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Symposium 2017: Who Are You, Really?

Sometimes our first instinct when faced with a dilemma is to figure out what to do. But if a health care institution really wants to embark on a long-term journey with the local residents it claims to serve, then perhaps ‘doing’ might be put on hold while it focuses on shared meals, heart-to-heart talks, games or dancing. That way, all parties can figure out if this is a journey they’re willing to commit to.

Part of Bridging Health & Community’s focus is to create environments that enable people from different backgrounds to build relationships, whether it’s at the Creating Health Collaborative’s annual ‘CHC’ meetings, the May symposium or through its coaching work. We all know that it’s fundamental to the work we’re trying to do and in this post I’ll explain why, and illustrate a couple of techniques I’ve participated in or used.

Making the space

Terms like ‘collaborate’ and ‘relationship-building’ have become buzzwords. Under these umbrellas, a one-time outreach by a nonprofit is given the same status as a long-term process that grows friendships between the staff of that nonprofit and local residents. When we hold ourselves to the lofty heights of ‘collaborating’ or ‘building relationships’, often we’re not holding ourselves to anything at all.

Foundations often say they want grantees to build ‘relationships’ with communities. At the same time, though, grantees receive the money and are expected to return with a neat list of brag-worthy outcomes that gloss over the messiness and slowness inherent in trying to understand and trust people from different backgrounds and experiences.

Leigh Carroll

Leigh Carroll

Meetings and symposia that claim to be about multi-sector collaboration pack their agendas so full of content that they actively prevent participants from having the space to get to know one another. We see relationship building relegated to ‘networking’ over coffee, lunch or happy hour, the programming equivalent of crossing our fingers in the hope that a relationship is a natural outcome of two humans occupying the same space for a brief amount of time.

And yet, we all know, by having friends, family, and romance, that real relationships don’t happen effortlessly. It takes work to manage our egos and contemplate other people’s suggestions, to let our plans be diverted to new paths. In my experience, structure can help to speed up the process but it only works if we’re able to see ‘relationship building’ as an aim itself, rather than a step towards that brag-worthy list of outcomes.

How can we start?

The aim of any relationship-building technique is to make people feel able and willing to open up, listen, and begin to genuinely engage with others.

Share Our Real Selves

We partner with people based on who they are, not what they do. One activity that gets to that is called ‘the place through which we theorize’ (at the last CHC meeting we called it the place from which we ‘innovate’), and I have Andrew Binet and Alison Coffey from MIT’s CoLab to thank for introducing me to this one. Each person takes fifteen minutes to draw people, places, institutions, events, and ideas that have shaped how they see the world. Then everyone has the opportunity to share their drawings with the group.

Every time I have done this it has helped me to ‘unfreeze’ people, to view them as always-evolving individuals with rich histories and complicated influences that connect with my own in some way or another. And after I’ve shared my own drawing, I’ve felt more myself, less fearful of being judged merely on the words that come out of my mouth. The group dynamic also changes; we’re quicker to laugh or to question.

Shift the Balance of Power

I once asked a facilitator if he would facilitate a panel discussion that included health care professionals, academics, community organizers, and other community representatives. It was being held at the Institute of Medicine, and some speakers were not regular attendees at academic events like this. The facilitator pushed back about jumping into a panel discussion, asking me to imagine how I would feel showing up in a new environment and being expected to immediately reveal my personal experiences and opinions.

Instead, we kicked off the day with a series of activities, from games to interactive discussions about our hometowns. At first, we saw eye-rolls from some of the regular attendees of academic conferences. The community organizers and residents, however, felt right at home. And there and then, I saw the power shift. The group used to fitting in at these events were slightly uncomfortable, making space for those representing the ‘community voice’ to jump up and lead the discussions.

Shifting power is dependent on numbers too. We cannot expect people to speak up or reach out when they’re vastly outnumbered by people from different worlds.

Read Other People's Histories 

It’s perhaps obvious but bears repeating. Much of our lack of confidence in reaching out to people different to us is a result of ignorance. We need to make the time to learn about the many races, ethnicities, genders, geographies, and political groups that make up our heterogeneous world. One way to do that could be to have a book discussion group at work or conferences with people from different backgrounds.

We’ll be weaving some of these kinds of activities into the agenda for the forthcoming symposium. We’ve tried to keep the experience 50:50 – 50% content and 50% relationship-building.

I want to end realistically by saying that true relationship-building will take bigger changes, such as in funding requirements, work cultures or societal power dynamics. But, as with all of Bridging Health & Community’s work, we believe you have to start by just starting.


- Leigh Carroll

Leigh Carroll is a Member of the Board of Bridging Health & Community and a Masters in City Planning student at MIT, where she also works on the evaluation of the Healthy Neighborhoods Equity Fund. The evaluation is a study on neighborhood change and health and is being designed with residents across Eastern Massachusetts. Previously she worked at the Institute of Medicine, and before that she taught high school in Tanzania through the Peace Corps. She received a BS in neuroscience from the University of Rochester. LinkedIn Profile.