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.
The first time I facilitated a collaborative action network meeting, I knew I was in a room full of people who wanted dramatic change in our community. I assumed that all we had to do was clarify our roles and get to it. I was wrong. The idea that “collaboration moves at the speed of trust” is commonly shared in conversations about collective impact. Its twin, “change happens at the speed of trust,” is also commonplace. Both suggest that trust has to be built before work can begin, so, how do you bring people together to build trust without doing work? To avoid losing collaborators due to inaction or trying to force people to do complex work before they are ready, it’s worthwhile to remember that trust is not just a noun. It is more than a thing that is built; it is also a verb. Here are three elements to consider when beginning (or shifting) work within groups.
1. Define trust as an action.
Bryk & Schneider’s “relational trust” is built on respect, personal regard for others, competence and personal integrity. There is no way to build relational trust without everyone demonstrating that they respect each other, will treat others well, are competent in their roles and can operate with integrity. Although I entered rooms with degrees and a solid professional history, I intentionally called out my lack of knowledge in the specific outcome on which a network was focusing. My position in the space was about facilitation. The people in the room were the experts. They held the knowledge. It wasn’t an easy posture to maintain (and I failed often), but I was intentional and explicit about respecting their role in the work. This work is their work, not ours. Using results-based facilitation (RBF) helped us make accountability a regular part of every meeting. Participants reported on their action commitments and explained what facilitated or impeded their progress. And when staff made errors, we owned up and were committed to modeling integrity and accountability. The speed of trust was defined by the staff’s ability to respect the groups enough to ask them to do their best work and hold each other accountable for the outcome to which they had committed. There was not a single “trust-building” activity in any network meetings — we built trust and momentum through the work and how we conducted ourselves.
2. Know thyself.
Identity matters when it comes to building trust. Who we are informs how people will respond to us and how we will react to others. Being aware of context and being honest with yourself and collaborators is a good place to start. I am a black female native Memphian who left my hometown and returned after 25 years. I have some credibility given the neighborhood where I started, but I’m essentially a stranger. At the same time, I challenge all sorts of stereotypes and low expectations of black women in Memphis. To some people I am family, to others I’m the help and to others I’m the enemy. To be effective, I have to manage those identities whether I claim them or not. When asked to substitute facilitate for my executive director, a young white man, I encountered some resistance from the white women who were leading the effort. One attempted to micromanage the design process; another tried to facilitate over me. I had to firmly, but professionally, assert my role as facilitator and my commitment to better outcomes for children. Knowing myself and how I am perceived by others allows me to be authentic and consistent. Everyone, regardless of how they categorize me, can always trust me to be me, which means I bring the most effective me into every space.
3. Do your homework.
Collective impact efforts are about bringing together people who have been contributing to the work for years, sometimes decades. Any room is likely to have existing relationships and experiences that could facilitate or derail efforts at any time. Identifying and preparing for potential threats and barriers to trust is essential to keeping things moving forward. The level of analysis that has been necessary to navigate early childhood in Memphis rivals preparation for contentious political races. The landmines are countless. Interpersonal dynamics in this sector were instructive on how different people and groups can enter collaborative spaces. Taking the time to meet separately with various factions and develop relationships with people by asking about their work and learning about their concerns helped me to design more effective meetings and avoid those landmines. I began my work assuming the existence of a shared understanding — whether of the problem or the solution — was sufficient to move work forward, but I have come to understand that trust matters. Lack of trust is still no excuse for inaction. It is simply a reason for acting differently and supporting others to act together.
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.