Finding the 'Sweet Spot'

Increasingly, as I travel the country, I find myself talking about the “sweet spot of public life” – how we can take action on specific issues and build community at the same time. This past week was no different. I spent two days with 40 leaders of local collaboratives in Newark, NJ, good people who are urgently focused on strengthening families and children. The challenges in Newark (and Essex County) are tough, long-standing, often depressing – but doable. In these communities, people often feel that no one speaks for or listens to them. Finding sustainable pathways for improving their local conditions can be hard. People worry that they are being left behind. Truth be told, many people are falling through the cracks. The collaboratives sit at two critical nexus points in relationship to these challenges. They work among people in neighborhoods trying to create change; and they sit in-between “official” city structures and the local neighborhoods and communities to ensure that all people are at the table of public discussion and decision-making. Indeed, they serve as essential connective tissue that can help to bring about a greater sense of community wholeness. No doubt, there is compelling need for better policies and programs that address people’s core concerns around families and children; but it is also the case, according to the folks in Newark and Essex County, that effective policies and programs also require the community coming together in new ways – from people supporting one another to people taking more responsibility for themselves. Indeed, a recurring theme of the conversation in Newark was how to tap people’s own potential to create change and come together to forge stronger communities. But what does this mean? How does it happen? How does it sustain itself? This is a challenge I hear everywhere I go. We must design initiatives that not only focus on a specific issue, but that also build the relationships, leaders, networks, and norms of communities – the stuff that makes communities go – what I call “public capital.” In Newark and Essex County, there were three key components of public capital that need attention if the community is to effectively address its core concerns around families and children:

• Cultivating leaders – there is a real need to identify and engage “untapped” leaders in the community who hold authority and authenticity in the eyes of residents. These leaders can help engage, inspire, and support people and their causes in ways that leaders outside the community simply cannot; • Creating safe space for discussion – there is a real need to create safe spaces in which people can come together to identify their aspirations, wrestle with competing values, and find ways to join hands in building a stronger community and strengthening families. The conversations that are now taking place too often focus on complaints and expert-framed policy issues that fail to move individuals and the community forward; • Building networks – there is a real need to build networks in which organizations and leaders can learn about each other, build trust, and discover new ways (or strengthen existing ways) of working together. These networks reduce the time and costs associated with mistrust, the spinning of wheels, the pointing of fingers, and the inaction which results when we are unable to overcome obstacles. The importance of finding the sweet spot cannot be over-emphasized. For it is not merely an academic point, or something simply to theorize about. Rather, the challenge is how can we move ahead? Let’s face it, whether in Newark or in other communities, we will never have all the resources, time, and people we want to address the challenges before us. Instead, we must find ways to leverage our resources for making progress. That, I believe, requires that we find the sweet spot. Then we can have the very capacities we need to act on the challenges we seek to overcome.