Switching Seats

A New Approach to Residents and Professionals Sparking Community Change Together – Frankie Blackburn, Silver Spring, Maryland

I am a white, social change professional who believes that my whiteness and my positional power are barriers to social change in my community.  Of course, these complicated dimensions are not the only barriers, but they are barriers that I can do something about. For the last fifteen years, I have been on a journey to understand the blind spots and gaps in awareness that inhibit my ability to fully contribute and receive the gifts of others.  Thanks to the opportunity to participate in a supportive and risk-taking learning community, I am beginning to find my unique personal power in the frame of a larger social change agenda. I am also getting better at NOT hiding behind the safety of my professional status or the privileges afforded me as a white, middle class person.

The challenge is that there are lots of people like me – well intentioned, highly educated and largely white – who seek to earn their living off the business of social change and who mostly operate from a place of fear, the fear of losing the privilege of race and position. The good news is that people like me do have important gifts to contribute and there are examples of places and situations where we are figuring out how to reposition ourselves in powerful ways.

Community Pain Can Spark Personal Transformation and Social Innovation

In the early 1990’s, my community of Silver Spring – a large unincorporated area of Montgomery County, Maryland – transformed from a mostly white suburb into an extremely diverse urban area.  In the decades prior to this time period, downtown Silver Spring lost its position as a thriving retail center to the advent of the suburban malls.  By 1990, as new faces began moving in, we had over 40 vacant office buildings, limited retail services and nearly 300 homeless people sleeping in and among the vacant buildings on any given night.

A painful but silent disconnect emerged between the majority of residents, who were mostly African American or immigrant renters, and the minority population, who were largely white, middle class homeowners.  Even though the power elite spoke often and eloquently of welcoming the new cultures in our midst and addressing the decline of Silver Spring, the practices and behaviors inside our institutions did not change, creating huge barriers to inclusion, shared leadership and equity.  In the years that followed, we experienced both the promise and disappointment of a community change strategy not grounded in the majority of residents who live in our community.

In 1999, a citizen advisory group dominated largely by white homeowners and established white business leaders approved a local government proposal for a $400 million redevelopment plan.   Virtually all of these citizen leaders were considered progressive in their political views and spoke often about their commitment to diversity.  As a member of this group, I had to come to terms with the truth that the redevelopment plan, supported by a huge public expenditure, was largely developed by community professionals who lived outside our area and that it represented the perspective of only one of many cultural groups in our community.   This painful awareness propelled me to take a hard look at my previous fifteen years as a professional community organizer and my personal behaviors as a participant in the redevelopment process.  I knew that our community organizing strategies, as well as my personal way of being, had to change.  But I did not know how.   Fortunately, I found others who also felt stuck and motivated to find a new set of practices and hopefully a new reality.

Together, we embarked on a social experiment called IMPACT Silver Spring.  For the past thirteen years, an expanding network in Silver Spring has been practicing authentic, resident-driven change. We did not perfect it, by no means. But, the lessons we learned offer others a very practical approach to sparking a deeper transformation in rapidly changing communities which are struggling to create thriving schools, neighborhoods and retail districts for all who live there.

The purpose of this article is to demonstrate the limits of community change strategies when professionals are in the driver’s seat and to illustrate the catalytic role of a resident-driven community network.  Clearly, the process of changing the way we “do change” is not linear or logical. But it is important to approach any fundamental shift in personal and collective behavior step by step, and to give ourselves plenty of room to make mistakes and learn from these mistakes.

The Dangers and Pitfalls When Professionals are in the Driver’s Seat

In Montgomery County, professionals have been driving community change efforts for decades.  We have a large, progressive local government that works alongside many nonprofit institutions in addressing perceived community needs.  Certain neighborhoods identified as low-income and “high risk” have received significant levels of both public and private investments – mostly to support traditional direct service programs.  Yet despite all of this, vast inequities in wealth, academic achievement, and access to opportunities still remain.  After years of working in this professionally-driven environment, first in the arena of affordable housing and homeless services and then as a founder of IMPACT Silver Spring, several assessments have become clear to me:

  • Community professionals are often so eager to help others in need that they can actually reinforce low income residents’ identity as needy, rather than highlighting their value as a contributing resident of the community.
  • Community professionals often listen to only those currently engaged and develop an incomplete story of the challenges and opportunities.
  • Community professionals get funded by large institutions and feel pressure for quick results and bring in solutions from another context.
  • Community professionals who are largely focused on offering a good product can often miss their unique opportunity to build networks of mutual support and bring new voices to the community table.
  • Community professionals may hit a general target with their efforts but easily miss the bull’s eye or the moment of catalytic change.

