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Collaborating for Community

by Cyndee Patterson

April 6,2007

It is the day before the kick off of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg African American Agenda (CM3A) – an ambitious effort to gather people to consider disparities experienced by African Americans in Mecklenburg County. Planning had anticipated a crowd of 300 people. Instead, we at The Lee Institute – the process designers and project manager – are looking at pre-registration numbers of 1,000 people.

So, while we were working on where you feed and put 1,000 people – we were also excited about what it meant. It is a testimony to the fact that people want to be involved in shaping their future. The launch event for CM3A was a great success and the steering committee and Urban League continue moving this effort forward.

As CM3A and other projects have shown us, citizens are hungry for an opportunity to be heard and to participate in building a stronger community.

Our vision at The Lee Institute is that for communities to succeed, they must find ways to engage their citizens in the dialogue and the work of building collaboration across government, nonprofit and private sector lines. For us, collaboration in communities is not a "soft" endeavor. Collaboration requires leaders and citizens who are willing to look beyond philosophical, political and special interest boundaries to find solutions that can move the community toward positive outcomes.

The need for citizen input and collaboration is more important now that ever and seemingly harder to achieve. Philanthropists want nonprofit and public organizations to work together in the interests of efficiency and effectiveness. Citizens want their institutions to collaborate because questions of turf or barriers can prevent progress from being made. At The Lee Institute, we believe in collaboration because answers are inevitably found in areas of joint responsibility. Working together is the only approach that offers a real chance of success.

The work is not easy. It takes a willingness by people and organizations to be open to the potential that the answer may be different than their position. Collaboration requires that there is no win/lose style of community decision making. Instead, there must be a commitment that all ideas build the groundwork for a solution to a community issue. A process that ultimately brings forward the best of these ideas is the most effective, even if only small steps are taken.

At The Lee Institute, we believe that when you bring people together, you must establish trust and fairness as core values for the group process. When people take the time to contribute their thoughts, hopes and fears, they are contributing their most prized possessions, and you become responsible for that sacred bond. It is only through a process that has these values at the very core of the discussion can true collaboration occur and change take place.

The future of our diverse, fast growing and changing region will depend on the ability of leaders and citizens to engage in community processes that asks each of us to step up and withhold judgment about issues and people while working with honesty and openness to find the “win” for the community.

Some of The Lee Institute’s community collaborations have been large, like CM3A and the United Agenda for Children, involving 1,000 people plus. Some have been very specific, such as supporting the work of the Citizen’s Task Force on Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. We were asked by Mecklenburg County to lead and manage the work of the School Building Solutions Committee, chaired by former Governor Jim Martin. Future projects include the discussion of football at the UNC Charlotte, helping Henderson County, NC launch its own United Agenda for Children, and supporting an effort by Mecklenburg County government to increase and strengthen citizen involvement.

We are fortunate that our work is varied and interesting. Community work is exciting, tiring, exacerbating, but always inspiring. Time and again, we have been honored to see people from all different communities finding a way to work together.

As we look to our 10th anniversary, The Lee Institute, which was begun to honor Bill Lee, a great community leader, is proud to advance his legacy of service while bringing our best to the community.

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