For the past few months, as a part of my work with Nexus Community Partners, I’ve been helping to coordinate the Minnesota Delegation to the 2011 PolicyLink Equity Summit in Detroit. The conference was this past week and I am reflecting on what was a tremendous experience.

This is my second PolicyLink Equity Summit, and I can say hands down it is one of the best conferences/national gatherings that I have attended. The first Equity Summit I attended was in 2008. My experience then was timely as it gave me a new vision for what was possible in my career and community.

As a delegation we believe that working together, a diverse group of passionate people will achieve equity for the Twin Cities and beyond. You can learn more about our shared delegation experience at Here’s some other quick facts as well.

WE ARE BIG. Our delegation was over 150 people strong, the largest delegation in attendance (by far) at the Equity Summit.

WE ARE DIVERSE. We are suburban, urban and rural. We are cross sector and cross-cultural. We care about a variety of issues from education and housing, to transportation, health and jobs.

WE ARE ENGAGED. Our delegation is focused on moving from learning to action. Thus far we have hosted two convenings, one in late September and one last week, with each gathering attended by about 100 delegation members. The energy in the room is high. The conversations have been rich. And the excitement for the future is obvious.

I am excited about my leadership role in this process and the possibility of working with this diverse, excited, large group of leaders around equity issues facing our region.

And as a random side note, four delegations were invited to give final remarks at the closing town hall to end the Summit. I was chosen to represent the Minnesota delegation. It was an honor and quite fun! My thoughts were captured below.


InCommons is currently partnering with Ashoka on a project to better understand how leaders unleash and sustain problem-solving communities. As a part of their exploratory research project, I was asked to participate in an interview. I’ve included some description of their project and process below.

*The Knowledge Path (also known as the Discovery Process) is the Changemakers method of capturing information from social entrepreneurs and experts, and then incorporating it into learning products (like the Discovery Framework) and tools. This process applies the unique Ashoka and Changemakers lens of innovation, social impact, and sustainability, exploring where the field is stuck to determine new opportunities for innovation and impact.

**The Changemakers Discovery Framework (DF) is an analysis tool designed to better understand the nature of social innovation. It uncovers patterns of what works in the field, what solutions are missing, and it illuminates ideas about how change is happening. The Changemakers approach is a unique vision that reflects Ashoka’s three decades of work with social entrepreneurs around the world. Rather than searching for a silver bullet, we rely on understanding how solutions work together within a global context to effect change. It takes into consideration the actionable components of a problem (which we call barriers) and the varied solutions (which we call design principles) required to maximize social impact and galvanize innovation.

Here are some of my reflections from my interview:

I really appreciate the approach this project is taking. While deductive methods traditionally begin with a hypothesis and then seek examples that prove or disprove it, the Changemakers Discovery process begins with the work of innovators and practitioners, exploring actual solutions to social problems in the world. Using these real world examples, the analysis examines why they succeed and how cross-cutting patterns can then drive new innovations and sector-transformation. This approach is a different way of thinking about systems change —one that values practice over theory and on-the-ground invention over academic analysis.

In many ways the approach they are using, is a bit similar to how I see the work of my Bush Fellowship. I am in some ways starting with a hypothesis, in that I firmly believe that building social capital can lead to building stronger, healthier, more equitable communities. And while I am spending these first few months in the world of books and research, my main thrust will be later on as I explore “real world models” of where and how communities are building social capital as a strategy to strengthen neighborhood revitalization efforts.

Through my interview I became aware of where I currently feel strong in my knowledge and where I feel weak. I think the time I’ve spent researching social capital theory has been valuable and important. I’ve developed new language, understanding and expertise about this field of study and practice. At the same time I am aware of my need to dig back “down” into community and learn from the actual solutions and strategies practitioners are implementing locally and nationally. I have a few more books to read, notes to take and blogs to write at the theory level, but my interview today excited me about the on the ground work left to be done.

Near the end of our conversation I had a bit of a revelation in my own head. I’m not sure I have fully thought it out yet, but it goes something like this…

A good solution to the wrong problem is a bit of a waste of time.

How we define a problem, or our belief about what causes a problem, shapes our approach to solving it.

