Tag Archive: climate resilience

July 4, 2024

Reaching Toward One Another

In these times of splitting and splintering, I keep in mind a powerful experience from a few years ago when a team of us were working with a climate resilience planning initiative in the South Bronx in New York City. We had been brought in to support city planners and engineers in creating and facilitating a community engagement process that would generate ideas for resilient energy systems with other community benefits (education, jobs), while also building stronger relationships within the community and between community members and government officials. The way we did this was essentially by humanizing the process, reducing barriers to accessing and sharing information and importantly reducing barriers standing in the way of people accessing one another.

What this meant was that we chose meeting spaces that felt like community spaces, not official government meeting rooms. We slowed the process down overall, made sure that any information presented was done in non-jargon heavy ways with plenty of opportunity for people to ask questions and with translation services available. We also brought music into the room, at the start and end of meetings, as well as other creative art forms during certain portions of the process so that community members could express more fully their hopes and concerns through different media. For evening meetings we served delicious locally-catered food. Childcare was available for parents who wanted that support. And as facilitators, we treated everyone as if they had something to offer, no matter their age or official position, and assumed all wanted the best for the community.

Public meeting held in community center theater space

Predictably, in the early going, some long standing social-political dynamics and suspicions showed up. People seemed to be really good at and used to playing their respective roles – buttoned up officials, ardent (and occasionally angry) community organizers, business owners thinking mainly about their own livelihood, etc. But over time you could feel things start to shift as people understood that this was a different kind of process. There was more laughter and joy in the space, less posturing, softening of tone, and more engagement with one another outside of official roles and meeting times.

This all culminated in a particular moment when the city official with whom we worked most closely had to share some difficult news at a public meeting from one of the engineering analyses that was not well received by many community members. Tempers flared in the room, and just when it seemed we were going to come to a complete stalemate, the official with whom we were working cried out, “Look, I’m on your side! I want this to work for you. We’ve been trying to figure this out but it’s not that easy.” For a moment this person looked like they were going to burst into tears, holding their head in their hands.

That public display of emotion, of vulnerability, was followed by what felt like a long silence, and then one of the lead community organizers looked at our facilitation team, seemed to sigh with their entire body, stood with hands outstretched and said, softly, “Let us help you. That’s why we’re here.” That exchange broke what might have been the spell that returned us to the predictable story of “us vs them.” It opened up possibility and kept us going and eventually led to agreement on a path forward.

“That’s why we’re here.”

Not to fight or prove who’s right.

Not to keep an old tired and fatiguing pattern going.

Not to waste more precious time, money and other resources.

But to figure out how to make sure that people and communities are safe in the face of whatever may come.

And to do that figuring, TOGETHER.

That is the bigger promise of collaboration from our humble and long-standing perspective at IISC, having supported hundreds of collaborative ventures over the past 30 + years: to bring our different needs, perspectives, talents and ideas together to make something better, for everyone. This notion used to be seen as almost pollyannish in some circles up until about about 15 years ago. Then it became much more accepted as people grappled with increasingly complex issues and challenges. More recently it has been seen as needed but perhaps a near impossibility in some places because of pronounced pain and polarization.

And still what we know is that now more than ever, we need each other. As trite as it may sound, difference and diversity are truly our strength. And we know that we have far more in common than we do differences. Most of us share a core set of common values, most of us want something better, better than what we have in many communities and this country right now. Some of us may be tired and perhaps frightened. Yet we cannot avoid the truth that we are in this together. We certainly are being tested to learn to live and work together in new ways. What if we saw this as an opportunity to show what we are truly made of and might become? This could actually happen if we were to reach toward one other in good faith, from a spirt of deep caring, and with curiosity, humility, and determined hope.

Leave a comment