The other day I had a wonderful reminder of a beautiful time in our city through the Connected Corridor project funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. I was the Project Director and I seriously was given a project with no vision, mission, goals or objectives. I was even told, "it is okay if we fail at it because then we could write why it didn't work." Well, I am not one to willingly sign up for anything to fail and so I set my intentions on making it relevant to the people that classified our city on a national level as the "most diverse city of our nation in 2005." With this diversity distinction we had multiple languages, religions, socioeconomic status', ethnicities, and political views. How to create a framework to bring people together to not only work together, but get to know one another. No one had ever attempted this, instead it is "what we will do for them" and I wanted my leadership to be a reflection in the expansion of people through understanding self and others. This came from my life experiences and then was further enhanced in my thesis work at Pepperdine University's Educational Leadership Academy where I worked diligently from my readings of the greats! Zander & Zander, Takaki, Covey, Maxell, Heifetz, Delpict, and the list goes on!
It wasn't an easy task, because I had not one, but three boards to report to. The funding board the most receptive to my work because after all, they were very entrepreneurial in their grant making dollars wanting to push the envelope to see what we can do for connecting people to information for engagement and purpose. Also, to ellevate people into citizen journalism roles and to become leaders of their neighborhoods and future communities. In respect to the other two boards well there was sometimes ego struggles coming from each. The community foundation board was seventy-five percent in support and twenty-five percent not thinking citizens of the city were "capable of their own leadership." Fortunately for me the numbers were in my favor to give me the "wiggle room" I needed to push for change and the concept that "we do for them to empowering others to think and do for themselves." A big aspect of this was giving them open access to information including data by Rethinking Long Beach. Up until then, I didn't realize data on populations wasn't shared with the citizens, but kept at a higher level of leadership and not shared with the people. So we added more data to share including the data I was collecting for months prior to meeting with large forums of people to share and then ask the important questions.
Is this information correct?
Can you please add to the data?
What is your experience with this data?
Is there anything that you feel is wrong and needs to be corrected to represent the people of your community, your neighborhood?
Is this data a true reflection? If not, what do we need to further collect in data to make this authentic to where you live, work, play and pray?
It was instrumental in building the buy-in and how we go about working together and not apart from each other. Celebrating our diversity and breaking down the city's "ivory towers" for all to be one and one to be all.
The third board I had to report to was a leadership group that had a lot of trouble with the concept of a "free flowing democracy model" for citizens to be openly involved in the decisions of their life. I asked their Executive Director once, "What gives? This board is actually benefiting from the project to keep their doors open, but for some reason they have such detest or is it confusion about what we are doing. How can I get them engaged or connected to the Connected Corridor Project?" His reply, was "You are like the other woman. Just keep doing what you are doing and eventually they will get on board with you and if not, you still will have success since you are truly representing the people and expanding their opportunities through this important work." I took that as my cue to follow my heart and have a heart driven purpose in all that I do with this project despite the fact that sometimes my board presentations felt like I was being set up to. be fired at for the freedoms I allowed our project had in healing and building allies with one another as neighbors of one big city. My courage was the momentum we were building. Throughout I had to be authentic to myself too. I knew my heart was pure in intention to help connect people to people and people to resources including the making of data readily available for all.
When asked what was the best part of it all? Honestly, I think the most significant accomplishment of the Connected Corridor project was the authentic Round Tables of pure conversations. I held spaces for citizens to come together to speak honestly from their hearts. I always invited local police, principals (K-12), faith-based leaders, local media outlets (community news) and even librarians for them to not be the "talking heads" or the "experts" in the room, but to learn from the community firsthand their knowledge, their insights, their needs and their frustrations too. I went out of my way to get to know everyone in each of my four phases of the project. Especially taking the time to have sincere conversations throughout the city learning all that I could about what makes up a city by its people and neighborhoods. The typical joke by the end of these "getting to know" periods which could take months, everyone was thinking I was running for a "political office" which I was not. This was refreshing for everyone to know that genuinely I wanted to get to know everyone so I could help facilitate getting to know each other in a deeper and bigger context. Neighbors never meeting their own neighbors but in any cases had issues with each other did make sense and was part of the data I was collecting. How was that possible, but it was! By having the time to interview, coffee talk, get yelled at, yes yelled at, I could then know how to best cater to them to design and create their customized Round Tables not a "one size fits all." Once we opened the space for genuine talks, people found their own solutions to their issues and problems with each other. It often was just a misunderstanding and once each side had a chance to open up and talk or debate, I can say we always walked away with a better feeling of each other. Also, it was my responsibility to introduce citizens to their data that was on a city level categorizing them and they had no inception of it either. That was a big a-ha to the work as well.