For example, what if I told you that 3 out of 5 African American Men between the ages of 18-35 are currently connected to some form of our judicial/criminal justice system (I made this stat up). If you were tasked with “solving” this problem, I’m sure there are many approaches you might take, but at the minimum part of your analysis would have to be looking at the ‘system’ that is grabbing so many young men of color, and the people themselves. Where you put your emphasis might say something about how you see the problem.

What I’m saying is this, and I know it is obvious, but how you define a problem is directly related to the strategies you put in place to solve them. Right?

All of this to say, that when it comes to the work that I do, and looking at my own community of North Minneapolis, I think it would be worthwhile to engage people in a serious conversation about how we, as a community, got to where we are right now. And in this process, I think we need to take account and responsibility for the intentional racialized decisions and policies that were put in place decades ago that continues to impact our community today. I guess I’m wondering if had a more shared analysis of where we’ve been, and how we got here, it might help us in developing solutions that can effectively take us into a new future.

Does that make sense? Maybe I’ll have to explore this more somehow in a later post.

Last week (10/24 – 10/26) I attended the Neighborhood Funders Group conference in New Mexico. The Neighborhood Funders Group is a membership association of grant making institutions whose mission is to strengthen the capacity of organized philanthropy to understand and support community-based efforts to organize and improve the economic and social fabric of low-income urban neighborhoods and rural communities. Each year their conference provides information, learning opportunities, and other professional development activities to their national membership, and encourages the support of policies and practices that advance economic and social justice.

This year’s conference theme was Advancing Community Power through Culture, Equity and Justice and included an array of regional and national leaders speaking to this theme. I had a few key takeaways from my time there.

1) The demographics of our country are changing. Fast. And as the birth rates of US-born residents continue to decline and the Baby Boom generation retires, immigrants and their children are critical to U.S. economic vitality and global competitiveness.
2) Together with longtime residents, newcomers can contribute to solving community challenges and help address long-standing social issues like poverty and racial inequalities.
3) To effectively create an agenda that is focused on building healthier, more equitable communities, we will need to intensify the debate around equity, race, access, and civic engagement.
4) This changing landscape requires philanthropy to develop multi-faceted approaches, supported and sustained by many diverse stakeholders.
5) We will especially need to create pathways and opportunities for the experiences and voices of all community members to participate in the discussions that lead to the development of successful solutions.
6) As we move into 2012, we must remember that the challenges facing Americans are felt even more acutely among our most vulnerable communities; often communities of color.
7) Issues of education, incarceration, immigration, environment, health, employment, and housing will be center stage.
8 ) In what will undoubtedly continue to be a difficult political, social and, economic environment, communities across the country will continue to fight to maintain a voice in the democratic process while developing new strategies geared towards advancing their collective power.
9) Along with new investments in our physical and community infrastructures, coalition building and the adoption of new, more inclusive frames for moving forward policy agendas will be needed.
10) Changing demographics will require more inclusive, authentic, and united progressive coalitions that build power and alliances amongst diverse stakeholders.
11) If we are to be successful, the voices of those most impacted need to be better included in planning and decision-making process.

Changing change


When I applied for the Bush Fellowship, I spent a portion of my application speaking to my frustration about traditional models of problem solving and their lack of efficacy in getting to the root of our toughest challenges. I’m not sure we know even know how to define problems, let alone solve them. I’m unconvinced that the way we go about trying to solve tough problems will really achieve the long lasting results we need.

We are a results minded, action oriented, problem solving type of people who find a significant amount of identity from solving problems. First we identify a need, then search for solutions, establish goals, bring others on board, implement, then when it doesn’t work, start again from the beginning. The essence of these steps is the belief that the way to make a difference in the world is to define problem and needs and then recommend actions to solve those needs.

We limit our effectiveness by putting out a defined destination (vision) and then assume it can be reached in a linear path from where we are today.

And while this approach does actually work for many things, rarely does it work well in human systems or when the desire is to create something new. Problem solving can make things better, but it doesn’t change the nature of the things.

If we really want to see positive change in our communities we will have to move away from our traditional models, and instead shift the entire umbrella under which problem solving, investment and social and community action now takes place.

