By J Wilberg
Stress and strain, conflict and consternation are nothing new with important community projects that involve a lot of different interests, a ton of money, and little agreement about which problem to solve. This was highlighted by last week’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article looking at the city’s latest effort to reduce infant mortality. In an article entitled, “Program to reduce infant mortality slow to get going,” published as part of the newspaper’s Empty Cradles: Confronting Our Infant Mortality Crisis, reporter Crocker Stephenson tells us two stories. One story is about Tia Love, an African American mom who received intensive home visitation during her pregnancy and after her son was born and who could now well be the ambassador for the program throughout the country.
Contrast that to the tremendous frustration of the second story – the inability of local interests to form an effective and sustainable coalition to manage several million dollars in funding from the Wisconsin Partnership. Of the things we do well in Milwaukee, heaping blame may be at the top of the list. In this case, the blame goes to Patricia McManus, PhD., head of the Black Health Coalition, and an intense, uncompromising, very experienced leader in the African American community. Her complaint, as described in the article, is that the local coalition effort was not being run by the community but by outside interests. She is portrayed as the spoiler, the one responsible for the Wisconsin Partnership’s decision to pull back its substantial investment.
This kind of story is familiar to me – the faltering and weakening of coalition efforts. Usually, these are community initiatives that start with great fanfare and, often, the promise of significant financial reward once a plan is developed. All the ‘right’ people are called to the table and they’re told to come up with a plan and a consensus. And it’s a bust. Maybe there’s a plan but there’s no consensus. Why is that?
It’s not about a person. It’s about the process. If the process is not genuine, it will fail. Either we can blame the person who keeps pointing out that it’s not a genuine process,who, in this case, I think is probably Dr. McManus, or we can figure out how to make community planning processes genuine.
It’s this simple: The technical expertise cannot lead the planning process; instead it must inform a process led by people with lived experience. In other words, the consultant or the technical expert must essentially say to the group: How can I help you decide what to do? What information should I gather? Where should I look for answers? How do you want to make decisions?
When the technical experts lead a community planning process, everyone but them is disenfranchised. And this makes the non technical experts, aka the community, very, very angry. They feel patronized, minimized, and marginalized. They rightfully perceive that their lived experienced is viewed as less valuable than the experts’ technical knowledge. It’s conflict from the jump.
There’s an old adage in youth development work and it is, “Kids don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” In providing technical support to a community planning effort, the ‘expert’ needs to demonstrate that he/she cares by keeping his/her mouth shut and listening. Of all the things a consultant is asked to do, this may be the toughest. Sit down, listen, take a back seat, understand where people who have the lived experience you lack think the process should go, and help them get there.
Everything I talk about on this blog I’ve learned the hard way. That’s why I know whereof I speak. Signing off this fine February day,