Collective Impact as Uprising

I have written in the past about what I call the pendulum swing or the bandwagon effect. I think this is what has happened with respect to collective impact over the past 10 years. I suggest it also occurred  in the late 1980s when outcome measurement rode into town on its stallion named Logic Model. And it is also happening with the word, “movement.” Today, just about everything is a movement. Also see Collective Impact: Watch out for the Pendulum Swing (click image below for the paper), a piece I wrote for Tamarack in 2015 while I was the CEO of Bissell Centre.

                                         Click Image for Paper

I am simultaneously a proponent and opponent of collective impact. I do not think large-scale change efforts have to embrace the CI framework but also think CI can help create large-scale change. It all depends on how committed folks are to truly changing themselves and their organizations and how well they design and execute their collective efforts.

The idea of collective impact is easy to appreciate. Who will stand up and decry common agendas or continuous communication or sharing resources in a collaborative way? Models and frameworks always look good. Acting on them is quite another matter.

One of the biggest barriers to effective significant change work is vanity. When I speak before an audience, I send in a bio of all the great things I have done. I don’t list all the innovations I created or co-designed that failed to launch. I don’t wax eloquent about all the fundraising goals I failed to meet. I share my expertise but do not mention how little I know about this or that. After all who wants to spend all that scarce money non profits have on a bumbler?

We want to look good. When we see a good-looking “hero” walk on stage, we want to be a part of the heroism being offered and promised. Heroes solve problems no one else can solve and often very quickly. They say noble things. They have super powers. We quote them in our collateral materials because we want to be associated with such brilliance. Even if we do not appreciate their perspectives or find ourselves scribbling “bullshit” in the margins of our copious notes, we admire them. We admire those who are able to stand before us and challenge and enlighten us.

When collective impact began to get legs, I observed how some organizations quickly identified themselves as a “backbone organization.”  You might not agree with me, but my sense was these organizations more often than not simply repackaged their current ideologies and practices into a CI wrapper and then carried on pretty  much as they had before.

As an organizational change consultant I came across a client now and again whose idea of significant change involved fresh coats of paint, new job titles, and new language to describe the same old, same old. Harsh criticism, perhaps, but I eventually stopped doing evaluative work because it was difficult to tell the truth when the truth wasn’t attractive. Organizational leaders were wary of reactions from funders or donors, and I couldn’t blame them. Back then, evaluation was not typically a learning journey; it was not about fostering adaptation or alternative actions; it was mostly about “passing judgement.”  Affirmations were of course desired and frankly often were deserved, but a loyal executive leader of an organization being evaluated did not want shortcomings and failures identified, even if they were far fewer than the successes lauded.

We do talk about failure as an unavoidable partner in our quest for innovation or transformation. I love the term, fail-forward, because it aptly captures the possibilities we can glean and craft from failing. But here’s the thing. To fail forward, one has to fully recognize one has failed. We don’t like doing that. People lose jobs and status for failing. Funders frown, or worse.

Our sector has come a long way in terms of evaluation, thanks to the work of thought leaders like Michael Quinn Patton and Mark Cabaj. The buzz today is not about summative or even formative evaluations but rather about development evaluation and principle-focused evaluation. Learning is now emphasized as a  key purpose of evaluation. There is good stuff happening, but I do not know enough yet to ascertain if these better approaches to evaluation are helping us with our quest for transformational change.

I think we struggle with strategy as well. Questioning the goals we are striving for as a group is hard to do once they are enshrined in a our strategic, operational, evaluation, and other plans, not to mention policies and our systems of delivery. Even harder to challenge our practice of delivering on such goals. Our commitments to our modus operandi are carried with us to collaborative tables, where real change and progress can happen or so we tell ourselves.

Are there organizations and collaboratives that do awesome work? Do they change in order to make change?  Do they take strategy and evaluation seriously? Of course, there are many who do, but these kinds of organizations likely understand how much farther they need to go, how much deeper the change within must become, and how their considerable efforts still are having small impact on intractable problems.

One early criticism about collective impact, which I shared, was its failure to identify community engagement as a fundamental component of creating a CI effort. The architects of the model, John Kania and Mark Kramer,  wrote about the importance of institutions from all sectors coming together to identify a common agenda about attacking an intractable problem in their communities: poverty, low high school graduation rates, illiteracy, and on. The people living with these problems and challenges were not emphasized as necessary players and  leaders in CI efforts.

This omission has been addressed and well expressed by Mark Cabaj and Liz Weaver in their 2016 paper, Collective Impact 3.0, An Evolving Framework for Community Change. 
Among the good ideas they put forward was the importance of community aspiration being the driver of forming a common agenda.

Common agendas formed by cross sector institutions are hard enough to craft. It’s even harder to invest the time, energy, and honesty required to identify and act on the aspirations of community.  Such aspirations cannot be identified by having an Indigenous woman, an African man, and a young person in a wheel chair sitting at a table with the rest of us. We need those voices at the table to help identify ways to engage marginalized people in building a common understanding of the problems we face collectively and then how we can aspire for solutions. Representatives at such tables must be conduits to others who share similar experiences and challenges, albeit uniquely.

I imagine this is why Cabaj and Weaver also identified community engagement as a key condition inside of which continuous communication is required. It takes time, costs money, and frankly I am not sure just how many of us are good at facilitating such efforts. Authentic engagement can yield unpredictable results. Professionals may find out the solutions they believe are needed for those living in poverty are not the solutions identified by the targets of their good intentions.