Steps and Strategies for Switching Seats

Our hypothesis at IMPACT Silver Spring was that community professionals could not fix “the Silver Spring problem” and that for resident-driven change to thrive in the long term, we needed to rebuild our social capital infrastructure and our way of operating within this framework. We spent the first six years offering an intensive “learning community container” to 120 residents from 32 different cultures and every different sector in our community.  These extremely diverse residents spent hundreds of hours together, sharing honestly and pursuing a wide range of collective action.

Two primary messages emerged from both the conversations and the 40 or more pilot action projects:  (1) The old way of organizing for community change was not working in this newly re-forming community and (2) Most of the barriers to greater equity could not be solved through legislation or a new program, but required significant behavior shifts in how people operate and make decisions inside schools, apartment buildings, hospitals, retail centers, local government agencies and a vast array of nonprofit organizations.

We spent the next six years in an intensive period of action research and innovation, seeking to find devices and containers to support individual and collective behavior change.  These “mad scientist moments” led to a set of strategies and practices to help break communities from their over-dependency on professionalism and create a new environment for resident voice and shared leadership with community professionals.  I recently transitioned from focusing only on Silver Spring and now spend time in four other communities working with other similar “mad scientists” to experiment with strategies and practices in their context. In this moment of transition and reflection, I offer the following key steps that we found useful in our Silver Spring experiment. I am very mindful that these initial “conclusions” may shift as I continue to practice and work in a variety of contexts.

Six Key Steps:

  1. Invite Residents to Take the Driver’s Seat through Support Action Teams
  2. Support Professionals in Switching Seats with Learning Work Teams
  3. Build New Community Environments Instead of Programs that Fix Problems
  4. Build Networks of Diverse Relationships as Your Primary Vehicle of Change
  5. Make Repeated Use of Subtle and Easy Power Sharing Practices within the Network
  6. Pick the Right Community Context for Switching Seats and Sparking New Networks

Here is a beginning review and discussion of these steps and practices:

Step One:  Invite Residents to Take the Driver’s Seat through Support Action Teams

In a typical community context, like a local school, virtually everyone operates from a place of fear….fear of looking stupid, fear of being put down, fear of not meeting basic family needs, fear of losing an identity, fear of getting too involved, fear of being successful….the list of fears goes on and on.  Residents, in particular, need safe spaces to name and face these fears with others who share similar fears.

As the IMPACT Network grew and developed, we began engaging low income residents who were overcoming racial, cultural and class barriers in order to survive.  We worked with these residents to create small circles of mutual support focused on issues of tangible and immediate value: parenting skills in a school, use of technology, speaking English, saving money, looking for work, improving an apartment community, supporting teenagers in finding a productive path.  We discovered that participants come back time and time again to these small circles because of the tangible support they receive from the group and because of a new found sense of community and belonging.

The ultimate goal of these mutual support circles is to help identify and name an emerging desire or vision that resonates among the resident group.  Collecting and documenting resident stories in a targeted community context (such as improving a local school or a building a better apartment community) is a powerful way to accomplish this step.  This collective narrative, based on individual stories, serves as a solid platform for joint planning and problem solving.  This is what we refer to as developing authentic resident demand – or supporting residents in taking the driver’s seat.  In these mutual support sessions, we also introduced the concept of personal power and devoted time to helping each participant name their kernel of power. We then worked to connect the shared vision with these personal powers to spark a deeper and concrete moment of community transformation.

Step Two:  Support Professionals in Switching Seats Through Learning Work Teams

As our IMPACT network grew and became more diverse, teams of community professionals began to ask us to help them with their community engagement or community connection challenge. In the vast majority of these situations, these teams would be comprised of white and/or middle class, college educated folks whose work depended on securing the input or involvement of lower income residents of diverse backgrounds. We eventually learned to be honest about the fact that handing them a list of names and phone numbers from our diverse network would not lead to the results they were seeking.

