Brie Loskota’s article about developing partnerships is part of Pluralism in Peril: Challenges to An American Ideal, a report of The Aspen Institute Justice & Society Program’s Inclusive America Project.
From climate change to homelessness, the challenges we face locally and globally are too big for any one entity to address. The idea that government alone can solve complex problems has long been on the wane—so much so that many people today think government cannot solve any problem, regardless of its complexity. In reality, effective governance takes collaboration between government agencies, the private sector, and community groups to make progress on social problems, whether large or small.
Those who work in the trenches on social issues understand that, because our future is interdependent, we cannot solve problems by retreating to our bunkers. The language of collaboration—working across differences, breaking down silos, creating cross-sector partnerships, and building bridges—permeates our national culture, from interfaith initiatives and disaster preparedness to economic development and community policing.
Yet, there is also skepticism about collaboration. “Partnership” can be self-serving or perfunctory. In our politically polarized times, we may have deep suspicions about people with different political, religious, or cultural beliefs.
In order to be effective, therefore, partnerships must be relational. They must be based on self-knowledge and self-disclosure, mutual trust and respect, and shared responsibilities and rewards. While this may seem obvious to those involved in bringing communities together, this kind of bridge-building has not always been a common practice.
Indeed, some skepticism about partnerships is justified. A police department may have a community advisory board, but the community might not see the members of the board as true representatives of the community’s interests. An elected official’s faith-based advisory council might be more about getting votes than effecting real policies. There is perhaps no more egregious example of this cynical stratagem than the coterie of evangelical advisors surrounding the current president. A “laying on of hands” provides him with the cachet of approval without his having to grapple with the needs of the wider faith community. Even local officials and agencies might look to their community partners for a quick win by getting community support for a particular policy or by rallying a crowd to show up for an important event.
For many government agencies, “bridge building” can become task driven, rooted in a “check the box” mentality. Outreach to community groups is one item on a long to-do list. I have seen a department of public health become focused on handing out X number of flyers, rather than making sure communities really understand the risks of influenza. I have had people come to capacity-building trainings simply because they were referred by a supervisor to go to such a training. Once, a police officer signed up for a training for faith leaders in order to make an announcement and hand out flyers about his event, making no effort to learn something new or develop relationships. It should be no surprise when people do not show up to an event promoted by such a poor representative.
Community groups also suffer from the same instrumentalist approach to partnership. I once came across a very earnest Jewish organization that wanted to promote Jewish-Muslim dialogue, but no Muslims would show up at their events. When I asked a few more questions, I found out that they had not invited Muslims to participate in planning these activities. As a result, the initiative only succeeded in deepening the distrust between the two communities. In this work, it’s important to remember the saying, “Never about us without us.” While not all of these efforts fail, many do because they lack the buy-in of the groups whose engagement is necessary to make the events a success.
Most (but not all) of the time, a real intention to do good and meaningful work motivates the desire for “partnership.” However, in many instances, one group—generally the one with less social power or standing—is viewed as a means to an end. The task, or the end, takes precedence rather than the hard work of community-building itself. This view of partnership only looks to short-term goals, and not the larger transformative potential of such work.
While tasks that are immediately at hand are important, the fact remains that effective, long-lasting, and impactful partnership cannot follow a transactional model. Instead, by building ongoing relationships, groups can accomplish their common goals and see their achievements as transformative of the wider community as well as of themselves. A one-off event or an interaction that is tightly circumscribed by transactional interests is less likely to produce this kind of transformation.
The Collective Impact Forum, an initiative of the Foundation Strategy Group and the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions that connects collective impact practitioners with each other, tools, and training, created a spectrum of activities around cross-sector engagement to help groups understand different types of engagement and interactions. One of the Forum’s eight principles of practice is to “build a culture that fosters relationships, trust, and respect across participants.” Taking this idea a step further, I would argue that fostering relationships is not just one of eight principles, but rather is the foundational principle for engagement and partnership. If sustained relationship-building and trust are not present, little other work can be done.
In Los Angeles, for example, the University of Southern California Center for Religion and Civic Culture led an initiative for federal and city governments, along with local faith communities, to create a cross-sector network focused on emergency management, using a relational approach. Because of the relationships developed through the Emergency Management Faith Community Roundtable, Los Angeles has a preparedness and response system in which information can reach vulnerable communities during a disaster and through which faith communities have the capacity and knowledge to respond and recover in a coordinated and effective manner. In a ceremony at the White House in September 2016, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Building Resilience with Diverse Communities program honored CRCC’s work to catalyze and coordinate groups of responders who had previously operated in isolation from one another.
How did we create such a partnership? In lecturing at the USC Price School of Public Policy’s Safe Communities Institute, a training program for public safety professionals, I described the process for building successful relationships as a pyramid (see figure 1). At the base of this pyramid is the personal, upon which sit the relational and the shared components of community partnership.
