As I listened, I realized I was hearing a shift. It was a celebration bringing together a group of dedicated community leaders who discussed their experiences with the Aspirations to Actions initiative. Yes, the questions I asked were about what they themselves had learned, but they were not really talking about themselves. Their answers were more about their communities; about how grateful people were to be able to speak freely and be heard; how people wanted to get involved to make the community better; and the power of a shared vision.
I also kept hearing the hallmarks of one of The Harwood Institute’s 3 A’s – Authenticity. It wasn’t always said explicitly. The list of single words that people used to describe this past year included Awesome, Real, Long-term, Learning, Unexpected, and Respect. But as they started to unpack their learning from the year, authenticity came up again and again.
What struck me was that they were not describing an abstract concept but rather a change in the way that they were engaging with people and their communities. Or to be more precise, how the community was seeing them and their work in new ways.
In a world where too often our civic conversations feel fake, or even worse angry and divisive, these communities were seeing a different and refreshing conversation -- one that is authentic and one with people who are deeply interested in different ideas and approaches, even if it makes the process a whole lot messier.
What made this so powerful for me was that this is a group of people with vast experience in community engagement work in their neighborhoods, churches, and schools. This is a group of people who have always cared deeply about their communities. But as more than one person said - they learned that words matter, and that listening matters.
Their communities obviously saw a shift in both their words and how they were approaching their work. It was clear that community members felt more a part of the work; both listened to and included in the learning.
This past year of listening and learning together affirmed for them the power of approaching their community work in this way, one that is rooted in authenticity. They also helped each other see that this practice had a special appeal to their communities.
When we keep our heads down and work so hard at own programs and organizations, we miss the opportunity to try new approaches and learn from each other. The shared learning out of Aspirations to Actions has been a valuable gift of time to listen, reflect, and learn together.
Change has already happened in a number of Suncoast communities this past year. I know that the Aspirations to Actions teams may not agree with that. They have set their sights high for change, including new levels of respect, new programs and resources for people in need, or more vibrant, creative, and inclusive communities. There certainly have been numerous small steps toward these goals, but the shift that I heard was of people in these communities seeing a new way of listening and learning together.
They are seeing a new way of working together. This big change provides a foundation for many more all-important small steps.
Bill Booth is a certified coach of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation.
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