Peter Block in his book, Community, says this, “The challenge for community building is this: While visions, plans and committed top leadership are important, even essential, no clear vision, nor detailed plan, nor committed group leaders have the power to bring this image of the future into existence without the continued engagement and involvement of citizens. In most instances, citizen engagement ends when the plan is in place. The implementation is put into the hands of the professionals. In concept, the master plan provides some parameters for development and the use of space, but in real life it is usually a call to let the arguing begin. For all its utility, it rarely builds interdependence or strengthens the social fabric of a place.”

To me, one of the missing ingredients to successful community building is the inclusion and authentic engagement of the residents in a community. To shift the paradigm that Block speaks to above, we will need to discover and create the means for engaging residents in ways that bring new possibility into being. More and more, I am convinced that what gives the most power to communal possibility is the imagination and authorship of the residents inside of a community.

Real change is an organic and relational process that starts from the bottom up, not the top down. With this in mind, the role of leaders then is not to be an authority from on high, but instead leaders must be focus on creating structures and experiences that bring residents together to identify and solve their own issues.

In our traditional model of problem solving scale and speed are king as we work hard to push fast to a preordained destination (vision) sacrificing along the way the connections, relationships and engagement between people. We must choose depth over speed and relationships over scale, recognizing that real communal transformation is almost always, local, customized, unfolding and emergent.

We will also have to adjust our traditional notions of what constitutes action. Defining a vision, crafting a strategy and handing out a to-do list to individual actors is a too narrow view of action. We must define action more broadly.

Again, Peter Block in his book Community, asks these important questions as we think about what is or is not action.

Would a meeting be worthwhile if we simply strengthened our relationship?

Would a meeting be worthwhile if we learned something new?

Suppose in a meeting we simply stated our requests of each other and what we were willing to offer each other. Would that justify our time together?

Or, in the gathering, what if we only discussed the gifts we wanted to bring to bear on the concern that brought us tog ether. Would that be an outcome we value?

Saying yes to these questions significantly widens the spectrum for which we can undertake our traditional problem solving techniques.

All of this is not an argument against the need for us to solve problems in our community, but comes from my sense that what we need right now is a larger shift in the context of how this work happens in community more broadly.

To say it the most cheesy way I can imagine, I’m wondering if what I’m really talking about here is an analysis that says, “we need to change the way we make change”.

Today Ezra had a problem.

After spending some time in the basement building a bed and house for a few of his stuffed animals, he went upstairs to fetch some other supplies. While he was gone, Koen destroyed everything he had been diligently working on. Sad, angry and frustrated, he yelled at his brother and swatted him on the back. Which in turn made Koen angrier and he continued his destruction uninterrupted by Ezra’s pleas (screams) to stop.

Now the back story to this little event was that while building his creation, Ezra consistently excluded Koen from participating, relegating him to a simple assistant, with little control or ownership of the creation. This was Ezra’s work, not Koen’s, and I am pretty sure Koen knew and felt that every step of the way. In fact, that’s pretty much how it goes down in our house. Most days when Ezra is playing, or creating or doing whatever, he doesn’t include his brother. Sure sometimes they are side-by-side, or even playing together, but they are rarely working together. Ezra is in charge, controlling the situation and giving instructions. It is his rules and Koen’s job is to follow. Because of Koen’s personality, most of the time this is okay, and Ezra’s bossiness turns out to be more frustrating for me, than Koen himself!

But then, like today, there are those times when Koen will not take it anymore. And so he destroys, he breaks and he revolts.

I tried talking to Ezra about cooperation and sharing, but then switched gears and bluntly stated, “Koen feels no connection or ownership in that work, you exclude him, and so when you turn your back he breaks it. I’m not surprised.” Ezra gives me a blank stare, then goes on to tell me to leave him alone. He’s clearly in no mood for a rational discussion about the real problem we’re all facing here.

But I choose to continue, asking him, “Instead, what if you brought him in? What if you made him a part of the decision making? What if his ideas were incorporated into the work? What if you had to listen to him sometimes? What if you shifted the project from being about what you’re doing alone, to what you’re doing together?” No response from Ezra, minus some yelling, so I continue, “Do you think he might be less willing to break something that he helped build together with you, something that he feels a part of, rather than something he watched you build alone?”

