As our team at Active Living By Design (ALBD) has worked with community leaders, coalitions, and partnerships over the past 14 years, we have learned countless lessons about what works when it comes to creating sustainable healthy community change. We know that relationships matter—especially when we’re seeking change that is truly community-led. Good relationships set the tone for effective partnerships, one of three action steps in our Community Action Model.
So what does it take to forge good relationships?
On a recent call, a longer-than-expected chunk of my time was requested by a community leader. As our conversation hit the two-hour mark and my sore body and tired mind looked for a reason to stop, I recalled how freely she gives her time and energy to community members. She approaches her work selflessly and openly, listening patiently on the porches of neighborhood elders, devoting evenings and weekends to meetings and community-building events, encouraging emerging leaders, and smoothing the bumpy road to partnership for anyone who’s struggling. As a result, a diverse and expanding collaboration of leaders from all walks of life is gathering behind her community’s emerging vision. By reciprocating her generosity with just a bit of my own, I felt I was helping to establish a currency—or maybe even a culture—that would enable not only our relationship but also her partnership and vision to thrive.
There are many ways to show up to our work with a generous stance. One major way is through generous action: giving time, energy, attention, encouragement, and advice. Meaningful community engagement takes time. Policy, systems, and environmental change is also long and hard. When nurturing the relationships that sustain us, the gift of simply listening can go a long way. Sometimes sharing more information with community members than expected is a generous gesture that feeds a culture of transparency and accountability. These generous actions can lead to more trusting, effective partnerships.
Another form of generosity is just as powerful: having a generous attitude. A generous attitude allows us not to presuppose, but to be open to surprise. A willingness to be changed rather than just seeking to change others’ points of view provides breathing room for creativity and innovation. There is also the generosity of welcoming the stranger into your partnership, whether they are a newcomer or simply someone you suspect may be “difficult.” When you have a diverse partnership, there will always be misunderstandings and differences of intent, expectation, and opinion. Those moments call for a generosity of spirit and giving others the benefit of the doubt.
If you’d like to build more generosity into your partnership, the first questions to ask are, “What kind of partner am I? Am I coming to partnership with a generous stance? And can I see that generosity being reflected by those around me?” Try noticing generosity in others and acknowledge when someone has made a generous comment or done more than they had to. And the next time you’re on a call that runs long, remember that your generous attention may just be exactly what your partnership needs.