March 21, 2008

Lessons from Memphis on Top-Down/Bottom-Up

Please excuse me while I rant a bit about some recent news from Memphis, my second home town.

This week, Memphis' Mayor of 16 years made two startling announcements. On Thursday he announced that he is closing 5 branch libraries and 4 community centers as a cost-cutting measure. On Friday, he announced that he is stepping down as Mayor - just 5 months after his latest re-election.

It may be time for him to go. But my heart aches when I think of how much money and civic energy went into the last election-for-nothing, and how much damage to some of the most fragile neighborhoods in Memphis will be done by closing some of the only neighborhood anchors - branch libraries and community centers - for the sake of a few pennies in the big financial picture.

(If you're curious about what's going on in Memphis, Tom Jones, in his recent post on his Smart City Memphis blog, Cutting the Threads in Memphis Neighborhoods, does of great job of putting some context around the situation.)

Implications for Grasssroots Grantmaking:

As someone who worked with and on behalf of Memphis neighborhoods for two decades, here is the lesson for me in this announcement (and this is one that I have had the opportunity to learn many times!).

Bottom-up needs top-down.
Top-down needs bottom-up.

A lot of good bottom-up neighborhood work has been done in Memphis neighborhoods over the years. Support for this has been sporadic, however. There seems to be a "new day for neighborhoods" on a regular basis that is just that - a new day, rather a week, a month, a year or what is really needed - a consistent effort. In places where there is a consistent effort, there is something in the water about this bottom-up/top-down lesson.

I have seen how powerful it can be when major institutions such as place-based philanthropies have the foresight and acumen to work both bottom-up and top-down. I have also seen unrealistic expectations placed on bottom-up strategies when there is no top-down strategy in place. And, guess what. The bottom-up strategy fails to meet expectations so it is deemed a failure and business goes on as usual.

I've seen the same thing happen when top-down strategies fail to meet expectations. In Memphis, the spin-doctors move in with a "let's pretend this was successful" message or the out-of-town expert associated with the strategy gets appointed flak-catcher. But business goes on as usual.

Working both bottom-up and top-down is tricky. It is hard to see the other way when you are deeply involved in one. It's hard to carve out the time from the day-to-day to look for the top-down/bottom-up connections. And it's often hard to convince the believers in one way or the other that both approaches are needed and equally valuable. And if you can get over the believing hump, then there's knowing what to do.

When I was managing the grassroots grantmaking program in Memphis, I was carrying the bottom-up banner inside my foundation, and, as this banner carrier, found it especially challenging to make the case for the top-down connection - for example, work with city government on issues such as community centers or neighborhood libraries. We were doing top-down work, but not work that was linked to our bottom-up work. I'm not sure that I knew how to make the connection, and guess that the top-down folks in our world felt the same way. At times we came together in our heads but not on the ground. We were doing good things, but if we could have made that top-down/bottom-up connection really work, we could have found some magic.

The news from Memphis this week has been discouraging. I can imagine some win-win scenarios if the Mayor had offered the City's dilemma with branch libraries and community centers as a question (how can our community come together to strengthen these valuable neighborhood anchors?) rather than an answer (5 libraries and 4 community centers will be closed). I can also imagine what might have happened if the neighborhoods in question had more actively "owned" their library or community center (a topic for another time).

I know from my work with Grassroots Grantmakers that others are struggling with and learning about this bottom-up, top-down challenge too. I'm curious about how this question looks from your vantage point. How do you keep the parallel tracks of top-down, bottom-up going - and going in sync?

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