Collaboration for Community Impact

by Jamie Bonczyk and Hannah Riddle de Rojas

*Supporting graphics can be found in the pdf version of this article.


*Figure 1: Creating a Shared Vision and Expectation can be found in the pdf version of this article.

 

Our first article, “Building Our Capacity for Curiosity, Compassion, and Courage” came out in the January/February, 2019 issue of Exchange. When we wrote that article, we were reconciling our experiences grappling with the big questions facing the field. Each of us had sat at different metaphorical tables and witnessed interactions and dynamics that seemed to be hindering progress. In the last two years we have found ourselves coming back to the dispositions of curiosity, compassion, and courage, time and time again.

The precarious position of child care, mixed with a global pandemic, created new challenges. In these challenges, we both gained opportunities to participate in collaborative efforts to create meaningful impacts in the lives of children, families, and practitioners. During this time, our mentors challenged us. Roz Zuest, a colleague and mentor, encouraged reflection. As she says, “Is what you are doing together efficient, effective, and equitable?” Through the reflective process we came to the conclusion that curiosity, compassion, and courage serve us not only in individual leadership, but also in systems change. 

If you want to go quickly, go alone.
If you want to go far, go together.
                               
African Proverb 

Curiosity as a Form of Awareness Building

“We cannot possibly change or grow what we cannot ‘see’.”
                               —J.D. Daniel, Ph.D.

Often, different people or organizations come together to solve problems, making it critical to set the stage for shared understanding. This includes being clear about the scope of the work and how it relates to the goals and motives of each entity. Curiosity is one tool that can help identify the root cause, or the need to collaborate. When coming together to explore questions like those listed in Figure 1, everyone benefits. The process makes the assumptions, understandings and motives that influence the group’s dynamic clear. Also important is to remain open-minded while the group collectively addresses the answers to these questions. Naturally, each of these questions likely impacts the organizations and communities we serve. As such, feelings and emotions may be strong. The practice of being open-minded allows you to assess any resistance with respect, kindness, and empathy. 

It can be very frustrating to arrive at a meeting or work session and find that there is disconnect. Many times the disconnect is related to underlying motives. It is easy to make the assumption that everyone is working toward the same goal. It is also easy to assume that everyone has the same information, context, and purpose. While coming together to discuss these questions is uncomfortable, not being clear can create unnecessary burdens. As Brené Brown neatly explains, “Being clear is kind, being unclear is unkind” (Brown, 2018).

Here are four considerations as you read through the table of questions derived to spark curiosity: 

  • Do your research and show up prepared. It is likely that the work you are doing is influenced by a number of outside factors. Understanding the systems landscape that impacts your issue can help you see the issue from other perspectives, and foster increased understanding when the solutions are not easy or clear cut. Do some investigating online or in your networks. Consider whether or not there is research that has been done on the topic.
  • Actively listen. While in conversations, repeat back to yourself (or your colleagues) your understanding of what they are saying. New ideas can be a great way to expand your worldview, and can bring about opportunities that you might not have been exposed to otherwise. 
  • Understand the standards of practice. In “Extraordinary Outcomes: Shaping an Otherwise Unpredictable Future,” authors Iris R. Firstenberg and Moshe F. Rubinstein list the following universal values that are fundamental for “creating a team with one mind that is focused on purpose and equipped to achieve extraordinary outcomes”: trust, respect, integrity, empathy, inclusion, and communication.
  • Do not fear discomfort. Author Ijeoma Oluo cautions that we should all be wary of comfort. Lean into discomfort when working in collaboration with others, especially if your effort is aiming to address systemic injustice in the field of early childhood education. If you are uncomfortable, you are likely learning and growing.

Compassionate Communication 

Compassionate communication prioritizes the connection between people and fostering understanding. Many times this looks like stepping out of the “expert” role and communicating humbly. Compassionate communicators are attuned to their audience, considering what the other person might be experiencing. This includes being sensitive to that experience and ensuring that the emotional climate is safe. Are breaks offered when emotions run high? Leaders foster compassionate communication when they model how to regulate themselves and maintain clarity. Compassionate communication acknowledges the lived experience that people bring to the issue, and avoids speculation. As Toma Ramirez writes, “Rather than blindly believing or denying what someone else says, or assuming that you disagree, find out for yourself if you believe something or not.”

Compassionate communicators are aware of the level of language they use, aiming to speak in plain English. Other considerations include defining acronyms and using inclusive terms to describe people. We advocate for using people-first language in compassionate communication. People First Language is used commonly when discussing disability/ability (Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, n.d.,) however, it can also be applied to other social identities. Notice the difference between saying “marginalized communities” and “communities that have been marginalized.” The word order we use implies where the emphasis is, and in some cases where the responsibility lies. PFL allows us to prioritize people in our communication. It also makes power systems clear as well, referring back to our question, “Whose voice is centered?”