I was part of a discussion recently about how difficult it is to involve people with lived experience of poverty in the work of ending poverty. Folks like us are paid to attack poverty and we have the time to do so. When one is constantly in survival mode, it is difficult to join a group, a task force, attend meetings, and do all the things professionals believe are necessary to do. I do not disagree that it is difficult, but I do wonder if part of the problem is that we want people with lived experience to join us, be a part of our designs and structures. We want the few of them we allow at the table to speak for those living as they do, as if those living in poverty or those who are Indigenous or those who are African represent a homogenous group.

This is where movements fit into the picture. Movements exist when a mass of people are acting to remedy what’s wrong. While the catalysts for a movement are often privileged people, the power and impact of movements are in the numbers of people working on the same problem and a good number of them, if not the majority, are disadvantaged. Witness the civil rights movement, women’s suffrage, the labour movement, the LGTBQ  movement.

Movements cannot be (or should I say, should not be)  pronounced by a government or a collection of institutions.  Movements are sourced in people and their actions, which may vary. Martin Luther King Jr. did not create the civil rights movement, though he influenced millions of people who took up the cause.

Movements cannot be controlled by professionals. They take on a life of their own. As much as we want a movement to end poverty, I suggest naming our good efforts as a movement is actually more of a marketing exercise than a reality. Calling our work “a movement” makes what we are doing look powerful, productive, and hopeful, but hardly as impactful as an authentic movement can be. I do think we have a movement of non-profit organizations and cross sector collaborations of institutions and governments working to end or reduce poverty, but I do not see a movement of the people rising up to put an end of poverty. Perhaps you do. If so, correct me. I have no stake in being right about this.

Scott Goodson, author of Uprising, suggests that a movement is a type of uprising. His book is for marketers and I won’t comment on the context behind his thoughts. But I do think that a movement is an uprising. It occurs when people come together to address a problem and replace it with a new or better cultural norm. That’s what Mother’s Against Drunk Driving did. Non-smoking legislation is the result of non-smokers and health advocates speaking out, influencing friends and colleagues, and rising up against the tobacco industry who made trillions selling a product that kills people. Martin  Luther King Junior influenced the emergence of an uprising. The labour movement was an uprising. Women’s suffrage was an uprising.

My greatest passion as a community change practitioner is to end poverty and homelessness. At Bissell Centre where I was CEO for nearly five years, we dramatically increased the number of homeless people we housed – from 80 per year to nearly 500 annually over that period of time, but sadly we still turned away as many homeless people each year. We were attacking the problem with the obvious solution: housing the homeless. It made sense to do that of course, but we did not create a movement to end homelessness, perhaps because who out there is going to fund  an uprising?

Bissell Centre was involved in an uprising when it organized Tent City in Edmonton some years back. Many say that effort,  led by one of my predecessors, was the motivation for the city’s ten-year plan to end homelessness.  Tent city motivated some systems change and increased funding from governments and donors. Gains have been made, but homelessness persists. How come? I believe it is because service delivery reforms and systems change are reformative practices. But I am not sure they are revolutionary. Now before you go too far thinking I am even more radical than you imagined, let me add that transformational change – which we all talk about as a type of holy grail – is revolutionary change. How could it not be?

We create our own environment, and all of us have created poverty and homelessness. People like me decide who will get housed and who will be turned away and how much money will be spent on housing someone and for how long. We determine income security rates and despite knowing that what is provided is woefully inadequate, we maintain that system and others like it.

Decisions made by governments, businesses, and non profits do help people, but not nearly enough of them and what we do provide is inadequate. It’s as if we share a common value that not doing too much to help the disadvantaged is the right thing to do. We worry about food bank cheaters; we cite examples of how the poor have manipulated the system. We believe someone in need of free day care should not have a cell phone or wear nice clothes.

Who among us is going to organize an uprising against what we have created and sustain? Charities are limited by law about the extent to which they can lobby governments for change. Corporations can lobby government, but not charities. How come? Somehow, we have come to accept that changing things for the better should protect the powerful from changing themselves.  We want to avoid the chaos of rebellion. By rebellion I do not mean violent conflicts or that harming others should be tolerated. Rather I am talking about people refusing to tolerate injustice and the denial of their human rights by others who have their rights well in hand and then rising up to do something about it.

Is there not a compelling reason to rise up against the environment we have created in order to be a society where poverty does not exist? Is there not common benefit in the elimination of homelessness? Yeh, I know. Not all of us will benefit in the same way. It is also true, and you know this as well as I do, that often to achieve a desired benefit, we have to give up something, we have to compromise our own personal ambitions, change our values and habits. If I want to lose weight, I have to give up potato chips and overcome my addiction to pancakes, ice cream, and all the processed crap I eat. If I want to end poverty, I need to accept I may have to change my views on personal success and largesse. I may have to be the one to sacrifice.

Collective impact efforts should consider how to mobilize human beings to create a necessary uprising. If you believe in the eco cycle of change (below), can you see how “release” and “exploration” connect to the idea of an “uprising” for  change?

Large scale change must be about ending pain and suffering, not just framing everything in positive language. I have heard leaders say things like, “We don’t focus on problems, we focus on asset building.” I do not deny the power of asset-building in community change efforts, but let’s get real. Our job is to be a catalyst for change that ends human suffering, ends racism and hatred, ends complacency about incarcerating the poor and under educated. Our job is to help solve what is wrong and unacceptable.

Change-agents must be prepared to recognize the roles we play in perpetuating the very problems we want to resolve.  Subsidies do not end poverty; they provide the impoverished with relief and as good as that may be, we will never end poverty by offering public transportation subsidies or housing subsidies to those who cannot afford market rents, much less see a future where they might own a home. Taking away grocery carts from the homeless does not resolve homelessness; it makes it look neater for the rest of us. The Child Tax Benefit will lift hundreds of thousands of families above the poverty line, but does that mean they are no longer impoverished? And when that benefit results in communities lowering the living wage in their community, could it be that the Child Tax Benefit becomes an economic opportunity to keep wages low?

