United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region: Public Innovator Team Pick

This edition of The Harwood Institute’s Public Innovator Pick features the team at United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region.  The organization has been a major catalyst in making the area a better place to live, working with – and bringing together – a wide variety of individuals, groups and others to develop solutions that tackle the community’s most pressing problems. The United Way staff there has worked closely with The Harwood Institute, using tools and guidance from the Institute to better understand the community and shift conditions that set the stage for effective collaboration on issues ranging from early childhood education to selecting a new city manager. Following is a Q&A with the United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region team. The Harwood Institute: How and when did United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region first come into contact with The Harwood Institute?

United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region: We first came into contact with The Harwood Institute in 2007 via the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. At the time we were working with a group of people focused on improving community outcomes in Battle Creek. The group, now known as Project 20/20, found the Institute’s Community Rhythms Report  and Public Capital Factor tools very helpful in identifying key activities that would move the community forward in positive ways.  As a result, we collectively developed goals to connect, inform and engage leaders at all levels. We highlighted pockets of effectiveness already occurring in the community in the areas of education, health, economic development and youth.

THI: The United Way of the Battle Creek and Kalamazoo Region has been working with The Harwood Institute for eight years now. How has your training in the Harwood practice changed the way you work?

Over the last eight years, our experience with and training in the application of Harwood practices have taught us several things. First, we learned it is critical that we value both public and expert knowledge. By intentionally engaging with our community to more deeply and authentically understand issues at a core level, we can develop solutions that are more comprehensive and address the community’s current conditions. At the same time, we realize that money alone will not change our social conditions. If we are to make real progress, engaging people in their shared aspirations is an important step. The Harwood approach has taught us to build on our assets rather than focus on our deficits. It shows how we, as a community, are interdependent.

UWBCKR: We have also used the Harwood practices to catalyze a shift in the mindset (and actions) of Battle Creek’s nonprofit sector, combining expert and public knowledge as a foundation for effective collaboration and collective action on community issues. A result has been the community recognizing the value of United Way as not only a community funder, but also as a leadership/catalyst/convening-connecting/learning/boundary-spanning organization that implements solutions.

THI: What are some of the highlights of your accomplishments in the community as a result of using the Harwood practice?

UWBCKR: Project 20/20: In earlier work with The Harwood Institute, we discovered we didn’t yet have the public capital we needed to work collectively to improve outcomes in the community. That led community leaders to form Project 20/20 in 2008. With Project 20/20, now a core team partner in the Beacon Community work, we’re further building upon that foundation of public capital and expanding the reach and scope of Harwood tools and practices. At the same time, we’re modeling the behaviors and norms necessary to work together more effectively across various segments of the community and among as many organizations as possible.

Early Childhood Education and the Burmese Community:  In 2008, the State of Michigan created the Office of Great Start and required all counties in Michigan to generate a strategic plan for coordinated early childhood education in Calhoun County.  The W.K. Kellogg Foundation introduced Great Start to The Harwood Institute.  A small group that included United Way representatives was formed as the lead team for embedding Harwood practices into the strategic plan work. It was through the learning and application of these practices that the community decided to focus on integrating the growing Burmese population into the fabric of the Battle Creek community.  The intent was to 1) learn and better understand the aspirations and hopes of this growing refugee population migrating from Burma (Myanmar) to Battle Creek, and 2) take action on existing barriers to help this highly marginalized group assimilate into a new community and new culture.

After 2 years of intentionally applying the Harwood practices, we helped the Burmese develop an early childhood strategic plan, a new systemic approach and focused early childhood programs. Through these efforts, the larger Battle Creek community learned about the Burmese and developed better cultural sensitivities and understanding and enabled the community to better welcome immigrant and refugee families with young children into the county-wide early childhood network. The resulting “ripple effect” of impact included changes in practices within our local healthcare system that provided assistance for non-English speaking patients in areas such as pre- and post-natal care. It also created greater community-wide awareness of the existence of the Burmese community and an openness to accept these new residents into the Battle Creek community.

Education Mobilization – Early-Grade Reading: In 2010, Battle Creek was selected as one of 10 communities across the country to participate in a learning cohort led by United Way Worldwide. The focus of the cohort was to learn and apply new skill sets for engaging all parts of the community and mobilizing resources around a shared educational issue of concern. Through the course of several community conversations specific to aspirations and barriers to educational success in Battle Creek, we collectively decided to tackle a specific issue:  the high number of students unable to read at grade level by the end of the 3rd grade. Over and over again we heard that parents were frustrated that their children couldn’t read. That eventually led to mobilizing resources and a partnership with the local school district and educational service agency to develop a comprehensive early-grade reading intervention that led to tremendous gains in reading proficiency.

THI: What has been your role in Battle Creek becoming a Beacon Community and moving that initiative forward?

UWBCKR: As the previous examples illustrate, we experienced positive outcomes when we intentionally engaged with the community by turning outward.  In our discussions internally and with partners in the community we felt that scaling the work with Harwood in the community was essential. We needed to build the culture and the norms that put public knowledge and community engagement at the center of our work in Battle Creek. We also believed that this needed to be done at the individual and organizational level, embedding and sustaining the practices for the future.

Additionally, our goal was to work across all parts of the community to ensure it was not seen as a nonprofit or social service-only focus. Thanks to the support of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and our partnership with The Harwood Institute, the foundation was laid for Battle Creek to become the first-ever Beacon Community.

Leveraging this history and the lessons everyone has learned, the community was able to build public capital and plant the seeds necessary to shift toward a culture that values and includes public knowledge. This has allowed us to build our community’s capacity and take collective action on issues that matter to people by using a multi-perspective, cross-sector, more systemic and holistic approach to achieving sustainable change. As a result, we are now:

  • Working directly with organizations in the private, public and nonprofits sectors;
  • Increasing the number of Harwood-certified coaches who can help support people and organizations as they implement Harwood tools and practices;
  • Sharing stories of success and lessons learned to encourage others and expand this work;
  • Committed to changing our community over the next generation in positive ways that impact the lives of children and families in Battle Creek and across the region.

THI: How has the community benefited from being part of the Beacon Community initiative?

UWBCKR: A major benefit of Beacon Community efforts is the shift toward a culture that seeks to include the community in decisions that affect them. We see this demonstrated in the vastly increased number of diverse and accessible opportunities for community members to voice their aspirations, concerns, and suggestions to improve conditions related to them. For example, when it came time to choose a new city manager, residents’ concerns and aspirations were gathered – and information about the candidates was distributed - through in-person conversations held in every ward of the city, in online surveys and by mail in city-wide water bills. We used similar methods to:

  • Gather information from residents and get their input to form the Consolidated Plan process that distributes funds to improve conditions and services for low-income residents and neighborhoods;
  • Help a school district understand the community’s needs, find new opportunities and identify a new mission;
  • Help a group understand what types of businesses the community would like to see along a major throughway;
  • Engage people in targeted conversations about community gardens, arts groups, church services, preschool and child care;
  • Help people who make decisions about our parks and recreation discern how they can best serve the community.

At the end of the day, all of these efforts support people’s aspirations and voices so they can step forward and make a difference in the community.