I know for a fact (and I’m thinking you guessed this as well) that this message did not stick with Ezra. But I do know that I will try again. Think of the possibilities if I could teach him the value of including his brother in meaningful ways, so that they are working with each other rather than against each other. And could you imagine, what if I could teach him that what they are able to create together might be better and more fun than anything he could alone? Or if I could help him see that they each have different strengths and talents that could compliment and strengthen the other. Oh somebody get me a parenting award, because that would be radical.

Of course then there is the scary reality of how difficult this will be, given the fact that we as adults are equally as bad at this as children.

What if in our own problem solving, and community building, we practiced sharing power, developing collective leadership, valuing our differences and working together for the common good?

I’m thinking that if we could teach adults this, it would be even more radical than teaching our kids!

Think about your work. Think about the challenges you have in front of you. Think of the problems you are trying to solve. Does anything you desire to accomplish have a clear set of rules, pathway or a single solution? If I had to guess, your answer is no. I know it’s not true for me.

In his Ted Talk, author Daniel Pink wonders aloud why, in a 21st Century world, we continue to turn to outdated and unexamined methods to motivate teams, build strong organizations and solve tough problems. It’s fine if you want compliance he says, it’s another thing if you want engagement, innovation and action. What drives people to act, to build, to tackle new challenges and create new solutions has nothing to do with old school models of carrot and stick. As soon as you need to go beyond the mechanics of a problem, our traditional forms of incentives fail to move people into the places of creativity we need them to be in order to address the challenges an organization or society might face.

Enticing people with a sweeter carrot or threatening them with a sharper stick won’t work to solve today’s problems, which because of their often complex nature, need more creativity, out of the box thinking and innovation. Dan Pink promotes these three intrinsic motivators instead:

Autonomy. The urge to direct our lives.
Mastery.The desire to get better and better at something that matters.
Purpose. The yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

Dan’s talk led me to think about more than just how we run organizations or motivate people, but also our approach to problem solving in general.

I’m constantly amazed at the if/then or black/white approach some leaders take. I’ve been in too many situations where the leader sees their role as taking my/the problem, wrapping it in a bow and returning it to me/us as the solution they’ve determined is right for the situation or question.

Sadly, the reality in our culture is that you gain credibility and authority by demonstrating capacity to take other people’s problems off their shoulders and give them back solutions. I know a lot of people who are awesome at solving problems they have an answer to, but are extremely incapable (or dare I say afraid), to guide a team through a process of solving a problem they do not have an answer to.

I love questions. I love the gray areas. I’m cool with ambiguity. In fact, sometimes I like asking questions for which I am not even looking for an answer. And sometimes, to find the solution to a tough problem I have to first ask 20 questions, so if you stop me at question 1, I will never get to the right answer!

I much more appreciate a process based in questions, challenging assumptions and constructive friction. Come on, we all know that there is a whole set of problems that are not amenable to authoritative expertise or standard operating procedures. These types of problems cannot be solved by someone who provides answers from on high. These are the type of challenges that require experiments, new discoveries, and adjustments from numerous places in the organization or community.

Neighbor Power


Last week I read the book Neighbor Power written by Jim Diers. He is a community organizer and the first director of the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods. In his book he offers real life examples of how to build active, creative neighborhoods, with practical lessons in participatory democracy for ordinary, caring citizens who want to make a difference.

I found it interesting, and it was enjoyable to read about the various initiatives that Seattle implemented to better engage a broader base of their residents.

He basically starts by making the case that social capital is strong and alive in communities and an important variable in achieving equitable neighborhood change. He also critiques the belief that people are apathetic and unwilling to participate in change efforts. He diagnoses people’s disinterest in participation more as alienation versus apathy, pointing to the myriad of ways that government, social service agencies and other institutions disempower local residents.

People don’t vote he says, because they don’t think their vote matters. People hesitate to join community organizations because they are tired of attending meetings that lead to nothing but more meetings. Whether by participating in a planning workshop or a discussion on bylaws, too many people have a hard time seeing a positive relationship between civic involvement and the quality of their lives.

He is convinced that people still yearn for a sense of community and want to contribute to the greater good. And that perhaps more important than the financial and other material benefits of civic engagement are the social benefits of a stronger sense of community.