The Personal Phase
Self-knowledge is the first phase of community partnership, though it may seem counter-intuitive that partnership begins introspectively. Warren Bennis, a USC professor and an internationally regarded expert on leadership, notes that leadership is a function of knowing yourself, having a vision that is well communicated, building trust among your colleagues, and taking effective action to realize your own leadership potential. People engaged in the partnership process need a clear understanding of themselves, their strengths, weaknesses, and working style.
Self-articulation or self-disclosure is the next component of the personal work necessary to lay the foundation for relational partnership. This involves being able to paint a picture that explains your values, roles, skills, and potential contributions to the process. It is the “why” that animates your work. This need for self-disclosure is especially acute when members of groups who have historically been at odds with each other are interacting. Marshall Ganz of Harvard University often advises leaders that if they are not being clear about their own stories, others will create a story about the leaders for themselves, and it is not the same story that the leaders would tell on their own behalf. As Hannah Arendt notes in The Human Condition, “Men in plural … can experience meaningfulness only because they can talk with and make sense to each other and themselves.”
In the context of the emergency preparedness interfaith roundtable I helped found in 2012, faith leaders needed to know themselves and their communities in order to understand how they could contribute to the safety of the entire city in an emergency. There are many areas in which an individual can plug into an emergency management system. Indeed, some people involved in the LA roundtable have trained to fill leadership roles in the city’s response to disaster, while others trained to become chaplains and still others volunteered their congregations’ parking lots as response sites. As I’ve learned through my work in emergency preparedness, the community is often considered a liability that acts and reacts outside the bounds and controls of government oversight. But through self-knowledge and articulation, individuals and groups can understand that they have assets and be empowered to use them, and use them collaboratively in ways that benefit the whole system.
Humility is key in this phase. Useful knowledge can come from any- where and should be respected wherever it arises.
The Mutual Phase
This phase of relational development is about building the relationship itself. In this era of great religious and cultural flux, institutional leaders often wield far less authority in shrinking spheres of influence. It can no longer be taken for granted that anyone’s position or title will accord them trust or respect. When somebody tries to coerce action out of others, the relationship suffers, as do the outcomes. Instead, trust and respect must be cultivated and earned by all stakeholders in today’s collaborations and partnerships.
A disposition of curiosity can help develop this sense of mutuality. NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change started in Los Angeles after several previous attempts at dialogue and engagement failed or fizzled out. In an interview for the public radio program “On Being” by Krista Tippett, NewGround’s co-facilitators noted the importance of centering curiosity as a way to enter into difficult discussions, like on Israel-Palestine. “It’s a common-sense idea: when going into a situation of existing conflict, one’s assumptions are likely to continue feeding that conflict. But curiosity—about other religious traditions, other ways of living, alternative ways of seeing the world—has the potential to span seemingly unbridgeable gaps.”
Mutual knowledge: This form of interaction includes sharing personal and professional information about oneself. It also involves attentive listening to those details about another party. The quality of the self-disclosure and the quality of the listening to another party’s self-disclosure are paramount and will have an impact on the subsequent levels. This process is especially important for parties where there is some identity-based, values-based, or historical tension to overcome. It allows for space for others to understand an individual’s beliefs and priorities. This phase is not about arriving at agreement but about cultivating appreciation for another’s experience and point of view.
Even if this openness does not come naturally to some of those who are involved in the process, interpersonal skills such as active listening, conflict transformation, and communication can be developed.
Mutual respect: Respect enables parties who have dramatic differences to operate with mutual good will and to ensure that all stakeholders are treated as equally valuable contributors to an effort that supports mutually beneficial ends. Again, respect is decreasingly a default norm, especially as titles and positions are treated with greater suspicion. Mutual respect creates the basis for dialogue that enables multiple parties to benefit from the unique skills and perspectives that each offers.
Mutual trust: Trust transcends respect and enables parties with considerable differences to bring those tensions into the open for inquiry and interrogation in a manner that will be candid and free from danger. Trust is both given and earned, requiring a leap of faith that the other party will do the same. Trust is critical in that it counteracts the fears inherent in partnership with “others,” while also working to facilitate some of the more banal operational issues of collaboration. Trust is reinforced when partners in relationships are accountable to each other. For example, when commitments are made, are they followed through on? When the parties are working with others, do they accurately represent the partnership/relationship to outsiders? When missteps and mistakes happen, are they resolved adequately? If mutual accountability is not maintained, the relationship is a weak container—it can hold a small amount of tension or difficulty, but is quickly broken as challenges grow in scope and scale.
