Thursday, September 29, 2011

If Partnership is the New Leadership – the YLAH Perspective

by Carolyn Reid, Young Leaders in Affordable Housing

Young Leaders in Affordable Housing (YLAH) members gathered on Tuesday for a discussion with a distinguished panel of mentors as part of the Solutions for Sustainable Communities" 2011 Learning Conference on State and Local Housing Policy agenda. Rick Cohen, National Correspondent for The Nonprofit Quarterly guided the discussion based on findings from his recent “New Voices in Community Development” article (subscription required). The piece is based on commentary from a dozen young people working in community development from all over the US.

We all nodded when Rick summarized the reasons that we get into this field in the first place: we believe in working for social change that will make the world a more just place; we want to apply creative solutions to real problems; we want a meaningful career. While the discussion turned into a frank dialogue of generational hubris – “we are educated and we have ideas, just give us a shot” versus “we started this movement before you were born, put your head down and learn something” – the content of the conference itself spoke directly to our aspirations for creative work.

If there was one overriding theme in the conference, it was that collaboration is the way forward; we need to cut across agencies, institutions, and administrative boundaries to progress toward sustainability. The point was underscored in the Federal Policy Plenary, where members of the Partnership for Sustainable Communities explained the challenges of silo-busting (or perhaps silo cracking?) at the federal level, to the Town Hall Plenary where DC region leaders from state jurisdictions expressed frustration in overcoming de jure boundaries that don’t reflect the de facto region.

I spoke with a few attendees about the fact that, while there was a housing connection in every session, this was not just a housing conference. Here’s just one example, from the Tuesday session, Meeting Community Needs for Services and Education. During the session, Justin Walker shared the Rainbow Housing Assistance Corporation’s unique approach to stabilizing affordable multifamily housing communities by providing resident services. In his description, Justin emphasized a phrase that is quickly reaching the viral tipping-point “partnership is the new leadership,” attributed to the President of the Rockefeller Foundation, Judith Rodin.

A quick example of Rainbow’s Work: Haverstock Hills, a 700-unit development in Houston, had high-turnover and obvious gang problems. When Rainbow came in, they partnered with the District Attorney’s office to create a safe zone that encompassed a nearby elementary zone, and even put a DA office onsite. This partnership, along with the opening of a community center with a computer lab and continuing education resources, has been critical to turning Haverstock Hills around.

What’s my point? If collaboration and holistic thinking are part of this new normal we keep hearing about, then YLAH members should be encouraged that continued work in community development will allow us to engage our creative potentials to initiate social change. In other words, our lofty dreams of self-actualization in the workplace are alive and well (despite the economy, cough).

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