The new Worlds of Change Social Innovators Column hosted by Sarah Bobrow-Williams features Social Innovators discussing their work, challenges and ideas about the emerging field of Social Innovation This month our featured “Social Innovator” is none other than Goddard’s own Leah Bry. Leah completed her Master’s in Sustainable Business and Communities in 2010, while launching Greenleaf, a neighborhood-based nonprofit organization in Denver. GreenLeaf creates social change by teaching organic farming and community organizing skills to youth 15 to 18, making organic vegetables accessible and affordable to low-income urban residents, and empowering youth to take leadership roles within the organization. Leah’s contribution highlights the need to build a culture of collaboration, support, feedback, and dissent.
To me, an essential aspect of successful social innovation is to build into any project dedicated time, space, and process for collaborative support, feedback, and dissent. Working to meet critical “challenges that result in systemic change” and “benefit society as whole” by nature MUST be a collaborative process, whether in design or implementation, and ideally both.
When I think of my most successful experiences doing this work, at GreenLeaf, Colorado Progressive Action, SEIU Local 105, and most recently at Denver Montessori Jr/Sr High School, I recognize that the amazing teams I have been a part of owe our strength and accomplishments to an atmosphere of openness, emotional honesty, and constructive criticism. The group must also be committed to social justiceas a foundational shared value and have a willingness to educate themselves and each other, including calling one another “in” when we make mistakes.
Social Innovation is hard and successes can seem few because our visions are so big, so ambitious, and so passionately treasured. But if our process of social innovation includes lifting up and developing the leadership and capacity of ourselves and our peers, colleagues, and members, then no matter what we achieve in the short term we have strengthened our abilities to create the world we want to live in. When I think about my visions for a more just, more equitable and peaceful world, they rest on a foundation of people who have the skills to encompass and communicate across difference without seeking to change it.
Creating these spaces to communicate effectively, discuss, learn, challenge one another, disagree peacefully and productively can happen in many different ways. Here are some that I have experienced:
- Establishing guidelines for participation that are intended to build a safe(r space: recognizing that learning and growing calls on all of us to step out of our comfort zones, take risks and fail, and that we can do so most effectively with the support and backup of our team members.
- Regular team meetings that include stakeholders from all levels of an organization, and in which each member of a team regularly shares challenges, successes, ways in which they have grown and ways in which they struggle. This encourages all participants to be vulnerable with one another and to reflect together and individually on the work they are doing.
- Techniques like nonviolent communication and restorative justice.
- One practice I have used extensively is called Straight Talk – a group feedback process that can be adapted for use one to one, in small groups, and even incorporating a whole organization. It was developed by an organization called The Food Project, and I wholeheartedly recommend purchasing their book, Growing Together, on building strong working communities of youth and adults (it’s not just relevant to working with youth).
- Organizational leadership that is not threatened by dissent, and welcomes diverse and challenging opinions with action as well as words.
- Organizations that conduct anti-oppression and social justice assessments and planning processes, and dedicate time and resources to addressing and building team capacity around their social justice values.
- Teams that combine accountability with humor and human-ness: handling conflict and tough times is much easier when a team can laugh together and when each member is welcomed as a full, imperfect human being with lives outside the workplace or project
- Workplaces that compensate all employees fairly with living wages and appropriate benefits, including time off, parental leave, etc.
What are some of the ways in which you’ve experienced teams that create a culture of collaboration, support, feedback, and dissent?