Many city officials, and others, were deeply perplexed at the creation of this department that they saw as essentially encouraging a type of neighborhood activism that they saw as more of a problem than an asset. Which I guess is understandable if they’re thinking of the same handful of activists, self-proclaimed neighborhood leaders, whose mouths are bigger than their constituencies. Every city seems to have them, and Seattle is no exception. These activists are hard to please, and usually Lone Rangers with little influence with the electorate. Unfortunately, elected officials often respond to the persistence of self-appointed leaders by becoming less democratic themselves. They develop a bunker mentality and try to insulate themselves from the public.

Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods solution to this problematic cycle was to strive for more participation and not less. They believed that the best antidote to self-proclaimed leaders is the presence of a broader based, more diverse set of community-based leadership. Knowing that most neighborhood based groups in Seattle (and everywhere?) tend to be whiter and wealthier than the communities they claimed to represent, he charged the Department of Neighborhoods to not only increase engagement, but to strengthen who actually participated in these efforts.

The entire middle section of the book highlights specific initiatives they undertook in the City of Seattle. Some of which still exist in Seattle, you can learn more here.

And outside of the real and tangible examples the book gives, both about the department’s programs and examples of what residents have done, here’s some of what I identified as the key values and beliefs and commitment that seems to have made their efforts successful.

Real innovation emerges from locally initiated planning, and that real change comes from opening the doors to community. A commitment to start to where people are and build programs of community engagement and empowerment accordingly. That doesn’t mean promoting a cause and seeing who follows; that means listening. If a common interest involves an issue, that issue should be framed in a way that is as immediate, as specific and as achievable as possible. People get involved to the extent that they can have an impact on the things they care about.

A neighborhood is not the same as a community. One is a geographic area that people share, while a community is a group of people who identify with and support one another. It is possible for a neighborhood to lack a strong sense of community, and conversely, it is possible for there to be a strong sense of community among people who don’t share a neighborhood. A community can be defined by common culture, language, or sexual orientation, regardless of geography. In their efforts they recognized that not everyone defines his or her community around neighborhood boundaries. It’s easy to use neighborhoods, but we also know not everyone organizes themselves around a physical location or appointed boundaries. For some it’s their affinities, a writing collective, or their cultural community, or church, etc.

When we talk about engaging community how are we aware of where it is and how communities are organizing themselves, then how do we use a broad set of ‘calls’ to engage these folks in work that is meaningful and important to them? Duck hunters have different calls. So should community organizations use different types of calls to engage a broad base of their residents. If you only use a loon call, you’ll only get loons at your meeting! The more calls an organization can use, the more broadly based its membership will be. The more broadly based the membership, the more power the organization will have to address whatever issues matter most to its members.

Now I know what you’re thinking…hey we have this in Minneapolis, it’s called NRP. While NRP did help create the neighborhood system we currently have in Minneapolis, the program ended up being mostly about bricks and mortar and less about community engagement and organizing. Of course with 84 neighborhoods lots of different things have happened! But the main thrust in Seattle and Minneapolis was totally different. Today, the City of Minneapolis has a Neighborhood and Community Relations department that is beginning to make some shifts away from the NRP model.

Here is a description of the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods: Seattle Department of Neighborhoods works to bring government closer to the residents of Seattle by engaging them in civic participation; helping them become empowered to make positive contributions to their communities; and by involving more of Seattle’s underrepresented residents, including communities of color and immigrants, in civic discourse, processes, and opportunities.

Here is a description of the newer Minneapolis Neighborhood and Community Relations Department: NCR is part of the broader City Coordinator department and will both serve residents directly and support all other City departments with enterprise guidance in the realm of strong neighborhood and community relationships.
NCR is charged with strengthening our City’s quality of life through vigorous community participation, resident involvement in neighborhood and community organizations, and supporting clearly defined links between the City, City services and neighborhood and community organizations.

Here is a description of the Neighborhood Revitalization Program: Neighborhood based priority setting, planning, and implementation are NRP’s core. Residents and other neighborhood stakeholders create Neighborhood Action Plans (NAPs) that describe the neighborhood they want in the future and the goals, objectives and specific strategies that will help accomplish their vision. NRP completes the empowerment process by providing funding to each neighborhood to help implement their approved NAP.