“A Very Intense and Complex Balancing Act”

in Organizing

Excerpts from “A Very Intense and Complex Balancing Act” – a Reflection by Oakland Making Connections Coordinator Fred Blackwell via Site Stories.

The local people who took on the role of coordinating the Making Connections work in the 10 sites faced a great challenge: how to pull together and be an advocate for local people and organizations while also being the connecting point between the local work and the national foundation that was supporting the work, the Annie E. Casey Foundation. One of the first coordinators was Fred Blackwell in Oakland. He says he learned a lot from the experience.

Fred Blackwell

Lessons learned:

  • Be clear about the limitations of your role, and the fact you are balancing and answering to multiple bosses in some ways. Being clear about your limits is really key, so that people at all levels have appropriate expectations around your actions, and an understanding around where your loyalties are.
  • One factor that made engaging community challenging was the emphasis on producing quantifiable results relatively quickly in its target neighborhoods. Where the tension arises is around the timing of the foundation’s expectations for change. If you really want authentic resident engagement in this work, it just necessarily takes longer to see proof of the work.
  • We always felt we were short on the resident engagement side, but at the same time, we always felt like there was a lot of pressure to continue to show movement to the foundation. We thought we could show movement and at the same time invite people to come on board. But while we were doing that, we were leaving residents farther and farther behind. If I had it to do all over again, I would have stopped and addressed our shortcoming around engaging resident before we started marching forward.
  • If you look at the Making Connections sites that have been the most successful in engaging residents, they have one thing in common. They really took advantage of that honeymoon period in when there weren’t expectations around producing results to engage their residents.
  • Wherever you go, if you are working in a low income community, people will say the same things about what they want to see happen, and they generally line up with what the foundation says it wants to see happen. Everybody’s interested in jobs. Everybody’s interested in economic opportunity. Everybody’s interested in brighter futures for their kids. Everybody’s interested in having strong neighborhood institutions that have the capacity to produce the changes the people want. Where we come into conflict is in the timing of the change. We also come into conflict around the strategies and tactics.
    • One example of this conflict over strategy concerned education. Blackwell says that everyone agrees about the need to improve education; the question is how to accomplish this objective. The foundation took a very strong stand that this was not going to be a K-to-12 reform initiative. Instead, in relation to education, the foundation focused Making Connections on preparing children for school. This created a little tension because many site people felt you really needed to get into the education reform agenda.
    • Another example of conflict over strategy, Blackwell says, concerned the issue of safety, which many community people thought should be a priority but which wasn’t one of the foundation’s core outcomes.
  • The notion that, rather than having an open slate, you need to have a focus on a set of common ground outcomes is great and important. In this kind of work, without that kind of focus, you rarely accomplish anything. My criticism on that is that it should have been on the table from day one. Why? We engaged these communities in a process of determining whether they wanted to be partners with us without giving them complete information about what partnership was. Ideally we would have gone out in the beginning and said, ‘These are the six outcomes we want to achieve.’ To say take it or leave it is kind of crass, but this is what we want to work on. ‘Do you want to work on this with us?’ Rather than saying, ‘We want to work with you, we’re willing to work on the stuff you think is important, there are some things we think are important,’ but not being clear about what these things were.
  • Blackwell understands the need to emphasize outcomes: When you’re investing this kind of money, you need to know whether or not your investment is making a difference. But he says the foundation should be careful about getting stuck on the outcomes. It isn’t the only way to judge the impact of this work. Another way to judge the work is to look at the impact it has had on people’s thinking. In the case of Making Connections, he thinks the impact has been profound.
    • One example concerns its focus on Family Economic Success. This FES framework has been adopted very broadly. When I started working with Making Connections, I didn’t hear anybody talking about family economic success and the need to combine workforce development strategies with service strategies with asset accumulation strategies. People were talking about all of those issues in isolation. Now, wherever you go in this country, people are talking about putting families on firmer financial ground.

Lessons about engaging residents

  • We have to be open to the various ways we can engage people and really understand the continuum of engagement. Some people will come to meetings. Other people will want you or need you to come to them or talk to them in their living rooms, on their turf, in one of their meetings. It is unrealistic to think you can set one table that everyone is going to come to and assume a leadership role.
  • The most important thing is that the activities of the initiative are guided by and accountable to residents. To achieve this, he thinks you must build a broad understanding in the neighborhood of what you’re doing and that what you’re doing must reflect the priorities of most of the residents.
  • The people who are collectively doing the work must be held accountable in some way to a broader constituency of people who care about the work.
  • Blackwell also learned how hard this is to do in a diverse neighborhood like the Lower San Antonio. It’s a challenge not only in terms of strategies and communications, but also in terms of expenses and staffing. You’ve got to be prepared to spend the money to translate materials, to have translators at meetings, to have staff people who adequately reflect the diversity of the community so they can communicate well with the folks they’ve been working with.
  • You also have to be keenly aware not only of the linguistic challenges, but the differences in culture and how these differences affect how you actually approach the work and design your interventions and go about implementation. It’s a huge challenge to me.
    • One example involves employment. It’s not one size fits all. Program design that works well for immigrant and refugee families may not work at all for families who have been in this country for multiple generations. Employment strategies for somebody who is in poverty but who is in transition is different than a set of strategies for a person who has spent many years in the safety net and has a family that has interacted with the safety net and public support system, sometimes for generations. He explains that they may have a different set of needs and expectations than an immigrant family.

At the time of this posting, Fred Blackwell was the Executive Director of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency.

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