Successful partnerships offer ongoing occasions to develop mutual knowledge, respect, and trust. The Los Angeles Faith Community Roundtable convened quarterly for shared learning opportunities that included tabletop exercises that simulated what might happen in a disaster. A small but poignant example of mutual knowledge leading to greater trust and respect came from a tabletop exercise about responding to a power outage. Before we began, one of the women disclosed that her husband had died as a result of a power outage. He had a medical condition that required uninterrupted electrical power, and emergency services could not get to him during the outage. She trusted that we would respect her experience and, in turn, she received affirmation and feelings of support. Her ability to be vulnerable and share with the group also made the exercise more meaningful and gave us a sense of gratitude to be able to be involved in such important work. In my trainings with a diverse array of community leaders in a wide range of settings, I have learned that this fundamental experience of trust is the sine qua non of effective organizing. A power outage has never seemed trivial to me since then.
The Shared Phase
It might be tempting to talk about equality within partnerships, but I intentionally use the word “shared” rather than “equal” in this phase because often the parties working together exist in an unequal environment. They have different social, political, and other forms of capital to leverage. While equality is a laudable goal, reaching it will remain elusive so long as inequality exists in the larger social context. Emphasizing the shared rather than equal nature of this phase circumvents fruitless exercises in score-keeping and instead cultivates a disposition of gratitude. Emergency management personnel who work with diverse communities have a saying that they can “ask but not task.” Parties cannot be compelled to work together, nor can they be coerced into partnership or relationship.
Shared benefit: In order to build a joint project, it is critical to articulate and negotiate how all parties will benefit from the effort. This strategy helps avoid feelings of exploitation. CRCC was approached to partner on a proposal for a government-funded project to study diabetes in low- to moderate-income African American neighborhoods. Through the course of the project plan it became clear that the study would not provide any benefits to the communities involved. Najuma Smith-Pollard, the program manager who oversees work at the Center in these communities, asked, “How can I ask people to participate in a project where they will see no improvement in their illness? I can’t invite them to participate in something that leaves them sick.” The project proposal was thus redesigned so that the participants would receive treatment. The shared benefit is clear in emergency management: if we work together to create a robust response system, then the lives of the people we care about will be protected.
Shared responsibility: Each party needs to share in the planning and execution of activities in a way that fits their skills, resources, and constraints. Hurricane Katrina illustrates the tragic consequences that follow when this step is neglected. At a tabletop exercise before the storm, emergency managers determined that faith communities would handle the evacuation of low-income residences. But faith communities lacked the resources to take on such a responsibility and noted this deficit to emergency management personnel. The plans proceeded, however, with this assumption, and thousands were left behind.
It is a great credit to the city and federal agencies involved in Los Angeles’ faith roundtable that they not only invited faith leaders to sit at the table, but also have actively sought their partnership in the larger planning and response activities of the city. Los Angeles has not experienced a disaster on the order of Hurricane Katrina since the civil unrest that followed the 1992 acquittal of police officers involved in the Rodney King beating and the 1994 Northridge earthquake, only smaller scale challenges like the 2017 La Tuna Canyon fire. But because our current preparedness and resilience strategies are keenly informed by the lessons of those events, it is reasonable to suppose that the partnerships we have helped to cultivate among civic leaders, faith-based groups, and other stakeholders will serve Greater Los Angeles well when the next inevitable challenge arises. The ubiquity of nearby natural disasters like the Sonoma County fires serve as a constant reminder of the need to remain prepared.
Shared praise: When something is successful, the success accrues to the parties involved in a way that contributes to strengthening the relational aspects of their interaction.
When the Department of Homeland Security recognized the LA roundtable for its work at the 2016 FEMA Building Resilience with Diverse Communities awards, a diverse contingent of roundtable members—representing city agencies as well as Jewish, Black church, Catholic and Sikh communities, among others—traveled to Washington to receive the commendation. The group, which meets quarterly, takes great pride in its ongoing work, which in turn strengthens the group’s commitment to that work and to each group member.
Sharing benefits, responsibilities, and praise creates an environment of relational reciprocity. Future activity is enabled, the barriers to collaboration are lowered, and partners can more quickly move to maximize impact. And in an environment of relational reciprocity, parties have an ongoing commitment to mutuality. Knowledge is continually renewed, shared and appreciated; respect grows; and trust is maintained while the partners build their capacities.
Now is the time to start building relational partnerships. The truism of disaster work, whether a large-scale natural disaster or a small-scale community crisis, is that a disaster is the worst occasion to exchange business cards. Yet groups rarely put in the time and effort necessary to bridge the divides that separate them until such an event happens. It is in the aftermath of disasters that groups have the important realization that working separately is untenable. And it is critical that groups realize that building relational partnerships before crisis occurs is the most important predictor of a community’s ability to navigate and recover from any event that threatens social stability and flourishing.
Brie Loskota is a contributing fellow and the former executive director (2016-2021) of the USC Center for Religion and Civil Culture.