When It Comes to Cultivating Connectedness and Social Innovation, Aim For Discoverables, Not Deliverables

John McKnight said, “A competent community creates space for what is unknowable about life.” Too often, however, philanthropists and funding opportunities emphasize a desire for outcomes that produce neat, tidy, and predictable deliverables but waste opportunities to learn about the unknown.

Often, applications emphasize assessment measures and logic models, which assume our communities operate according to a linear logic but ignore the richness that can come from the gift of being curious about people and places. We want to suggest that the work of philanthropy and community development should embrace discovery and encourage the relationship and social connectedness that comes from making the invisible visible.
We’re uncomfortable with mystery despite our need for it.

We’re intolerant of it along with any gaps in our knowledge.

We build our models and need to plan out every moment, detail, and contingency to maintain our illusion of control.

And in so doing, we can squelch or overlook the creative work going on. Mystery is the essence of faith. It is also the essence of discovering what will make us stronger, wiser, and better.

We must begin by acknowledging that in any endeavor, we don’t know what we don’t know. Only then can we begin to look at life and look at people with a sense of awe, wonder, and appreciation.

The idea is to be filled with joy at exploring life and learning to recover the capacity for wonder.

We have no difficulty understanding the importance of research in science.
Pharmaceutical companies invest millions a day, confident in the work of their scientists even though all the scientists can truly promise is that the fruits of their research may have an array of applications. They don’t know what they will discover without going in and investigating. Their ongoing work builds on their initial discoveries. When they apply for grants, those same scientists have to use language they know the potential donors want, which isn’t the reality of the work, process, or results (and why so many science research grants include phrasing like “can be applied to cancer”). The bottom line is that researchers cannot prototype until they discover. And yet, funders rarely encourage the act and messiness of discovery.

Funders often privilege evidence-based practices and processes for many reasons. However, what is rarely acknowledged is how much of what counts as evidence is limited and incomplete, inconclusive and unimportant. Take, for example, an afterschool tutoring program. When it comes to assessing or evaluating the program, what gets noticed? What gets counted and logged? Contact hours, how many students attended, how many volunteers tutored, practices during a tutoring session, and students’ grades over a semester or academic year. However, the real evidence, the stuff of importance—the future lives of the young people, the quality of their lives, how they can flourish and contribute to their communities— goes unnoticed and unnoted. The research used to produce evidence-based processes is often a snapshot, a shot in the dark, and requires that for every data point, we direct our attention to, we must then ignore countless other sources of data.

Evidence-based processes lead to evidence-based systems, which can lead to predictable outcomes. While consistent outcomes can be desirable and most funders hope to put money behind practices supported by evidence, evidence-based systems can also stifle innovation and prevent opportunities to learn and discover. To be on the cutting edge of art and social change requires the requisite investment of time and resources into relationships: learning the assets of a community and collecting their stories to create a deeply connected network, one that threads through the fabric of community. Too often, people and organizations fill out grants based on the dictates of the funders. That’s the problem of outcomes: you can measure things, but you can’t come in with a set of prerequisite measurements. A true practitioner has to listen first, find out what’s going on, understand what people are already doing, and then come alongside that.

A fundamental practice of The Learning Tree has been to know our neighbors. To not only learn about one another but to truly see one another. Their giftedness, their passions, what activates them into communal practice. And then we take that to the next level by celebrating the truth of who we are. We practice this sacred art of discovery by being willing to see people how they want to be seen, creating opportunities and spaces for people to share their gifts and talents, and sharing stories that allow people to tell us how they need to be needed.

This process of discovery will provide us with discoverables—those things and ideas that we did not know and would not know had we not taken the time to see and hear fully and that allow us to understand an issue more deeply or to begin to imagine new possibilities of being and action. Discovery starts with an invitation to come alongside someone, an invitation to sit with them or join them on a learning journey, or an invitation to begin a relationship with them. This is how we begin to see and reveal the gifts and talents of residents and the unseen strengths of a community. Discoverables are the desired outcome of community development and community remembering. As the social researcher Michelle Fine reminds us, “Expertise is equally distributed, but recognition of that expertise is not.”

Adopting a mode of discovery allows us to begin to understand what we have been missing. We cannot tell you what we will deliver because we do not yet know, but we can say with certainty that we will discover something that will deepen our knowledge and strengthen our appreciation for mystery.

Artistic processes can be used to increase capacity, innovate, create space for agency, develop economic equity, and control the narratives of the community. Think of jazz as an artistic process. Every jazz musician is schooled in improvisation, a skill set based on observing, listening, and reacting. There’s no pre-determined plan, no program, no sense of control, no pre-defined structure. There’s only the interplay of the past preparedness of each musician, the science and art of fully developed creative muscles, and honed intuition borne of instinct and experience. Each musician trusts in each other’s skill to essentially compose and perform at the same time. The performers and the performance determine the structure.

Turning to the art and practice of writing, there’s the increasing realization of the power of story. People are a collection of stories, their lives lived as storytellers. Film director Shekhar Kapur often reminds his audiences that “we are the stories we tell ourselves.” As such, it becomes doubly important for the marginalized to assume control of their narratives. Marginalized voices are not usually heard. Diverse perspectives are too often shunted to the side. Yet it is through shared stories that people form communities, developing a greater sense of empathy, which informs and strengthens relationships. Too often, however, final reports and assessments leave no room for these stories and do not know how to value or use discoverables.

For example, we hired a writer to begin to collect the stories of some of our neighbors. The neighbors were acknowledged as being a vital part of the community and invited to share their stories. This cannot be over-emphasized: they were asked, and they were listened to.

