Adriane Johnson-Williams, founding facilitator for the Seeding Success partnership in Memphis, Tenn., is exploring what it looks like to truly do the work of collaborative action. Through stories of challenging conversations and genuine relationship building, she shares her experiences working to change behaviors and practices in pursuit of better and more equitable outcomes at scale. A native Memphian committed to improving outcomes in her hometown, she now works in philanthropy.
“This isn’t new.”
“We’ve been doing this for years.”
“This is just the next step.”
“You’re building on what we’ve already been doing.”
These same things have been said for decades in school reform — centuries if you look closely enough. There is a cyclical process where someone has a bright new idea, turns the lives of practitioners upside down and eventually fades away. Those who are able to wait out the new sexy thing can just get back to their normal lives in due time.
Does that describe collective impact? Is this effort to pull people together across sectors to focus on improving community-level outcomes simply old wine in new bottles?
I didn’t really know the answer to those questions at the outset of my work with Seeding Success in Memphis, Tenn., but I did know that what had been happening wasn’t working. I also knew that outcomes reflect individual behaviors. It would be a massive lift to get people to see the failures of whatever approaches they were using as their individual and collective responsibilities.
People would have to trust us before we could hold up mirrors and expect them to act differently, but how do you build trust in the midst of so much cynicism?
In addition to defining trust as action, it’s important to know more about who is in the room and why. I found that at Seeding Success, there were essentially three types of people who could be reasonably expected to participate in the work: opportunists, survivors and workers. A fourth group, the wait-and-see group, often will appear after some clear success and rewards are apparent. But in my experience, you’ll begin with these three.
- The people who disappear after a few meetings are opportunists. They leave once they realize there is no immediate money on the table. The opportunists who hope to reap the benefits of doing something funders like are going to stick it out. They’re ultimately survivors.
- The survivors are there to ensure nothing too dramatic or disruptive happens. They often judge others’ contributions but make few of their own. In my experience, they attend meetings regularly and stay in the network.
- The workers are already inclined to be self-reflective. They see that things aren’t working and are more willing to consider that they may have a role. The workers are where you focus. Don’t grieve the opportunists. Respect the hustle and fear of the survivors. They each have something to offer. But put in additional effort with the workers.
Our Third Grade Reading Collaborative Action Network (CAN) began with a fair number of opportunists, but it was our survivors and our workers who went on to serve as a critical laboratory for the entire partnership.
I made the choice early in my work with the CAN that instead of trying to get more people to the table or working to convince naysayers, I would support the workers in their pursuit of change. At the time it seemed small, and it wasn’t always forward moving, but now that investment is proving to have been the right choice: Summer programming in Memphis may be poised to reduce summer learning loss for thousands of students because just a few workers were willing to try something new.
Adriane Johnson-Williams, Ph.D., was the founding facilitator for Seeding Success, a StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network partnership in Memphis, Tenn. She now works in philanthropy. She is a native Memphian committed to improving outcomes in her hometown.