Large scale change requires agreement that the current state  of affairs is wrong. That poverty exists is wrong. Children going to school hungry is so much more than a problem. It is a reality we have created. School lunch programs help, but child poverty persists in spite of our amelioration efforts.

If a corporation justifies increased shareholder value as more important than resolving child poverty, they will at best be minor players in solving the problem. A major corporation informed me they would not be funding a Bissell Centre program because their grant was too small a part of the overall funding we required to have impact.  We needed their money because funders have created an environment where we have to assemble funding from many sources in order to do our work.  The biggest grant available from that corporation at the time was $10,000. What they wanted was to see their money being responsible for big impact, not just be a small contributor towards positive change.

If we believe that we should not have to experience any financial impact on our largesse  in order to end poverty, are we also saying that it is the poor who must sacrifice their lives and hopes for our continued prosperity in order to preserve ours?  I saw a posting recently on Facebook from a trusted source who said that the top 1% of earners in Canada pay more than one-third of the nation’s income tax. But that’s not the only piece of data that we should reference, is it? What about the growing divide as evidenced in data about Income Inequality? What does it mean when a dozen of so Canadians have more wealth that the province of New Brunswick? What does it mean when those who are experiencing growth in their income year over year are the 1% while most everyone else has seen little if any increase in their financial condition?

Cabaj and Weaver

Community engagement should not just be one of the five conditions of Collective Impact. It should be at the core of all of the other conditions. But more than that, community engagement should be about fostering an uprising against everything that is causing people to suffer, lose hope.

During my two years as a senior director at Tamarack Institute I was blessed to provide consulting services to the Mohawk Tribal Nation in Kahnawake, Quebec. Their collective impact goals were expansive and seen as requiring a long-term community effort to address them.  What impressed me about the Kahnawake Collective Impact effort was their unrelenting commitment to community engagement. The organizers knew its community members were not happy with the status quo. They wanted better jobs, a stronger economy, better education for their children, less substance abuse, and better, more relevant child protection services.

The institutional leaders were courageous enough to recognize they could not resolve these challenges with programs and services alone. They knew that the community deserved to take charge of their own problems and futures, and they knew the achievement of a more informed and active community would cause them discomfort because they would have to change as well.

I worked with the Kahnawake CI team for a year and during that entire time, we focused on community engagement of residents, teachers, helping professionals, business owners, elders, youth and on. When I left Tamarack they were just beginning the formation of their Collective Impact Roundtable, but that did not mean they were done with community engagement. Rather, community engagement was seen as a necessary, ongoing activity.

Although I did not recognize it at the time, I do wonder now if the good people in Kahnawake are involved in an uprising aimed at changing whatever needed to change to create a future of love, spirituality, cultural pride and meaning, and economic security for people, in particular for their children. I wonder if this uprising is not just about impacting external factors that harm Indigenous people. I wonder if the people themselves understand that they also create their own environment and are also barriers to change.

The design of collective impact is relatively easy. Lots has been written about how to do it. But the how of collective impact must be contextual to the why and include the recognition that we must change ourselves to get to where we want to be.

The resolution of intractable problems requires an uprising that is designed to raise all of us up from what we created that is harming us now. Collective impact is not about incremental change. It should be a rebellion against what stands in the way of transformational change. It should be a revolution that focuses on human rights and treating one another with kindness and accommodation (as per Nelson Mandela). It should be an effort that changes conditions that cause and perpetuate suffering and that changes who we are as individuals and as a community of people.

If collective impact is something less, good things will still happen, but the problems we want to address will remain intractable. If we label our actions as collective impact, but fail to execute its conditions and then work honestly to resolve what people want resolved, we may feel good about what we are doing, but I fear we will miss out on effecting the level and depth of community change that we aspire to achieve.

If we need to be recognized for our good work to the point of proclaiming our work as a movement when it is not, will such vanity ever allow us to embrace the importance of mustering up an uprising?

Is it possible to lead an uprising that is simultaneously against and for us? Against what we have created and for the new life we desire? It’s a tall order and I am not sure if we can pull that off. Sometimes I wonder if our persistent resistance to making transformative change is actually stronger than the forces that make poverty an intractable problem.

Still, that’s where the change we desire can be found or created. And if we can pull that off will we recognize that what we create is imperfect and in need of uprisings down the road to self-correct? Do we really believe in and commit to the eco cycle of change or is it little more than a diagram we ponder at conferences and workshops?

To not be a racist you have to know you are a racist. 

There’s so much I wish would change.

I am sure you feel the same way, too.

Problem is sometimes what I want to change are those that would, if they could, transform me into a variation of them. And, yeh, that’s about the same thing I want to do to them.

What is it about us that insists others should live as we want them to? Could it simply be arrogance or pride or that old self-aggrandizing, snide sense of entitlement? Why is it so many of us think the disenfranchisement of others is caused by some thing or somebody over there.?

I believe that who we are is a complex web of yin-yang attributes. Good and evil are coupled together. The same with love and hate. You get the picture. Who we are is about which we way we are pulled or influenced to lean. Sometimes we actually do not realize which way we turned or why.

Raise your hand if you are against racism.

Imagine asking that in a coliseum of 100,000 people. You would see 200,000 arms waving in the air.

It feels good. People are united in such moments but moments lead to others and hours later all of us have returned to the small circles of our lives. It is there in our small worlds where we are who we are – good, bad, ugly, or even worse. It’s there in our small circles where our fears and worries and lack of understanding weave within us a tightly wound ball of fear. We hate what others love and see light where others see darkness. We need our circles. Life there can be very good. Life there can be fucked up, too.

