September 30, 2013

What's Complicated About a Pocket Park?

What could be complicated about a pocket park? I am digging into that question to explore some of the ways we can over-think, over-judge, over-complicate and get in our own way as big thinkers about small grants - unaware of how our own world view and personal perspective impacts what we see, hear and interpret.

I was with a group of funders and community change-makers recently for Grassroots Grantmakers' 2013 On the Ground learning exchange in Milwaukee. One of our community visits was with a group of neighbors in the pocket park that they had created in their neighborhood. This was a tiny sliver of a park on a narrow resident lot with a fence down one side, a house on the other and some sitting areas sprinkled with mulch and dotted with benches that the neighbors had built. We heard that this vacant lot had been a problem in the past, how the idea for the pocket park was hatched, what it took for the neighbors to get their idea going, and what difference they thought it was making. We heard from the director of the local CDC who had helped the neighbors find some resources to help with the vacant lot to pocket park transformation, and from a woman with a project that connected neighborhood kids with local artists to create some modest public art installations in the park. We heard quotes from the kids about what that experience meant for them.

This project is a classic grassroots grantmaking project. It took a modest amount of money that was spent only on supplies and neighbors working together to move an idea that neighbors had hatched into action. This simple project had provided the opportunity for people to work together, experience success together, and strengthen their ties as neighbors. I was happy to be there, reminded again about how something as simple as a pocket park could do so much.

That was my perspective. As we began walking away from the park, I began to get wind of different perspectives - and was fascinated that we had been all standing right there together, hearing the same stories, but came away with different meaning.

I heard that someone was deeply concerned because one of the steps in process of creating the park was dealing the problem neighbor who had lived next to the vacant lot - and that the neighbor had moved away.  I heard from someone who had wandered down the block a bit to talk to another neighbor and was told that no one uses the park, making her conclude that we were being led down a primrose path with a fairy tale that was constructed to make the funder involved look good. Another person commented about the social engineering that was going on - with neighborhood institutions creating opportunities to put people together and do things that they (the institutions) thought were important. Someone else criticized the city because they had not been more forthcoming with mulch, and thus must not be such good partners after all. And someone else commented that spending time and energy on something like a pocket park was needless diversion from focusing on the "questions behind the problem" questions that were the at the root of the problems facing that neighborhood.

What we didn't build into the pocket park experience was time to sit down together and pour out all of these different perspectives and make sense of what was going on. Lesson learned.

But if we had, here's what I wish we could have unpacked - possibly exploring these questions.
  • How can we be more self-aware of our personal perceptions and learning journey experiences that are coloring how we understand what we are hearing and seeing?
  • What questions can we ask that come from a place of curiosity versus a place of judging - and how do we keep ourselves in a place of active listening versus active judging?
  • How do we connect our real-world experiences as people who live in neighborhoods of some sort with our work as professionals whose business it is to fund/organize/train/coach groups of everyday people who are at work in their neighborhoods in their spare time?
  • What is our understanding of the journey that institutional players are traveling as they are learning how to be good partners with residents - and when is it constructive to move from patient encouragement to more forceful nudging to encourage those players to stay in the path?
  • How do we most constructively use each other as co-unravellers for the tangled story string that showed up in this situation and shows up so often in the big thinking on small grants world?
As I think about these questions, I'm reminded of a webinar, Program Officer as Coach, that I moderated for Grassroots Grantmakers several years ago that focused on the second question - what questions do we ask that come from a place of curiosity rather than judging and how do we keep ourselves in a place of active listening versus active judging?  Pamela McLean, a master coach and president of the Hudson Institute of Coaching shared her perspectives about leading from behind in coaching and pointed us to Marilee Adam's powerful book, Change Your Questions, Change Your Life.  There were so many light-bulbs that Pam's remarks and tools that she shared from Marilee's book that we have included one of Marilee's charts - Moving from the Judger to the Learner Mindset - with basic tips on the practice of grassroots grantmaking.

I'm sharing this not to dismiss the perceptions that were shared about the pocket park in Milwaukee - but as a reminder to myself and big thinkers everywhere of three things: 1) we all bring our own life stories and journeys into every situation - even those that appear to be quite straight-forward on the surface, 2) reality is relative - depending on who you are, and 3) if we aspire to work effectively from a "we begin with residents" perspective, we must continually swim upstream, with as much self-awareness and group-awareness as possible, to stay in a learning mindset and approach conversations with curiosity. I hear myself often saying that big thinking on small grants isn't rocket science - but is also not as easy as it might appear. What we experienced in the pocket park in Milwaukee is what I'm talking about.

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