Awesome? Awful? Awkward? The inside scoop on Green Line partnerships

February 10, 2016

 

Since 2008, the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative has helped to organize and support cross-sector, corridor-wide working groups to learn, plan, and act together around critical issues such as: small business support, affordable housing, parks and open space, culture-led community development, and job access.  Indeed, this process was at the heart of the Funders Collaborative strategy of sparking lasting change along the Green Line.

On January 22, 2016, 35 individuals working on transit projects throughout the region—representing community and business organizations, government and philanthropy—came together to learn firsthand how various cross-sector partnerships worked (and faltered) along the Green Line.  

A panel of working group leaders shared their experiences about what worked, what hurt, and what could be improved when working in this collaborative way.

One common ground theme panelists shared is how fundamental relationship building is in this process – especially when the going gets tough.  In Saint Paul, Stark, Homans, and Watters had been working on the corridor in different capacities, long before plans were finalized, building relationships along the way.  As Stark reflected, “We had a good starting point, and built trust with openness.  There were no wrong answers or questions.  We started with “what is this corridor about for you and for us as a community.”

As the project grew more and more intense, these relationships provided the foundation needed to keep this initiative moving forward. “It really comes down to a lot of trust and relationships. Collaboration takes a lot of time. There are a lot of meetings and you can’t shirt-circuit that,” Watters said.

Homans said this foundation, combined with a shared sense of purpose, helped pave the way to success. “We had many different goals and interests but I think what we found is that we had shared values on how we wanted this to turn out.”

Many of these relationships were the result of being inclusive. Councilman Stark referred to the I-94 project and how this had weakened neighborhoods’ trust of government before the light rail project even started. “In the context of that history, it was still very recent. It was very raw. There had been this big government project that hurt. And now, we were having a conversation about a new big government project.”

Stark and many others involved in the initiative knew they had one chance to get this project right.  During Mayor Coleman’s inaugural speech back in 2006, Homans remembers helping him draft this statement, “We will build this. But we will respond to those whose lives are touched by this effort. They will be heard with patience and respect.”

Homans goes on to say that in many ways, this was about understanding what happened in the Rondo neighborhood but also an opportunity to redeem the Rondo story.

To achieve this, it meant continuously ushering in and welcoming new people to the table, with as minimal barrier to entry as possible. “After a time we realized the folks at the table, were folks being paid to be there. We started getting feedback we had lost some of the voices. So, we started growing the table and growing the conversation,” Stark said.

Throughout this project, the only constant was the unknown. And, success occurred when people were responsive and nimble enough to navigate the constant change.  Watters remembers starting Corridors 2 Careers, thinking it’d be a strong cross-sector collaboration. “There were lots of great partnerships but it was not a collaborative – it was a project,” Watters says. “It ultimately became really successful and had great value. But as a collaboration – there were a lot of lessons learned of what not to do…You have to be clear about who is at the table, what they are bringing, and what they want out of it.”

Working with seven cultural districts, Mouacheupao recalled the need to change how her organization was participating.  “We shifted away from a competitive grantmaking process into a more collaborative process.”  In the initiative’s second year, partners shared an equal amount of resources which led to more opportunities for the cohort to work collectively.

A willingness to change sometimes meant transitioning roles quickly. “I went to a meeting around how do you ensure green space and parks are a part of the development that will come as a result of the line. By the time the meeting was over, I was the lead of the group,” Fletcher said of her involvement.

This willingness to evolve and change to achieve the overall goal of the collaborative is a continuous process. “You’re planning but you’re adjusting and shifting almost daily. I think the other shift that happens and that is really important to the work is internal cultural shifts within the partner organizations. To be really effective as collaboration you’re asking people to do things differently, to think outside the norm,” Watters says.

The overall success of the partnerships was built on solid relationships, trust, inclusion and being nimble. But, all of this wouldn’t have happened without great people. “We were very blessed by extraordinary people who came with a shared mission, purpose, open hearts and minds,” Homans said.

Funders matter. It is hard to know what outcomes might have been without Funders Collaborative grant dollars. What is known is the funding allowed for the structure, time and resources to make this collaboration successful.

“Philanthropy should be invited in at moments of great change,” Carrie Jo Short of The Saint Paul Foundation noted during closing discussion.

During a time of great change, the commitment, leadership, and foresight from these cross-sector partnerships helped to shape a corridor interwoven with the communities’ hopes, visions, and interests.

 

For detailed meeting notes, click here.