I live in a small circle, too. It is rich with people I value and trust, connected by a collective desire to make a difference in the lives of others (and of course our own). I want to think there is nothing about me that even hints of racism. I am sure others in my circle have a similar sentiment.

I won’t speak for them, but truth be told I have quickly judged another because of her accent or got hyper-focused when I noticed three Indigenous men walking toward me on a city sidewalk.

I have been confused by another’s culture or just been completely unaware of an unintentional clash of values or ritual. Haven’t you? How much of what we are afraid of is rooted in the dark, muddy pit of ignorance? And when that’s true, how possible is it to recognize it for what it is when we are in that state of mind?

When I was young lad in Chicago I was walking in River Park one late afternoon and noticed around the curve ahead there were three Hispanic men sitting on a picnic table drinking beer and laughing together as one of them rattled off a story.  They paid me no mind; they were in their own space, having fun, being friends. Even so, I thought of turning around and heading back to safer ground. (I chuckled when I wrote “safer ground” because as you well know there is no ground that is safe.)

I carried on. This fear I had was unfounded. As I walked one them caught my eye and nodded. I nodded back and smiled. An hour later I was playing poker with four university friends. Yeh, all white guys from middle class America (well, one of them had a rich Daddy) and what are we talking about?

We are talking about changing the world. We are talking about love and peace. And yep, we talked about women but as we talked about what we would “do” to Sally, or how hot the Jamaican girl in the back row in Ethics class would look in a maid’s outfit, it never crossed our minds that we were playing with evil. How easy it is to speak truth and live lies.

This will sound cliché but for many years my best friend in Chicago was black man. Not only that, he was taller than my six-foot-seven frame and both of us were buff and had personality that got noticed in the bars or at the diner and on the street. Taxi drivers would step on the gas when we were trying to wave them done.

Jim was a good man, a laid back, here I am, soft spoken gentle soul. I was a better man when I was with him. I am pretty sure if he were here he would  lean back in his leather chair and rub his grizzly beard, and with a small smile, say, “Back at you. Back at you.”

But we were big and strong and we had this serious look about us – think of the expression of a face so focused it spawns a scowl –that most others perceived as mean. We got wary looks at white bars and exactly the same when we drove south to hit a blues club.

One night a short, slender Vietnamese man came up to us at the bar. He was drunk. I am sure we were, too. He had this whimsical mien about him. He swallowed down some of his draft and leaned into us and said, “You two scare the shit out of me.”

Jim and I looked at each other. It was unexpected. He stood there watching us. I swear he was holding down a smile.

Jim and I turned to him. Jim said, “Let’s share a drink together.”

And so we did.  The story would be perfect if we all went on to become bosom buddies, but frankly, we were just three drunk men talking about whatever, drinking drafts and shots at the Wise Fool’s Pub on Lincoln Avenue.

Jim and I never talked about race. We talked about who we were, our histories, our ambitions, our experiences. We laughed, acted silly, enjoyed quiet times listening to John Coltrane or Fleetwood Mac back when they were a blues band. It was good. Our friendship was easy.

We shared our goodness. We heard each other’s biases and each us made remarks about other groups of people that, let’s just say, would not be used as best practice in a Diversity Training Manual.

Jim and I were racist, a black man and a white man with a bond between them – that racial contrast was our shared gift – but nevertheless we were racists.

And since then, if I am honest, I have feelings about others who seem so markedly different from me – feelings that carry worry about what I do not understand. Feelings that cast shade across the stereotypes I have created and nuture. Can I really say seeing the name of a Muslim man on a resume I am reviewing does not immediately frame how I approach what’s coming next?

Racism is quiet as often as it is loud. It can cause a hurricane of evil or permeate our senses like like the scent of a flower. It exists in the spaces between the words we use. It causes the heart to race and an eyebrow to raise.  You can taste it when you assure yourself you are not racist.

Today at the post office I stood behind a Somalian family. I smiled and said hello to their children, who turned out to be 8 years old and one. I talk to people in public places. The one-year-old was smiling at me. He looked at his father and then pointed at me. The father seemed nervous. How many times does a hulk of a white man talk to his children with care and respect?

“Your children are beautiful,” I said.

He smiled and for the next few minutes we talked about family and children, and how much we were enjoying the spring weather.

So, what do you think?

I am not saying my story is your story. I actually hope you are a better person than I am and please trust I think am doing okay as a human being.

Ask yourself some uncomfortable questions. Or don’t. No one will know either way – of course excluding you.

I will leave you with this:

We create differences. We experience people and want relationships that matter with other human beings. But often we don’t know how to reach out to those so near who live so far away in a culture and a language we cannot fathom and yet we want to engage. I believe this is true for most of us.We want to engage.

When we talk of differences we are really talking about what fuels humanity. What we call differences are actually synergies there for us to embrace together. Governments can’t legislate them into action. Human service programs won’t cure the distances we feel we must sustain because we can’t envision an alternative we can trust. Urban planners create an Area Redevelopment Plan that fosters good will and peace.

What needs doing can only be done by communities and is why governments and funders should invest resources in building community capacity and help foster community engagement that is not about a project but about connecting synergies that can be channeled into a collective voice that will not be denied a place at the table.

Try thinking about diversity and refraining from any mention of “differences.” Think about how we might talk about inclusion with little if any time spent talking about what separates us. Shouldn’t we dare to truly ask ourselves to what extent our impassioned work to honour diversity has actually widened the distance between us.

Asking upside down questions, even those – perhaps especially those – that are heretical and disruptive, questions that you wish would go away, is one way to kick start change. We have to shake ourselves sometimes. We need to shiver in the wet, cold air of struggle. We need to keep on walking when the rains fall and the wind rises and spins and turns us round and round.