Overall, compassion is key to moving our initiatives forward and it requires practice. Not only is this good for your fellow person, but it can be life-changing for you as well.

Courageous Collaboration

“Social courage involves standing up at the risk of social embarrassment, ostracism, rejection, or being unpopular for the sake of a belief, opinion, perspective, cause, or action.”
                                —Ryan Haddon

Courageous collaboration disrupts the status quo. Questioning the status quo can be uncomfortable. Many people are not ready to wrestle with the underlying power systems and dynamics that prevent meaningful progress; in our experience, almost all of these dynamics are rooted in whiteness. Being courageous requires asking questions—even if they are uncomfortable. In courageous collaborations, people address questions such as, what are the power dynamics here? Whose voices and experiences are centered in these conversations? Whose voices are missing?

In this most recent wave of diversity, equity and inclusion attention, there is more awareness of the many communities who have been systematically left out. The usual fixes, such as hiring interpreters, translating materials or adding a board member who comes from a marginalized community, do little to create lasting change or shift paradigms. 

Perhaps one of the most powerful questions, and one that we collectively need to ask more frequently, is “Is this our work to do?” Consider the population that the collaboration serves, and whether or not the organizations or people present have lived insight and experience with the issue at hand. All organizations have their limitations, and if there is not genuine connection to the community, even well-intentioned efforts might miss the mark. For example, if the goal is to serve a community that speaks another language, do the organizations have folks from that community at the decision making table? Are there people on staff, and on the ground doing the work, who speak the language and share in the community’s culture? Courageous collaboration calls on leaders to know their limits, and discern their place in the work.

In closing, the events of the past two years have brought new insights and learning about the place of curiosity, compassion and courage in our leadership practice. In the coming years, many emerging and experienced leaders in the field will be called on to exercise their systems-thinking skills. We hope that asking ourselves the hard questions, while practicing curiosity, compassion and courage, will help us create long lasting, meaningful impact for children and families. 

References

Brown, B. (2021, October 28). Clear Is Kind. Unclear Is Unkind. Brené Brown. brenebrown.com

Collective Impact Forum. (n.d.).
What Is Collective Impact?
collectiveimpactforum.org

Moseley, C. (n.d.). 6 crucial collaboration skills (and how to foster them). Jostle. blog.jostle.me

Oluo, I. (October, 2021).  Moving forward through honest conversations about race. 19th Annual It’s Time to Talk: Forums on Race™. Keynote conducted at the YWCA, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

People First Language. (n.d.). Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities. gcdd.org

Plastrik, P., Taylor, M., & Cleveland, J. (2014). Connecting to Change the World: Harnessing the Power of Networks for Social Impact (None ed.). Island Press.

Ramirez, T. (2019, October 16). In Conflict, Open-mindedness is Key. Evoke Leadership.
evokeleadership.com

Rubinstein, M.F. & Firstenberg, I.R. (2014). Extraordinary Outcomes: Shaping an Otherwise Unpredictable Future (1st ed.). Wiley.

SDI. (2020, October 15). SDI. Sustained Dialogue Institute. sustaineddialogue.org

 

Sidebar

Collaboration: working cooperatively with others to produce or create something you cannot do as well alone.

Collaborative relationships have the power to create change, to break down silos and to challenge institutions, structures, systems, and prejudices.

What collaboration is not: Group projects where one person leads and tells others what to do (who’s been here?!) 

Hierarchical 

Where the dominant narrative and voice is centered and ultimately
chosen by default 

Community Impact creates a social return on investment by designing and implementing strategic funding and intervention efforts to improve the well-being of children, youth and families.

 

Author Bios

Jamie Bonczyk is a leader in early childhood education who strives to create social-impact networks, change initiatives, and partnerships that create sustainable health and education outcomes for children, families, and educators. Bonczyk lives with her family in Richfield, Minnesota, where she works with Greater Twin Cities United Way (gtcuw.org) as a program officer for “80x3: Resilient from the Start” — an innovative region-wide initiative to increase capacity to build parenting skills and provide trauma-sensitive early child care in a safe, stable environment that supports child resiliency. She is an adjunct instructor at University of Wisconsin-Stout, where she teaches the course “children, family, and the community.” Bonczyk has a bachelor’s from Minnesota State University Moorhead and a master’s from Roosevelt University, both in early childhood education.

 

Hannah Riddle de Rojas is a project manager at the center for early education and development at the University of Minnesota and an adjunct faculty member at St. Paul College. Her experience has been mostly working in bilingual settings (Spanish/English), co-founding the program SolBe Learning in Boston, Massachusettes, and Semillitas Training in Minnesota. Riddle de Rojas was named an Exchange Leader in 2018. She earned her master’s in adult ESL education at Hamline University and has a bachelor’s in child psychology and Spanish studies from the University of Minnesota.