged to help them realize their potential.
The most important and inspiring goals of the Sustainable Southeast Partnership rest upon complex relationships between people. Everything SSP hopes to do will rise and fall on the authenticity and durability of them. And the most profound, and watched, set of relationships are the ones within the partnership itself, between the regional and community catalysts. How they decide to act inside the partnership deeply informs how they will perform outside in the communities. The catalysts will succeed in their collective mission when they become true allies to one another and the outside world can see it.
And the foundation of those alliances is not that they have agreed to a shared agenda, but how they share power and privilege, how they recognize that they need one another to succeed, and how their differences make them stronger. Their differences in age, gender, race, education, and how each works give them the skills and life experiences that are fundamental to the success of the other person.
All of the Partnership’s relationships must be grounded in reciprocity not charity. Each community has something valuable to teach the Partnership. The Native cultures have a uniquely valuable perspective to offer on the importance of connecting people and place. Conservation and economic development will grow stronger as a result of being stretched. The Making Allies Retreat helped all the principal players in the Sustainable Southeast Partnership to become edge walkers: people able to leave their comfort zone to walk toward others and new ideas, folks comfortable walking between the worlds of conservation and human wellbeing, folks able to leverage differences in perspective and experience to find a shared story.
I was engaged to research, design and faciliate an four day learning experience, called the Making Allies Retreat, to help them take solid steps toward stronger relationships and provide an “exercise program” that will enable them to continue to grow these muscles over time. Relational skills such as listening, patience, empathy, reciprocity, trustworthiness lead to improved transactions. As the team comes to understand and rely upon each other, decision-making becomes both durable and more fluid. The group innovates more because it can absorb different ideas. It’s easier to take risks because of greater trust: you come to each other’s defense more quickly. And there less burn-out as the individuals themselves become more resilient.
As stronger allies to one another, they will have increased skills to rebound when trust is threatened or broken and they will earn the opportunity to become role models for future collaboration, growing the partnership by demonstrating how working together you can achieve more than working apart. To get to that shared story they must first hear each other’s answers to these questions: what does ‘community-driven’ really mean, what do each of us stand to gain from this partnership, what do we stand to lose, what’s at risk, what does success look like and how does it ask us to grow and change?