We need to think differently. We need to invent new language. Changing our language helps new perceptions and ideas to emerge. If we want to change things, we need language that drives us forward, not settles us into that old comfy sofa of convention.

There’s so much I wish would change. I am sure you feel the same way, too. Problem is sometimes what I want to change are those that would, if they could, transform me into a variation of them. And, yeh, that’s about the same thing I want to do to them.

What is it about us that insists others should live as we want them to? Could it simply be arrogance or pride or that old self-aggrandizing and often snide sense of entitlement.

To not be a racist you have to know you are a racist.

Just imagine what could be possible if that was our starting point.


My Basketball Coach

I have always been tall and husky.  I was my current height, 6 foot 7 inches, in my freshman year of high school, and I was a basketball player and I was pretty good at that game. Back then a guy my size was automatically assigned the center position.  And that’s where my coach put me – in the center of the action. Today most guards in the pros are taller than I am.

I was a good passer and had a half decent hook shot and turn around jumper, but I felt out of sorts as the team’s center. I really wanted to play the forward position. I dribbled rather well for a big guy and I could shoot well from a distance.  In fact, I could hit from three-point range before there was a three-point rule. I knew I could score more and pass even better as a forward, but I said nothing.

Fortunately I had a coach who paid attention to his players. Each day before the official start of practice, I shot hoops and did some dribbling exercises. My coach was always there early as well and he saw over time that I was a high percentage shooter from the outside and that I could drive well to the basket when I had to.

When he told me he was moving to me to forward, I was averaging about 12 points a game, with 6 assists and about as many rebounds. As a forward, my average points per game doubled, assists rose to 10 a game, and I ended up being the second highest rebounder in the league. We were 2 and 2 when coach moved me. At the end of the year we were 12 and 3 and made the District Championship, winning it with a 20 footer at the buzzer. I was driving to the basket when I saw our point guard was all by his lonesome at the free throw line. I was half way to the hoop when I passed back to him. His shot rose into the air in slow motion and every player on the floor watched it float through the air and swish into the net as the buzzer buzzed.

Back then, it seemed like every coach discouraged the long game. They wanted lay ups and jump shots taken in the lane. That makes sense  but a good coach keeps an eye out for what can work best for the team, even if what works best defies common practice, defies the norm.

Truth be told, our players were successful with layups and short shots even more so than we had been because now they had a point guard and a forward that could shoot from the outside. That drew the defense out further and further and opened up other players for the easier shots.

My coach chose what would work best for the team, even though his choice was not conventional at the time. Instead of keeping me in the center position he worked with me to refine my jump shot. He taught me how to follow through with my wrist and how to put the proper spin on the ball.  He made me dribble more with my left hand because I wasn’t as good with my left as I was with my right. He worked with me to improve my talent.

My coach was the first leader in my life, after my father. What he taught me about the game of basketball contributed to who I am today and how I see what is going on around me.  I am grateful for his lessons and his willingness to believe in something different from what he was expected to believe in.

The day my coach told me he was moving me to forward, I told him that’s what I had hoped for but didn’t want to ask.

“How come?” He bounced the ball twice and added. “You should always speak up about how you think you can contribute.”

That was the biggest lesson of all.

Development as Community Strategy

Posted first on the blog of the Edmonton Community Development Company, where I am the Executive Director

In my first three months as the executive director of the Edmonton Community Development Company, I estimate I have had over 100 meetings, most of them being one to one conversations or small group discussions about the communities in which people live and/or work. We talked about community aspirations, community pain, and the plethora of ideas people and groups have and are working on to strengthen communities, in particular the people who reside in them.

I believe that change begins with conversation and that we must have conversations with others who see possibilities others don’t and who view challenges through a diversity of lenses.  One of my major goals has been – and will continue to be – understanding others, understanding what drives them, why they see the solutions they see, and also understanding our differences, and yes, our disparate perspectives on community change. Understanding one another may not always lead to agreement, but I daresay agreement is nigh impossible if we do not understand one another.
meeting-icon-clean1I also believe, based on my experience, understanding our differences is the only way we can resolve them. It’s not easy, is it? After all, don’t we come across others whose ideas rankle us, who advocate for actions we believe are misguided or just plain wrong? The challenge is how to hold up our difference and then work with them in order to find ways for us to move forward together. Roger Martin, who wrote the Opposable Mind, talks about how effective leaders are able to hold opposing ideas simultaneously in their minds and then work with them to foster new or better ideas and courses of action. His research indicates the importance of Integrative Thinking as a key approach to not settling on decisions that are the result of either-or choices. I infer that either-or choices are what create and sustain divisiveness and cause encampments based on rigid ideology.

I work in an environment steeped in history about, and memories of, community development – or in the context of my work, community economic development – that were driven by narrow self-interest or an inflexible devotion to a particular focus that did not gel with others. In the Boyle-McCauley neighborhood, we see how development has impacted area residents. These neighborhoods are where an inordinate percentage of housing stock is social housing, special needs housing, and shelters. The impacts of a high number of human service institutions also being located in these neighbourhoods are significant. Not only do residents experience the symptoms of homelessness (drugs, needles, drunkenness, human waste, vandalism, etc.), the high incidence of these realities deter others from developing businesses or market housing or from otherwise investing in urban core neighborhoods.


I have met with and talked with many residents of urban core neighbourhoods and I have not heard anyone suggest that services to the homeless or to others who are living in poverty should not exist. What I do hear is that residents want balance. They want Edmonton as a whole to share the responsibility of addressing social problems. They do not feel they should have to take on the lion’s share of hosting solutions to these problems. I think that’s fair. It is not about Nimbyism and frankly it is not about moving residents to a culture of Yimbyism (i.e. Yes in my back yard!). Nimbyism is typically a pejorative term that those wanting to do development assign to their opposition. It becomes  a broad brush stroke used to paint those who disagree with development as unreasonable, self-serving if not selfish. It fosters a stereotype that avoids the underlying issues that I suggest are worthy of address. Is there not rationale at times for those who do not want a development in their back yard?