Alternatively, we learned to offer to form “work teams” to help accomplish a specific task they were seeking to do, but to do so using our “rules of engagement”. These rules of engagement involved including members of our network on the work team, running the work teams in a way that built relationships, hosting honest exchanges during planning sessions and jointly practicing some form of door to door engagement in which everyone on the work team had to participate.  We claimed success using this strategy in four different contexts:  (1) A work team to help environmental activists introduce a public transportation option to rental complexes. (3) A work team of school administrators to design and deliver a campaign to engage immigrant parents (3) A work team of retail owners to help create public spaces that feel safe and welcoming to all (4)  A work team of high level social workers/service providers to design three neighborhood service centers.

In each of these situations, the participants were not fully aware that we had a fairly elaborate and intentional strategy to create a learning opportunity for them.  We used the power of relationships, honest feedback and modeling new engagement behavior to build their confidence and spark a new awareness in them.

We also tried this strategy in reaching out to community professionals who had NOT sought our help.  We were particularly interested in working with property managers.  To attract and secure participation of local property managers, we hosted extra-nice luncheons with really good food and invited local government officials to participate in a circle discussion. These officials were from code enforcement, the fire department, social services, local police, etc-  all places the property managers were interesting in learning more about and having the opportunity to vent their frustrations.  We used these luncheons to begin building relationships with the managers and breaking down their resistance to resident-led initiatives.

Step Three:  Build New Community Environments Instead of Programs That Fix Problems

The reality is that we, as humans, are mostly afraid of shifting ground or creating a new environment. We discovered that many of the residents we engaged, as well as the community professionals, were much more comfortable inventing a new program that serves others.  A sole focus on service to others means that you do not have to ask those who do the serving (the professionals) to change and it does little to change the role of those being served (the residents). We also discovered that it is much harder to transform an existing environment than to build a new, alternative environment.   As mentioned above, many of the institutions in our progressive community repeatedly asked us to “bring these new resident voices” to their community room or table.  Because we believed in sharing power across lines of difference, we often tried to oblige, with limited results.

After a few frustrating attempts with P.T.As., our County’s planning department and a local housing group, we began to understand that a key ingredient in sparking power sharing for long term transformation is “the room” in which the diverse stakeholders hang out in during the transformation process. When we use the terms “create a new room”, we mean everything from establishing a temporary program container, to creating a short term cohort of people, to being extra vigilant in where, when and how we run any type of meeting or gathering.   For example, we devote significant thought to the location of meetings, the length of time and frequency of meetings, the set up of the actual physical space, the kind of food and drink offered, use of posters on walls, fun practices used during the meeting, practical meeting agendas, ground rules to support honest dialogue and the form of communication between meetings etc.  People in and out of our network refer to the “IMPACT way” of bringing people together.   While there is no one IMPACT way, we place a high priority on creating programs, teams and rooms that feel welcoming, inclusive and safe for taking the kind of risks needed to learn from each other and transform institutions together.

Step Four:  Build Networks of Diverse Relationships as Your Primary Vehicle of Change

In order to switch seats and create new community environments, professionals and residents alike must learn to let go of the many hierarchal forms and behaviors we have come to internalize, having lived, worked and functioned within traditional organizational and community systems.  Moreover, we have come to rely on these forms and behaviors to manage our fear of change.  Change is messy and beautifully organic. But, the typical first impulse in community change making is to either create an organization with leaders who control decision making, or layer on top of the innovative moment the heavy burden of producing tangible outcomes within the first few years.

We believe that the key to creating new community environments that spark transformative change is the practice of networking.   Networks operate very differently than traditional community environments in which the community professionals and a few self-selected residents hold most of the positional power.  Thriving networks of people facilitate many and repeated exchanges of mutual value among the members of the network.   In a network, everyone is needed and everyone benefits.  Good ideas are sustained and bad ideas die a natural death.  Information flows more easily and decisions points are more transparent.

