After a series of Coaching Community Innovation workshops with active community engagers in Alabama, here are some promising practices for strengthening local community networks.
This month, Mathews Center staff had the pleasure of working alongside some of our longest-running partners, County Extension Coordinators with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System (ACES). During ACES’ annual training meetings in Geneva, Lowndes, Choctaw, Monroe, Randolph Counties, the DMC was invited to facilitate Coaching Community Innovation (CCI) discussions on coalition building, moderating community conversations, and strengthening “leaderfulness” in a network.
We don’t need less from people thought of as leaders; we need more leadership initiative from everyone else.
– David Mathews, Leaders or Leaderfulness? Lessons from High Achieving Communities
Challenges & Innovative Solutions
While every place is unique, we were struck by some of the similarities in what communities are facing. In every CCI workshop, we heard that generational divides are common and youth engagement is a great need in rural areas. Another struggle is diversifying and breathing new life into existing groups. Other experiences in building strong community networks included dealing with community divides along other lines, such as racial or geographical boundaries. During these conversations, however, participants from all over the state also discussed what makes the most a difference in such universal problems.
Whether people at these workshops heard us define ‘leaderfulness’ for the first time or the fiftieth, it’s clear that finding ways to be a door opener in the community, rather than a gatekeeper, is part of what makes conversations better and relationships stronger. These workshops affirmed to us that realizing the untapped civic potential in our communities looks like reimagining who your partners could be, seeking passion and perspectives in unlikely places, and broadening the possibilities of where to meet and work.
People & Partners
One of the biggest challenges to having productive meetings we heard about involves dealing with dominating participants. Chances are, we’ve all been at a meeting with that person or group who seem unused to sharing the floor, or who seem to be involved for political or territorial reasons, rather than effectively addressing an issue. The 2015 Alabama Civic Health Index bears that out: Alabama ranks last in the nation for citizens working together to solve problems, despite the fact that Alabamians reported higher levels of trust than the national average, and are civically engaged in other ways.
During the workshops, participants observed that one way to address the difficulty inherent in solving problems together is to deliberately include “nontraditional” leaders, not just folks with a title. Volunteers are usually a self-selected group. Conveners who go out of their way to involve people beyond the usual suspects – by personal invitation, and scheduling one-on-one conversations leading up to an event – find more people willing to invest time into solving a problem. And ultimately, regardless of the demographics of a group, bringing in new perspectives sets the tone for more balanced, effective decision making.
Another challenge to developing strong partnerships is that the key players – particularly nontraditional ones – often undervalue what they can contribute. Sometimes the people who truly care about solving a problem are also the ones who feel they can’t meet any additional calls to action, or that their contributions are not useful or valued.
Simple actions like follow-up emails or calls can help keep the conversation going for folks who can’t make a meeting – as one of our conveners says, “Always hit ‘reply all.’ “ Including someone on a formal meeting agenda can emphasize that their perspective is indeed important, or acknowledge the role they play is valuable. Conveners who listen for opportunities to meet people halfway, identify tasks or roles that fit individuals’ areas of expertise, and recognize people’s contributions, find increased “leaderfulness” in their communities.
Passion & Perspective
As one participant observed, is there a group of people who we are always talking about, but are never actually in the room? Invite them to the table, pay them a visit, or offer them a role to play. Passion for solving an issue may be hiding in the person who complains the loudest. New perspectives for community revitalization can be found in the young people who can’t wait to graduate high school and never return. The target population receiving a service or a benefit from a local agency could offer valuable insight into why they don’t show up to a program as expected.
People often have a different sense of what their problems are – and their own ideas of possible solutions – compared to anyone who isn’t in their shoes. Until everyone’s perspectives are equally represented at the table, no plan will adequately address a problem.
Meeting where everyone feels most comfortable, or even safe, makes a difference in who shows up. One participant recounted being concerned with continuing de facto segregation in their community, which was apparent by the demographics of who attended certain public meetings. They found that simply changing the location of a regularly scheduled meeting, without saying anything as to why, brought in a much more diverse group of people. While, of course, every community is different, we thought this was a creative way to address persistent community divides, without putting folks on the defensive.
Leaders Are Everywhere
Working with County Extension Coordinators who work tirelessly to strengthen their communities reminds us that leaders truly are everywhere. In every place, the challenges in community development are real, and progress is incremental, but fostering “leaderfulness” in others redefines the rich capacities that Alabama communities have to address their problems together.
Rebecca Cleveland, Program Director