And Yimbyism. Here is the risk: that this term reflects a movement to persuade residents to say “yes” to development that they do not want. I recall attending a workshop put on by a group with community engagement expertise. They were promoting how to get residents to say “yes” to development. Without going into all the content, it felt to me like the workshop was more about persuasion, if not manipulation, when community engagement should be about seeking common ground. I realize purists will say this is the purpose of Yimbyism; however, my warning is that all of this could become nothing more than two ideas in opposition to each other that focus more on getting to what “I” want than to what “we should do together.”

Development should be a community strategy, not just the strategy of entrepreneurs. In the context of my work, development in a community should not be what I think it should be. I see my role to be one that is centered on understanding what community wants and what community wants is not just about aspirations, it is also about addressing the pains that community residents are experiencing. What I have been hearing from all those I am meeting and talking to has reinforced my belief that communities require and deserve strategic development in their areas of town.

Here are some examples of what I mean:

Many, if not most, urban core neighbourhoods are lacking in anchor institutions or businesses like mainstream grocery stores, financial institutions. child care, and so on. Many of their main streets suffer from boarded up or dilapidated store fronts or empty lots. In areas of town where lower-income people live are where pawn shops, pay-day lending businesses, and other businesses abound that deliver costly services or products (e.g. mini-marts) to people who face daily financial struggles. Sometimes there are bars along the main street in which drugs are sold and other crimes occur. What residents are telling me is that want help in re-developing empty store fronts, help with building on empty lots, and help with getting rid of unwanted gathering places where crimes take place. They want the development we undertake to be strategic, to address problem properties and reinvent those spaces into developments that not only reflect community interests and aspiration but that result in creating more possibilities for future development.

Food security is a common theme I am hearing about. Residents do not want to live in food deserts. They want more choice than the unhealthy foods offered by mini-marts at expensive prices. They want opportunities to grow food and to see in their neighborhoods the social, health, and economic impacts of a farmer’s market or opportunities to create local enterprises that contribute to enhanced food security. They want to see more jobs in their neighborhoods and more housing that attracts new residents to their part of town.

Residents are telling me they want us to be strategic about what properties we purchase and redevelop. They want us to  redevelop boarded up homes or repurpose a dwelling that takes advantage of its tenants. They want development that adds to the possibility of young people or people of modest means to actually be able to own a home.

The Edmonton Community Development Company was not created just to do development. It exists to be a strategic developer that does its best to act on community needs and interests. Residents don’t want us to come into their neighborhood to sell them our solutions. They want us to work with them to foster development that enriches their lives as a community. And that is exactly what we are committed to doing.

Yeah, I know. We won’t please everyone. There will be limits to what we can pull off, but we are going to try. I promise.

Some Days Are Rich!

Some days are rich. I meet and talk with incredible people, people working hard to make positive change in their (in our) community. Yesterday I met with a delightful woman who is working with others to craft innovative approaches to ending racism. Ending racism is one of the game-change strategies of End Poverty Edmonton. Can you imagine how much better life would be if people celebrated our differences rather than lashed out at them?

I met with another inspiring woman who is leading major development in our city, dedicated to creating change with a clear commitment to, and passion for, doing so in ways that respect and honour the ideas, wishes, and concerns of local residents. Imagine if all major development in our city was founded on authentic community engagement by leaders and doers who believe that all development is ultimately about people.

And I spend two hours with the CEO of a major human service organization. We explored possibilities of partnership and alignment with respect development that would not only benefit their clients but would enrich the lives of the community in which his agency lives. We explored how we might increase food security in the area, create needed child care space, create living wage jobs, and develop or renovate housing, again not just for his clients but for the community: affordable but also market housing.

I drove home at the end of the day, energized and hopeful and even more so committed to undertaking work at my non-profit organization, the Edmonton Community Development Company, that will strengthen neighbourhoods, add to their local economies, while fostering relationships and trust to do more and more of the kinds of development that put people first.

Thanks to those 3 people for inspiring me.

Automobile-Centric Development and Parking Requirements

Cross posted – also available at
Please consider following that blog if you want to keep up to date on my work at the Edmonton Community Development Company.


Strong Towns is an American movement that a colleague turned me on to the other day,  and it is not only a provocative movement, it offers an array of new thinking about the rules that cities and towns have when it comes to development, whether housing and business development or the inclusion of city services in an area like a recreational centre.

One thing that really caught my eye was the case made by Strong Towns to abolish parking requirements for new development.

One article provided a bit of a case study around thinking differently about parking in a town called Standpoint. A large bank wanted to build a branch in a neighbourhood that had historical significance. That development, according to the “rules” would have to provide 200 parking spots for the development to be approved. Alternatively, the bank could pay $10,000 per parking space not created. While such payment seems cost prohibitive to a development, the irony is that the parking requirement (apparently in place for the good of the community) could be bought off. This suggests that money trumps what is good for the community (according to the rules) or it could mean that this parking requirement was not all that necessary.

The bank bought a pizzeria and tore it down, but still did not have sufficient parking, so it began exploring buying a café and other businesses to meet the requirement. In other words city rules indicated that for the bank to be a viable development, other businesses (i.e. small businesses) would be torn down. Not really a desired economic development result, is it? And certainly not indicative of policy and rules that support small business development.