Networks are complicated for sure and we are all still learning how to be effective and strategic in a network environment. Networks of relationships across lines of difference clearly need “network stewards” providing just enough intentional support to initially connect diverse nodes and to sustain these connections long enough for new behaviors to take root and for some trust to form.   The network steward role involves everything from introducing the network to newcomers, creating welcoming and varying entry points, inviting people to stay, helping people feel comfortable in the first few exchanges and branding and re-branding the network as it evolves.

To spark new community or neighborhood networks, you need to engage a relatively large number of people within that particular context.   Unless you have one galvanizing incident, we discovered that the best way to connect in a new way to a relatively large number of people, especially in a diverse environment, is to hold events that feel good and offer some kind of concrete value.  Because we host these events with limited staff and funding, we learned early on how to keep our events relatively easy to organize.

We’ve done everything from clothing swap meets, game nights, dance parties, Friday night pizza in the apartment lobby, parade float preparation sessions, drum circles and picnics in a park.   The key is to make sure that the environment and how the event unfolds sends a subtle but powerful message that there is a different, more inclusive way to hold community events. It is also essential that a core group of people use these events as a chance to build relationships with new folks within the expanding network and begin to follow up and invite them into a more intentional and smaller setting where trusting relationships can form.

Step Five: Make Repeated Use of Subtle and Easy Power Sharing Practices

The dynamics of race and positional power are always present when creating new networks of diverse residents and community professionals. Putting the message of sharing personal power into practice inside the functioning of these diverse networks is harder than it seems, especially when you have to co-exist with or live inside community rooms and environments that function off a completely different operating system.  We used five simple practices – and more – to support the process of power sharing, the kind that eventually leads to authentic, resident-driven community transformation.  These are the kind of practices that you can begin to introduce in a low level way to the existing community environment, without making a big deal of it.  My only caution is that these practices are simply a starting point, and if used well, they will lead to deeper moments of conflict and opportunities for new awareness. These moments need to be wholly embraced and supported. Conflict can be good and lead to many wonderfully creative outcomes.

The theory underlying all of these practices is that people offer their best kernels of personal power and can receive the contributions of others when they trust each other. And, trust forms through the process of getting to know each other, building relationships over time and communicating honestly.  When we get to know each other as peers and are honest on a regular basis, we begin to break down incorrect assumptions and stories that we carry in our head. The challenge is that people do not want to take the time to get to know one another or are not willing to genuinely reveal themselves to others or fear a negative result from sharing honestly. Even when people want to practice these behaviors, most of our current operating systems and structures and forms in community life do not support it.   Here are five practices to try out as a starting place.

  1. Personal Check In – A time for individuals to share personal information with each other prior to starting a meeting or while in the flow of working together.
  2. Story Telling – Taking time to share personal stories that help others let go of incorrect assumptions about the other and that help ground a particular issue in the real people sitting around the table.
  3. Full Circle Input – Ask everyone in the meeting or the circle to respond to a question, offer an idea or raise a question or concern; this helps prevent domination by one or two people who are comfortable talking in a group setting.
  4. Mutual Support – Devoting structured time in a regular meeting to letting participants request support, offer support or make an announcement.  This small device helps people to feel motivated to keep coming back to a meeting setting, even when the community change process is dragging or feels discouraging.
  5. Check Out – Taking time for each participant to offer specific reflections at the end of a meeting: one thing they learned, one thing they appreciated and one thing they would change.

Step Six:  Pick the Right Community Context for Switching Seats and Sparking New Networks

Some community contexts are more ripe and ready for transformation than others. Admittedly, it took us the first six years to figure this out, because we were operating in a community where virtually every leader with positional power was considered progressive and liberal.  Over time, we came to understand that progressive liberals are some of the least ready and ripe for giving up the driver’s seat and letting go of hierarchical forms. We discovered that our efforts to plant seeds of transformation were more effective if the following three ingredients are present:

  1. A Smaller and Contained Community Context: The community context should be small and contained enough that the people inside this community environment bump into each other naturally on a regular basis.  The larger number of direct contacts between those involved creates more opportunity to model new behavior and build the trust needed for others to experiment with new ways of relating to each other.
  1. Collective Pain within the Community Context:  A growing number of people inside the community context should be feeling and talking about a common pain that relates to the current community environment and how it operates.
  1. Positional Power Pain within the Community Context:  Although not essential, it helps if someone with positional power is feeling the collective pain that others are feeling and talking about.

