Partnerships? Sure, But How Do You Get There?
At the end of the first-ever Neighborhood Innovation Forum in San Diego, the crowd was asked: "What are you called to do because of what happened here today?"
"Create partnerships" was an immediate response.
And no wonder. Virtually every presentation and comment during the May 2010 event – attended by more than 120 community activists, city officials, funders, strategists, business leaders and development specialists, as well as San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders – had to do with finding new and better ways to work together.
"The theme here today, in one word, is partnerships," said opening speaker Bill Anderson, the director of San Diego's planning and community investment department, "and not just partnerships with government, but partnerships among folks in the private sector to make things happen."
What the forum made clear was just how much effort, creativity and trust it takes to create successful alliances. It involves finding ways to balance and adjust differing agendas. It involves finding a common goal and working toward it.
And, sometimes, it involves forgiveness.
Burying old grudges
The forum was co-sponsored by the City of San Diego and the San Diego office of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), whose Neighborhoods First Initiative in the Colina Park and Greater Logan Heights communities (see related story) had just won the annual Best-of-the-Best award by the San Diego chapter of the American Planning Association.
The forum included practitioners from around the country, including Joe Bowling, who has overseen a comprehensive development effort in the Near Eastside neighborhood of Indianapolis.
Like the residents in Colina Park and Greater Logan Heights, the people of Near Eastside developed a quality-of-life plan and are using it as a roadmap for rebuilding and re-energizing their neighborhood. "Having that vision, having that plan, has made the difference," Bowling said during one workshop.
A hand rose in the back of the room.
"How did you get everyone to come together?" asked Monte A. Jones, CEO of BAME Renaissance, Inc., the community development arm of the Bethel Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greater Logan Heights.
"We started the visioning process day with a forgiveness exercise," Bowling said. "We had to tell people to let the past be the past, and leave some of those past things behind."
At every table, he explained, there were small pieces of paper. The 600 people present for the meeting were asked to be quiet for 60 seconds and write down anything they were angry about, any grudges they were holding, any bad memories.
Then they were told to wad up the paper and throw it into a garbage bag.
"We tried to keep this as positive as possible," Bowling said.
Following up, Jones asked, "Have you seen any backsliding?"
"All along the way," said Bowling.
Balancing many agendas
A key element in partnering is recognizing that people come to the table with different and sometimes competing goals. There are certainly plenty of those -- plus a healthy dose of cynicism -- among San Diego community organizations, according to survey results distributed at the forum.
San Diego LISC had met with 81 community leaders across the city, asking each about the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats facing low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. They found "a general sense of frustration permeating many of the focus group discussions . . . Lack of influence and common vision were two weaknesses that arose."
Those interviewed complained about "a lack of integration between community planning groups and local initiatives, city policies that impede community development and physical development, a government bureaucracy that is less oriented toward neighborhood needs, and lack of competitiveness for state and federal resources," the report said.
The failure of earlier efforts "has led to a civic cynicism that nothing will happen."
Acknowledging these challenges, San Diego LISC's executive director, Joe Horiye, said residents and leaders are looking for a call to action. "We need to do something, to create new and enhanced partnerships at many levels. Today is the start at better connecting those dots."
The city's Anderson said he hoped to see local organizations become more entrepreneurial and independent, so that they are less "dependant on the vagaries of government or politics or grants to survive tighter times." The ability to stand on their own feet, he said, will give organizations a stronger voice when dealing with city officials and other partners. "They have to be able to proceed with their own resources," he said. "If they’re 80 percent or 90 percent funded by government, they’re afraid to say what they believe.” "
One small step toward that end will be $5,000 challenge grants offered by San Diego LISC to other communities that would like to participate in the Neighborhoods First Initiative. Up to four grants will be distributed, and, depending on how the projects turn out, two new neighborhoods will be selected for a full Sustainable Communities effort.
A limitless future
Community activist Katherine Lopez approached the forum with suspicion, in large part because other leaders in her neighborhood of Greater Logan Heights were skeptical of LISC and its motives. But once there, she was captivated by community experts from Detroit, San Francisco and elsewhere, who told "amazing stories of what they had accomplished."
She left excited about the potential of partnerships in her own community and with other low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. "That was an amazing experience," she said. "When I left, I got into my car, and I had this vision of the world the way it could be if we all worked together. It was life-altering."
Lopez said the tendency in Greater Logan Heights toward in-fighting and knee-jerk antagonism toward outsiders now seemed misguided and self-defeating.
"I know that people have their grievances, and a lot of those grievances are justified," she said. "But fighting over those grievances is exhausting. As long as you're fighting [old battles], you're not getting anywhere.
"But, if you're all working together and feeding off each other's ideas – the future is limitless."
Posted in Engaging, San Diego