Interestingly there was a city owned parking lot a block away from the bank’s intended site, but that had no bearing on the rules. But my guess is that a bank and its patrons are not all that interested in customers having to walk a block to do their banking. As consumers, we want the convenience of parking right by the places we spend or, in this case, keep our money.

That said, in the Edmonton context, and our collective desire to foster more walkable neighbourhoods, shouldn’t we come to terms with how that goal might conflict with our conventional views of parking requirements? If our environmental concerns are to be actionable, don’t those concerns indicate that actions are necessary to reduce automobile-centric development?

In the end, to keep the story here short (read it all here), creative minds came up with an alternative solution. The parking requirements were reduced to the parking the bank had already created through demolishing the pizza business, without any in lieu payments, and instead the bank agreed to include a business incubator in its development, which apparently is so successful that the bank promotes it as part of its community programming.

This seems like a win-win-win from where I am sitting. The bank gets its development without destroying additional businesses, avoids paying the in lieu of parking penalty, and creates a needed economic service in the area that benefits local entrepreneurs.

While I am not yet decided on where I stand about the abolishment across the board of parking requirements, I suggest we need to tie together goals (like reducing reliance on automobiles and creating more walkable neighbourhoods) and also perhaps be more analytical about parking. For example, during the day many people leave their neighbourhoods to go to work and currently  the far majority do so in their cars. This frees up parking for business that operate during the day. At night these businesses close and the residents return home. In other words, the demand for parking changes with the time of day and should be considered by a municipal government in terms of the rules it wishes to put into place related to development.

Our current requirements of parking tends to favour large developments by large institutions that have the means to include the parking expense in their business development or expansion plans. They can, if necessary, buy up land to accommodate the parking requirements and sometimes in the process destroy other businesses. Small businesses cannot afford to do this. Not only that, small businesses become stuck at their current size because the cost of expansion, which includes creating a place for cars.

In a city where the goal is to improve environmental conditions, advance walkability, and foster more use of public transit, perhaps it is time to review and adapt parking requirements, if not abolish them altogether.

Perhaps seeing a development as a single entity subject to rules only about its own existence, we should be looking at shared parking requirements across developments and consider the demand for parking at various times of the day. Perhaps consumers need to change their expectations of parking at the front door of a bank or another business. And perhaps a rethink of parking requirements will actually foster more development that benefits a neighbourhood beyond the purpose of said development and increases the tax base for the municipal government.

Suggested Reading

What happens when you fill your city with parking? Lots and lots of low value land, and not much else.

Send this video to anyone who needs a crash course in why parking minimums are a major problem for American cities.

My city leaders keep insisting we need more parking. How can I, as a citizen, make the case for less?

We’ve built too much of the wrong stuff in the wrong places and market demand may never catch up or reinvent these landscapes.

Whether you’re a city staffer, nonprofit leader or just a strong citizen who cares, there’s something you can do to advocate for an end to parking minimums in your town.

O Canada and the Mathematics of Change

I just read in the paper Canada is changing its national anthem to make it gender neutral though I prefer “gender inclusive.” Real change means changing our symbols and our icons when necessary to reflect society’s ever changing sensibilities.

I imagine there will be some kafuffle about this. Traditionalists will articulate traditionalist stuff, rationalizing where there is no longer rationale, if there ever was any. The reactions of many others will be something akin to a shrug of the shoulder or a 1-second read on Facebook, a click on Like, and a scroll down to a video of someone’s barking dog.

Some of us will sit before our humongous flat screens and  watch 4-headed debates that are a testimony to the betrayal of the word, “expert.”  I have never really learned anything listening to talking heads, other than the ends to which people will go to not make one whit of positive difference to what is happening in the world.

Still others will say the changes did not go far enough. The song remains “Christian” and therefor unrepresentative of the Canadian reality when it comes to religion. A few might argue any reference to religion should be struck out, end of story. Yes, there is more to figure out, but not changing until the change is complete is not how change works. You don’t lose 10 pounds and criticize the change because you have 40 more pounds to lose. It’s the same thing with transformational, societal change, just more complicated.

And many others, thank goodness, will have a little dance, if not raise a fist into the air. It’s about time. How we see one another must change. I know. There has been progress, but not enough; so, there is work to do.  How we talk to, about, and with one another has to  change. Talking for others has to change as well, perhaps most of all. Once the Canada’s gender-inclusive national anthem is official, the flag will wave its Maple Leaf above the same landscape it did the day before. Gender biases, disdain for the impoverished and the different, hatred of Indigenous people — all of that  and so much more like it will rear their ugly heads like monsters in a bad dream that continues even when we wake up.

We are still just waking up. It’s very early in the morning. Let’s greet the decision to change our national anthem as something more than an editorial statement or, worse, nothing more than the sum of so many markups from what we expect these days in an excellent proof reader.  We are not making this change because it is the right thing to do as much as we are making the change because things are not right and most Canadians are tired of it. Most Canadians want to be better than that. Than this.

So, the morning after the legislation becomes effective, sit on the edge of your bed, have a stretch and let loose your morning sigh or groan and take a look out the window to check the weather like you always do. But regardless of the cold front’s persistence or a clearing sky,  that day will be a new day – another new day.

Change is made one act at a time, one day at a time. New days are generative. They create more new days and the more new days we create, the more there are. Ironic, don’t you think? The human change we need and deserve eventually comes down to mathematics.

(Oh, my data-crazed friends and colleagues are going to love this.)

Upside Down Thinking about Funding and Funders

Funders should apply to community agencies to fund them.

Can you get your head around that?

I know. Funders won’t do that, but imagine if they did.

What would that look like?

Why would that approach be more impactful and cost-effective than current practice?

Would this upside down version of funding foster more partnerships?

Would there be a transformative power-shift?