Once we assembled in our Round Tables we needed the ground rule to be “respect” so that everyone could “get off their chest” what they needed to say. The only agenda as that everyone participated had to stay the full length of time. This was a hurdle for me to get over with some board members, but I stuck to it and it worked out each time for the people. Everyone had up to 10 minutes to talk and there was no hierarchy as to "elected officials getting to go first." The men and women of the police department had to make provisions to be there because our Round Tables could go on for 1 to 3 hours depending on open conversation time. I did try to limit it to 15 to 20 people and not everyone took their full 10 minutes.
Then once everyone had the floor at the table to speak we opened up for discussions. Sometimes opened up for arguments. Were the conversations easy? No way! Some could be pretty angry, but we had a set of guidelines to give permission for each person to speak by our active listening and note taking so that in itself I think helped keep the respect level engaged throughout our time. Again, there was no hierarchy as the elected officials didn’t get to go first and I feel this in itself gave everyone such empowerment knowing they will be heard too! Initially many board members and some elected officials were very uncomfortable with my set up of this, but their discomfort turned to a new understanding of each citizen of Long Beach on a very personal level which eventually allowed everyone to have a gift in relating to one another. It was “the magic” of the Connected Corridor that I was blessed to lead.
Sadly, once the grant funding was said to be over at the community foundation level, “they” rolled up the rug to support this important initiative and to continue onto other corridors. They never kept their promise to organize a conclusion or celebration of all four phases. To this day, I'm very disappointed by this. Not sure why and I'm thinking if we had continued the momentum of the people and the Round Tables our city would look very different today. In a better light of respect and understanding for one another. Also, true neighborhood leaders and a familiarity with who we are as a diverse people.
I do have to mention, years later someone else tried to duplicate my “round table” concept, but they were narrow sighted and missing the “secret ingredient.” Instead they created it to be the old “talking head show" segregating how people could talk. That old "I know what is good for you" model that to me is disrespectful on every level. Sadly I am told they received $75,000 in a grant for a cheap imitation of the "round table" concept. Missing that our Connected Corridor Round Tables that were a true gateway of human expansion and not "let's cage the conversations" in fear of not knowing what can come out in open conversations.
My original idea simply came from me wanting to bring the people of my city together! Especially for us to be inclusive and feel that we are a TEAM- Together Everyone Achieves More. Once we did that to elevate ourselves in storytelling, citizen journalism, neighborhood leadership and data access for democracy to thrive. Again, I based a lot of my work and the inception of my ideas to books I read on cultural proficiency, leadership, change agents, community development, leadership without easy answers, etc. During my masters program at Pepperdine University’s Educational Leadership program, I read and wrote on 22 books in 11 months! So for me, I was almost a little ridiculous in how excited I was to share open spaces to justify the need for civilians to be in charge of their community needs and for them to know firsthand how to connect to resources and people in their city. The Connected Corridor was nothing more than a space for us to live those theories together. Trying it out for size, each one!
For change to happen, we need to get uncomfortable. We need more intimate spaces to actually have deeper conversations of everyone talking that reflects the neighborhood and not feeling we are limited to share our inner feelings, even the unpopular ones. Full transparency is only when people allow everyone to speak with no restrictions or guidance but free flowing hearts plus access to data. For me, these Round Tables allowed more intimacy of a human condition that I had ever witnessed in my life and back then (2007 to 2011) we needed it. We were not deep in conversation of the then economic recession, we were deep into the understanding of ourselves and each other! How empowering is that! To grow out of the ashes by feeling connected to each other in a purposeful way!
As part of the projects goals and objectives, I helped create the framework to include: education connections, small business development, arts & culture, workforce development, and technology which included media. These areas of focuses were the fire in my belly to empower our citizens to have equal access and more importantly to be engaged in these areas for themselves and their families as part of their toolbox for a thriving community life. Having people engaged in a self leadership role was instrumental and my true charge in leading this project as their Project Director. I was doing Collins' 5th Level Leadership, which is to help master the ability to give the reins to the people, the future leaders, to take over when the project ended. Instead, the funding stopped and the door closed without a hint or glance back. Everyone once in awhile, there is a glimmer of someone still doing that inclusive work, sharing of data, and working to find ways to "break down silos" and work together, but not as often as I personally feel we need.
What I learned is that sometimes painful hearts needed to shed the light so we could all come out of our darkness of limited vision. I have all the action research on these “round tables” and I suppose I could resurrect it again, but I would need local support to do that. Or do I? It doesn't have to take place in my city but any city because the blueprint for this I have written. It is customizable as I stated for any neighborhood and we can grow together in unity with our collective differences being respected and heard as fuels to work together as a TEAM - Together Everyone Achieves More.
Food for thought.
Wondering what to do with it, now that we are living the times that we are living today. How to start the conversations whether peaceful or agitated, but all with a common goal that we need to find a way to be ONE again.