Post Script:Practice What You Preach 

In my leadership role in the IMPACT experiment, I underestimated the challenge of asking community professionals to play a different and less dominating role in the community change journey.  This is probably due in part to the fact that I am one of those community professionals. I want to believe that when I advocate for greater resident voice, I can easily practice what I preach and that others can too. The truth is that putting my ideas on the back burner to make room for another approach, or letting go of my desired results when my “professional reputation” is on the line, is harder than I care to admit.   My other truth is that, as a white professional, I am sometimes really scared to reach out to and open myself up in risky ways to people who are different than me.

Before Silver Spring’s redevelopment and the birth of the IMPACT network, I had a direct encounter with my own fear of building reciprocal relationships across race and class.  I worked for a local affordable housing nonprofit and was managing the rehabilitation of a small, run down high rise named Edinburgh House.  Within the nonprofit, I was the primary advocate for involving low income residents in the operations of the buildings we owned and managed. I eventually succeeded in securing the buy-in for running the rehabilitation of Edinburgh House in a different, more participatory way.

I can vividly remember how scared I was entering that first meeting of the tenants.  I knew they would take one look at me and size me up as an outsider who really does not understand their reality. I was convinced that no matter what I did, I could not build trust with these residents.  I saw them as a group of people angry at anyone who assumed the owner role and not as a rich gathering of 40 individuals, each with a unique life story to be discovered.  I also dismissed and discounted my life story and my unique contributions in that moment.   With the help of a wonderful activist in the Ethiopian community (most of the residents in the building were from East Africa), I let go enough to build deep relationships with a number of the residents in the complex and together, we experimented with new ways of running the building.

Two years later, as we birthed the IMPACT experiment, I carried this awareness of my own fears and my new sense of personal power gained through these resident relationships and the small collaborative actions we took together.  I was determined to keep building my awareness and relationship building skills and to help other well-intended professionals who were stuck in a similar way.  I was fortunate to team up with a very experienced and diverse group of professional trainers who volunteered their time to our mission.  In those first six years of providing intentional learning communities, we spent hours co-designing experiential learning sessions that helped everyone (no matter their professional or resident status) become a better listener, provide honest feedback and embrace hard moments of natural misunderstanding and conflict.  We studied concepts of privilege and internalized oppression right alongside each other and used our own interactions and experiences as a learning laboratory.

Behind the scenes of these intentional learning communities, we were creating a fairly traditional nonprofit organization, with board and staff, to support the work.   In the beginning, we were zealous about staying true to our core beliefs in the operation of the nonprofit.  Each year, we held intensive action planning sessions to chart out the following years work and worked hard to include twenty or thirty of the most active resident members in the network.   We hired small teams of resident participants to work with program evaluators to collect unbiased feedback from their fellow participants and community members.  We insisted that the diversity of the board and staff reflect the community and that over half of the board had to be participants in one of our programs.

But even with all of these steps, we often behaved in ways and made decisions that pleased the professional community (private funders and elected officials). We did not stay grounded in the authentic demands of our resident network.  Gradually, it became more and more difficult to encourage residents and professionals to switch seats and share power in the context of a local school or apartment building when we could not point to our own struggle and success with a similar dynamic within our own nonprofit structure.

Four relatively small practices helped us achieve greater alignment between the internal and external and opened up greater opportunities for change within the community:

  • We agreed on six core operating practices internally and developed specific tips for how to make them happen on a consistent basis (and we used all kinds of creative means to keep them alive in daily practice).
  • We created a corps of network members to become guides within the network for six months to a year and provided them a stipend; they participated as staff in planning and decision making meetings.
  • We rotated facilitation of all meetings (including the weekly staff meeting) and developed meeting rituals to support inexperienced meeting facilitators and to support those who dominated in most meetings in talking less.
  • We opened up most board meetings to all staff (and to active network members) and set aside time for relationship building along the way to create trust and openness.

Again, we did not perfect these and other practices, but they did provide a much stronger platform from which to continue asking other community professionals to switch seats with residents.


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