I am as certain as you are we will never have a ubiquitous funding system where funders write proposals to community groups hoping to be chosen to invest in their work. But perhaps innovative ideas have more of a chance when we suspend certainty and embrace a wild idea or allow ourselves a bit of time to consider a heretical proposition. Continue reading Upside Down Thinking about Funding and Funders

Data and Wisdom

When we look to another for wisdom, it is not data that we seek.

We want more than information; we need more.

We deserve more.

Data sends signals, whether standing on its own before us  or alongside of  its counterparts on a trend line or a scatter diagram.

Data may be objective, though I tend to think not. Data on its own is just data; for it to have meaning requires our engagement of it. How could it be “objective”? Continue reading Data and Wisdom

Freedom of Choice and Human Rights

Your freedom of choice (or mine) does not trump the human rights of another.

Human rights are  fundamentally and legislatively enshrined and set the stage for how we live together. Human rights are hardwired into our collective identity. The very act of challenging the human rights of another human being is, in effect, questioning or challenging who you are as a human being living with other human beings.

In Alberta, legislation has been passed that will no longer allow child-free rental housing in the province. The fact that legislation was in effect forced upon the government by a Court of Queen’s Bench judgement is fodder for another posting. However, the fact that Albertans are debating the legislation is disturbing. Continue reading Freedom of Choice and Human Rights

About Collective Impact: Types of Problems, Degrees of Change, Learning Loops, and Methods of Thinking

Collective Impact is multi-sector approach to large-scale collaboration that is authentically inclusive of citizens in its development and implementation – in particular citizens who have life-experience with the big problems or issues being addressed, such as poverty, climate change, family violence, and so many more.

Collective Impact is not an approach aimed at creating program changes among a few agencies or undertaking collaboration in order to compete with other community initiatives. Rather, it tends to be focused on efforts to leverage talents, existing services, innovations, and resources in order to effect significant changes to policies and systems and where needed, significant programmatic changes. Such changes might occur within governments or government-run institutions, within education and health institutions, within business, or within service providers.

At recent sessions and workshops I held in Vancouver (Community Change Institute) and in Edmonton (Upside Down Thinking) , I shared a perspective on three types of problems identified by Brenda Zimmerman and how they connect to three types of change, three types of learning, and various types of thinking required in addressing each type of problem. My intent is to help our collective thinking about significant problems/issues facing our communities.

Simple problems are those we can fix easily and are sometimes called kaizen (the Japanese word for “continuous improvement”). Solutions to these kinds of problems are akin to tweaking a recipe or adjusting a process to improve quality or reliability of performance. Typically such changes are incremental. Continue reading About Collective Impact: Types of Problems, Degrees of Change, Learning Loops, and Methods of Thinking

Why are we here?

Such a simple question, four small words that get at the core of our community change work.

It’s not a question confined to a step in a visioning or planning process. It’s place is within us, no matter where we are going or if we are standing still.

It’s not just a question about purpose or vision. It is also inquiry into who we are and how coming together around something that matters to all of us might change us. After all, change of any size is made by people; the changes they make only occur because of the changes within themselves. Continue reading Why are we here?

35 Voices On Collaborative Leadership and Co-Creating Cities of the Future

C lick Paper to Download

In July and August, I sought out individuals in my personal and professional network to contribute to a major paper I was writing on Collaborative Leadership and Co-Creating Cities of the Future. I sought out participation through Facebook, via a survey which I promoted in emails and through Twitter.

The paper was released last week at Tamarack’s Community Change Institute. It’s not a coincidence that it was titled: Cities of the Future: Co-Creating Tomorrow.

I have to say I was so pleased with the participation and the depth and range of responses. The narrative written by participants was so compelling, at least half of the paper is written in their own   words and the remainder is presented in aggregate, through summary commentary. I do admit I might have thrown in my own point of view here and there, but the paper truly is one example of co-creation. Continue reading 35 Voices On Collaborative Leadership and Co-Creating Cities of the Future

Working yet Homeless in Banff, Alberta

Banff, Alberta. Located in one of the most beautiful areas in Canada. People come from all over the world by the bus loads. There is money being made for sure. Nothing wrong with making money, right?

The hotel industry does alright. I perused hotels there via Expedia and most of the rooms available were $400 to $500 per night. Then there’s all the restaurants and bars, the tourist shops, art galleries, the rafting experiences, horseback riding, and on and on.

Life is good in Banff. Good for business people. Good for visitors who can afford to be there. But what about the workers at the clothing stores, or at the restaurants, or the ones who clean the rooms at the $500 per night hotel? Continue reading Working yet Homeless in Banff, Alberta

Disruptive Innovation: a Type of Upside Down Thinking

Upside Down Thinking has a relationship with Disruptive Thinking and Disruptive Innovation, but they are not merely different descriptors of the same thing. You can read a previous posting I did a while back on Upside Down Thinking; this posting is about Disruptive Innovation.

Disruptive Innovation has its roots in the private sector. The concept was first articulated by Harvard professor, Clayton Christensen in 1995 who defined it as “an innovation [that] transforms an existing market or sector by introducing simplicity, convenience, accessibility, and affordability where complication and high cost are the status quo. Initially, a disruptive innovation is formed in a niche market that may appear unattractive or inconsequential to industry incumbents, but eventually the new product or idea completely redefines the industry.” [1]

According to Christensen, there are two fundamental aspects of a disruptive innovation. It either provides a low cost alternative aimed at a segment of the market that the dominate players are not focusing on; or it actually creates a brand new market that is also typically a lower cost alternative in the market place

Consider the disruptive innovation that changed how we “rent” movies. Remember Blockbuster? Continue reading Disruptive Innovation: a Type of Upside Down Thinking