So often the marginalized have been told they are worthless. An immediate break in that deficit-based narrative occurred when residents stopped being seen primarily as the problems they faced and started to be seen for the gifts they offered. Once that story has been written, it gets reflected back to the neighbor. Sometimes, we are the worst judges of our own worth. We have spent our lives in the throes of a negative narrative, so entrenched in it that it begins to shape not only how we see ourselves but how we behave and the stories we tell ourselves. We listen to the negative voices to the point where we can’t hear the positive ones. In those cases, the community must assemble as a chorus to speak positivity into one another’s lives. Their lives, their inherent worth, are seen through the lens of community to deepen the understanding that they are known and seen and treasured.

Data and outcomes are important. They tell stories to people who are providing money and support. But to really do this work, maybe it’s time to adopt a new mindset, a new business model, so to speak, as well as a new language to talk about the process. This new business model pivots on a new rate of return. Investors make a business proposal and want a return on investment (ROI). Those looking to be funded must determine how to demonstrate and measure it. Funders who invest in evidence-based processes always talk about data because they need to measure for the sake of their return. So it’s about what they measure.

But discoverables can count as data as well, data that can be converted to action. Statistics don’t tell the complete story of a neighborhood. Numbers do not describe what relationships look like, what families look like, how neighbors connect, or the many types of power neighbors wield.

Yet, numbers and stats make up the bulk of quantifiable storytelling about places and neighborhoods in the United States. For example, consider the following two ways to tell a story about our own neighborhood.

Story 1

Here are some statistics about our neighborhood: The Learning Tree has been doing community-building work in the United Northwest Area (UNWA) neighborhood of Indianapolis, Indiana, since 2010, with the organization officially forming in 2015.
UNWA is bounded by I-65 to the north and east, 16th Street to the south, and the White River to the west. Three are nearly 6,400 residents in the UNWA community, 93.5% are minorities. The median age of the UNWA residents is 36.1 years (37 for Indiana and 37.2 for the U.S.), with 14.4% of the population being over 65. [Sources: Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, 2010; American Community Survey, 2011] UNWA community is officially classified by the USDA as a food desert (defined as a low-income census tract in which at least 500 people and/or33% of the population live more than 1 mile from a grocery store). This translates into 34.8% of the residents (1,102 people) experiencing this limited access to food [Source: USDA Food Desert Locater, 2012].

The unemployment rate runs 24.3% and the poverty rate is 30.1%. This is several times that of the county, state, or nation. Per capita and median income are $10-20,000 less than that of Marion County, Indiana, or the U.S.

An analysis of education, employment, poverty, income, and assessed property value within the blocks of the UNWA community would find the blocks ranked, on average, 541st of 658 block groups in Marion County. In other words, the blocks would be in the bottom 20% of Indianapolis.

Over 60% of the area’s housing was built prior to 1940.

One in three housing units are vacant.

This represents an opportunity to help restore a historic neighborhood. [Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, 2010; American Community Survey, 2010, 2011; Bureau of Labor Statistics.]

Story 2

Here’s a story about our neighborhood: Ro and Earl Townsend, both spoken word artists, have lived in the community for years and successfully launched their own catering company.

They knew of several folks in the neighborhood who ran or were looking to develop their own catering ventures, but the expense of preparing enough wares and getting them out to people were prohibitive. They thought of doing a small plate event and inviting in neighbors to support one another. Having participated in many Open Mic events during their career, they came up with the name Open Bite.

The first one launched in the wake of a nation-wide spate of police violence toward the African American community.

Expecting 75 people to show up to the event, they were nearly overwhelmed by the 300+ people who turned out for it. The event proved to be a healing one, allowing residents to grieve and protest while celebrating a sense of community.

When they did the second Open Bite Night event, building on that sense of community, over 1,000 people turned out.

What was the measurable? The 1000+ people?

No, the countless stories and associations discovered along the way.

Both of These Stories Are True

However, only one story allows one to see the potential, capability, and power of residents. The work is about discoverables, the root of which means to uncover, reveal, or tell a story. Discoverables are about finding out what is working. It’s the market analysis of non-profit work, doing things based on what we already know and understand. However, it represents a different type of market analysis since we’re not looking to build a business but rather invest in the community. Coming alongside what’s already going on without disrupting it. This leads to outcomes that impact people where they live. If community development doesn’t start with any preconceived outcomes, what is that potential or type of return? The language of anticipated outcomes becomes Return on Community (ROC).

The nature of community development and community organizing work is emergent and unpredictable, reflecting the complex problems of dealing with complex systems. If a major endowment comes along to give money and then asks, “What are your outcomes? What are your deliverables?” it cannot be said to be philanthropic in the truest sense of the word. What’s truly philanthropic is saying that we’ve discovered this group of artists and will invest in them. We will invest in a group of writers to tell stories about what they see. In return, we may get a second, then a third, and a fourth Black Arts Movement. We may get economic opportunities and money flowing into the hands of artists back into the neighborhood. We may see communities self-beautified, and people reinvigorated. We don’t know, but we have to be willing to invest in their discovery. If you really want to help the community, start with discovery. The discoverables are the conduits that will make the changes.

 

 

 

This article was originally published by the Learning Tree.

Going Further:

About the Lead Author

DeAmon Harges
DeAmon Harges
DeAmon Harges is one of eight most influential neighborhood organizers on the ground, says the Kettering Foundation. The original “Roving Listener” as a neighbor and staff member of the Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, DeAmon’s special talent is to bring neighbors and institutions together to discover the power of being a good neighbor. He characterizes his work in general as the practice of “deep listening” and “positive deviance” from the typical models of neighborhood organizing. Read more about DeAmon and his work at The Learning Tree and the ABCD Institute website.

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