August 17, 2012

Citizen Space is Relationship Space

I was in Syracuse last week for Grassroots Grantmakers' 2012 On the Ground learning exchange, working now with batteries recharged by the amazing people and wonderful work that I had a chance to experience.

There is so much to stay, but I want to start by sharing something that connects to a common theme in this "big thinking" blog - the challenge of language when it comes to describing the "what" and "why" of work in citizen space that is about what people do together in their own communities in a spirit of mutual aid and collective action. The default language that we're skilled at using is about programs or projects that are conceptualized and managed by people associated with an organization. It's the language of business. A challenge that I face, and I bet many of you face, is how to distinguish work that is intentional and strategic, has some sort of organizational home, but grows from and is fueled more by community relationships that are based on mutuality than business oriented organizational structures and processes.

That's why I was really intrigued to hear how Nicole Watts, Founder and Executive Director of Hopeprint, described her work.  Nicole shared her story - a story that began with connecting as friends with refugees and "having people over for dinner" and led to Nicole moving from the suburbs into Syracuse's Northside neighborhood, connecting with four others to establish the first Hopeprint home. Nicole described her work as relationship-based and talked about the opportunities that working this way open up - opportunities that would not be there if they viewed their work as programs or projects.  If you take a look at the Hopeprint website and peruse the menu of things that are described there and the stories that are shared, you will see relationships everywhere and see what she means.  You will also spot some things that could easily show up in a more traditional social service organization.  But my hunch is that if you could be a fly on the wall in the tutoring, life skills training or youth activities that happen here, you would know you are in a very special place where relationships are driving the activities.

When I think about situations when I've needed help (or most recently, when I've found myself in institutional settings with my sweet mother), I can only dream about finding myself in a place where people approach their work as relationship-based, personal in ways that could actually lead to being invited over for dinner.  The promise of work that we describe as grassroots grantmaking - focused on helping to resource and support what people do together as citizens - is that it is inherently relationship-based.  The work that people do together is about who is there, what everyone can contribute, and the relationship bonds that they have and grow through working together.  Effective "resourcing" of these groups also requires funders to work in a relationship-based way, letting down their professional guard and opening up new ways for their institutions to foster community engagement.  What is frustrating to me is that when we look for outcomes, we only count programmatic outcomes and overlook the relationship-based outcomes - or often ignore how important the relationship-based orientation is to achieving the outcomes that we desire.

I want us to get over that hurdle, and get as comfortable with and trusting of relationship-based approaches as we are with programmatic approaches.  Join me for thinking about what we can do together to make that happen.