This is a reflection piece written by the Puyallup Watershed Initiative about their recent participation in the spring Sustainable Southeast Partnership retreat.
The Puyallup Watershed Initiative (PWI) is all about building community. It turns out the PWI itself belongs to a community.
It’s not a big community – yet.
“The pool of people doing backbone staffing to support this work is pretty small. There are not a lot of peers, so it’s valuable hearing another community trying out an initiative like this, learning about their successes – because you might be the only group in your region,” said Jennifer Chang, Acting Director for the PWI. The Puyallup Watershed Initiative is a new model for community-centered change. Our mission is to improve social and environmental conditions throughout the region, which comprises more than 1,000 square miles from Mt. Rainier to Commencement Bay in Washington State.
Thanks to the Sustainable Southeast Partnership (SSP) in Alaska, and with support from The Nature Conservancy, the community of place-driven locally-led change makers just grew a lot stronger in the Pacific Northwest. Like with many such connections, this one started with an email.
Back in Fall of last year, Aaron Ferguson, Regional Sustainability Catalyst for the SSP, emailed the PWI with some intriguing questions about impact and sustainability. As noted in the first article on Learning Exchanges, this topic is a major focus for the PWI as it enters the second half of its 10-year project span. The SSP was in a mindset, and Aaron’s questions hit home with the PWI team: does PWI rely on philanthropy to sustain its work? Memberships? What is the PWI’s organizational structure? Is it a nonprofit? A for-profit? A mix of the two? How did the PWI preserve its mission while balancing funding considerations?
Amidst all that brainstorming and conversation, one question naturally popped up for Jennifer: “Wouldn’t it be cool to do a Learning Exchange?” The idea was that one organization would host the other to share and ideate together. Face-to-face meetings, facilitated discussions, patient listening – for two organizations focused on community engagement and action, that could be the only way to communicate.
Knowing that the Nature Conservancy was keen to see such exchanges occur, Aaron at the SSP reached out to them and, together with the PWI team, submitted a proposal to fund a community learning exchange where PWI staff would fly out to southeastern Alaska to meet with the SSP team. The proposal was accepted, and within months, the SSP and the PWI had planned the learning exchange; it would occur from March 7 to March 9, 2018, alongside SSP’s spring retreat.
Jennifer Chang, Acting Director for the PWI, Community Relations Manager April Nishimura, and Alisa O’Hanlon for the City of Tacoma’s Office of Government Relations office, packed up their warmest winter gear and headed north for the three-day session with SSP. Jennifer and April are part of the PWI staff, but Alisa’s involvement was especially interesting. Besides being her first time in Alaska, Alisa had served on the PWI’s Transitional Board to guide the PWI toward creating a permanent Community Board. Alisa’s knowledge and understanding of the mechanisms that would help the PWI endure would be hugely relevant to this trip.
The PWI and the SSP’s two teams shared about their successes in building community and creating a communication culture that prioritized relationship-building and community-level input. They discussed their similarities and did not shy away from sharing deeply felt challenges, like the few number of organizations working in this space, the focus on a process-driven instead of outputs-driven model, the delicate balance between effective decision-making and governance structures, and the sometimes overwhelming question: What exactly does your organization do?
The various answers to that question revealed why organizations like the PWI and the SSP are crucial for community-building. For Alisa, one answer is communication. How are we signaling to each other in the community about emerging needs? How are we communicating together as a team to share information freely? Using a team sports analogy, how are we helping inform our teammates about our position so they can pass us the ball? “Both of our organizations are trying to figure out how to keep up that communication in a timely manner that keeps pace with the work,” Alisa said.
While many productive meetings occurred indoors, a key lesson presented itself to the PWI team outdoors as well. Like the SSP, the PWI is a place-based organization that is deeply invested in its environmental health and influenced by its location. The PWI team learned how southeastern Alaska’s conditions of low population density and lengthy travel shaped the way SSP staff intentionally build relationships and networks. “You don’t have a lot of people around you so you have to be conscientious about reaching out,” said Jennifer. “When you need help, you have to have that support system in place.”
Jennifer believes place-based, community- driven learning will drive our push toward sustainability. “At heart, we believe as community members of our community, we have the answers,” she said.
Both sides came away from the session impressed with the other: the PWI appreciated the SSP’s “Community Catalysts” as connected, direct points of contact in communities participating within SSP who support and further local action, while the SSP felt the PWI’s Community Board was a real step forward in creating an independent entity that can realize its own vision and values.
So while the start of this discussion has answered some questions and raised even more, perhaps the best takeaway is: in this work, we are not alone.
For more information about the Puyallup Watershed Initiative’s vision for community-centered change to address environmental and social inequities, visit: http://pwi.org