Written by Helen Hope Kimbrough

“To embrace the challenges of our time, we must embrace complexity and work collaboratively across systems of diverse stakeholders, even and especially when the path forward is unclear.”
 – David Ehrlichman, author of Impact Networks

Whenever someone asks me what I do for a living, my response is that I disrupt systems. After I express this, I usually get two responses: a pregnant pause with a puzzled look or a fist bump with uplifted smiles. It’s important to say this out loud, but it’s more important to put these words into action.

One of the reasons that I joined the Next Stage team was to become more embedded in systems work and tackle different issues pertaining to affordable housing, education, healthcare, workforce development, and more. Systems are interrelated and influence each other – and they largely and unfairly impact Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), and in many cases leaders of organizations and programs. So while disrupting systems is a functional part of what we do, it is also incumbent upon us to address the root causes and undercurrents that belabor progress in an equitable and just way as it relates to societal, individual, or organizational challenges. This means having courageous conversations and transforming policies, team and power dynamics, internal and external structures, customs, and narratives to create positive results. 

It’s why the practice of community voice and collaboration matter so much. 

Community voice and collaboration bring people together and position shared leadership in decision making. They are both vital to instituting change and transformation. Collaboration isn’t easy – so why is it worth it? This was a question posed in a recent client engagement and the responses varied: 

  • Collaboration brings others to the table — we all can’t be an expert on everything.
  • Collaboration allows an initiative to reach more people and provide more services.
  • Collaboration is tough because everyone has to do something and be stretched. Yet, not everyone is willing to do so.
  • Collaborations are good, but not always best. There’s a lot of bureaucracy involved, especially in systems work.
  • Collaboration is tough because it is a lack of understanding. Leaders  and organizations are looking for ways a program or project can benefit them instead of considering the reward of assisting community members who need access to healthcare, housing, employment, and other services.
  • Intentional collaboration helps build trust and value as a collective.
  • Collaboration is the only way to get stuff done and include other perspectives, disciplines, or experiences. The challenge with collaboration is time, planning, funding, structural implications, and priorities from different groups. 

There’s no question that collaboration is challenging. And while we know we need to do it, we also need solutions-oriented approaches to collaborate effectively. Here are eight ways we can begin to do this work well: 

Embrace Community Voice
In an effort to deepen and strengthen our community voice, diverse voices must be heard and represented. This can occur through a broad spectrum of network leaders – stakeholders and focus groups as well as grasstops and grassroots leaders – to obtain their wisdom, perspective, and lived experiences. This allows opportunities to move initiatives forward together to impact change that truly represents community.

Build Trust
Trust is an essential element which requires the community and organizations alike to bridge across differences which may take some time. However, openness, consistency, and reliability along with care and appreciation can deepen these interactions significantly and lead toward sustainable change. Most importantly – trust happens over time and it is critical that our organizations make this long-term investment.

Share Stories
Sharing stories is a substantial way to build trust and deepen connections to others. By having grassroots and grasstops leaders open up, reflect, and engage in this way, they are more willing to collaborate and greatly inform a discovery process through stakeholder interviews and focus groups and across messaging channels.

Make a Small Shift
In his book, Impact Networks, David Ehrlichman stated, “If the goal is to spark more substantial collaboration and create system-wide change, the network will need to dive deeper into an exploration of possible leverage points. A small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.” Just as it takes time to build trust, it will take many small shifts to create larger scale change. This won’t happen overnight – so we have to recognize the importance of many small shifts and be intentional as we change our habits and behaviors.

Define Values and Guiding Principles
Values and guiding principles are critical to decision-making. If the mission is the “what” of the organization, then values define “how” the mission is carried out, permeating everything the organization does operationally, programmatically, and within its community engagement efforts. If collaboration is important to your organization, how is it showing up in the values you hold most dear? How do you want to show up in the world and work collaboratively? Defining this as a guiding principle will give you accountability and a ‘north star’ as you work. 

Co-Create Together
Create opportunities that bring everyone to the table whether in an informal or formal structure and make sure that everyone involved has access to information and resources and are given space to vocalize his or her respective thoughts. Acknowledge the power dynamics openly and work diligently to resolve them. [Note: Top-down approaches don’t work here! If the grasstops leader ultimately has the last word – is that effective co-creation?]

Have Courageous Conversations
Today, many individuals will side-swipe to get around a tough conversation, although they must be had and should not be avoided. Be courageous so that trust can remain and progress can continue. In the words of James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Ehrlichman describes collaboration by saying, “Most people love the idea of collaboration…as long as it promises to do exactly what they want it to do. However, collaboration is not forced or coerced. It requires one to give up control and certainty.” 

Earlier this week, we celebrated the contributions of Dr. Martin Luther, King Jr. – a man ahead of his time in all of these areas. He truly embraced collaboration and impact networks, realizing the magnitude of his vision could not be done alone. He acknowledged and called upon institutions and servant leaders from all walks of life to get involved in the important work of freedom, equality, and justice that inspired the civil rights movement. This work was challenging, uncertain and hard – but the network he developed ultimately resulted in a civil rights movement that would change our country forever. Thankfully, his legacy continues on as a shining example of how to create connection, spark collaboration, and catalyze systemic change