Ten Lessons for Thriving in the Face of Change

Jennifer Vanica | February 5, 2019

What the Marathon Takes

When I was 28, I decided I was going to run a marathon. It was an endurance test. And not just on race day, but during the months of training that led up to it. I started slow. I set a goal of two miles, then five miles, then ten. Out on the road, I came to understand pace and the steady rhythm of my foot-fall, mile after mile, enjoying the contemplative time, the beauty of the open road, and the cloud formations in the sky.

I remember on race day my husband kept saying “stay in the run,” meaning don’t jump ahead, don’t anticipate Mile 26 if you are only in Mile 5. Let each mile be its own experience. I also remember that he was with me at the end. He met up with me at Mile 20, the point where marathoners are expected to hit the wall and encouraged me home. A runner himself, his steady pace provided a beat that kept me going.

Pace, practice, persistence, the ability to enjoy each mile by itself, the open road, the cloud formations, and at the end a person by my side who believes I can do it — they all mattered.

The same is true for community change.

We Are More Courageous Together

To endure change is to be willing to trust in our human ability for emerging solutions and inspired action. Have the grit to try something that has no guarantees. Engage with people in a way that brings purpose and meaning. Expose ourselves to the human experience. Find comfort in the reach and adapt when we fall short. Excel at patience, compassion, and forgiveness. And open ourselves up to our vulnerability.

Brené Brown, in her book “Daring Greatly,” notes humorously that we all want a “get out of vulnerability free card” but no such luck. We don’t get the luxury of opting out. “Vulnerability is life’s great dare,” she notes. “It’s life asking, ‘Are you all in?’… It’s courage beyond measure.” Taking her book title from Theodore Roosevelt’s famous “Citizenship in a Republic” speech, Brené shares how “vulnerability is not knowing victory or defeat, it’s understanding the necessity of both.” It’s about letting yourself be seen. Leaning into moments of discomfort. Noticing that you are not running the marathon alone.

When we do that, she writes, our “courage is contagious.”

Being over Knowing

Over the 20 years I spent leading a foundation that worked with resident teams asking what community change really takes and what could escalate that change, the lessons were broad and deep. And because the field of community change is fundamentally about human change, those lessons were largely, as Brené points out, about risking vulnerability and being all-in. We needed to acknowledge that while “what we know matters…who we are matters more.”

And because being matters more than knowing, we needed to show up, connect, engage in real relationships, humanize the work, stay true to our word, and take the dare, working with great care to not rob people of their faith and belief in their own ability to create the future they envisioned.

How to Take the Dare

In dissecting this 20-year period, I asked myself: why we were so energized, inspired, and our most creative selves? What fed our endurance? What lessons were there from this experience that caused us to believe it was the hardest job we would ever love?

Here is my top ten list for thriving in the face of complex community change:

  1. Listen deeply — Be willing to listen, free of all assumptions, and let go of trying to change who people are so you can begin to let yourself be changed by who they are. In philanthropy, we might think we have the most astute, data-driven solutions, but in community change, the answers lie within. Ask residents to step into their central role as citizens fully capable of energizing civic life.
  2. Choose to act; aim at a headpin — Train yourself to see the whole and not just the parts, and then risk action at its most catalytic target.
  3. Make fun — As Ken Robinson framed it, the creative organization values “the lively, the dynamic, the surprising and the playful.” Fun is a highly under-rated strategy for long-term endurance that supports and sustains teams focused on the impossible, the improbable, and the impenetrable barriers that exist.
  4. Be personal — Step out of roles and engage in real relationships. You can’t think you are personally responsible for the whole turbulent history of race and class in America, but at the same time, you can’t think that you aren’t — especially if you are white or work for a foundation, which is a structure of power and privilege. It’s up to each of us to model today the future we hope to create.
  5. Stay centered — Plan openly in the “center of the room,” — meaning that decisions should not be made independently of citizen deliberation, everyone should know the decisions, and all action should be aimed at the center of social, economic, physical, and political development to keep these elements in balance; it also means keeping yourself centered — taking feedback and criticism openly, not deflecting moments that trigger around race and class but using them as moments of learning, and staying true to your own optimism about and belief in the human capacity for change, including your own.
  6. Break it down — Complexity can be overwhelming, which is why the work ends up in silos, unintentionally adding to the fragmentation within communities. Don’t let complexity break apart the work. Find the common denominator for each piece of work, and simplify everything so there is a common language and common understanding — across professional boundaries, ethnicity, age, gender, geography, class, sector, and education level.
  7. Look for the clearing — We would rather fly around a storm than through it. But engaging in an authentic way and working together across differences on shared goals will undoubtedly bring the kind of turbulence that arises from deep-seated issues and entrenched barriers to change. Stay at the table, because if you don’t, there will never be a breakthrough. Turbulence comes in waves and that’s OK given that it is enormously rich space for learning and innovation. Trust that while the work may get confusing, stuck, or stormy, you will find a clearing up ahead.
  8. “Own” up — People in foundations must own up to the history that allows such concentrations of wealth, power, and privilege in the first place without sugar-coating it. We can’t think we are “power-building” on one hand and then restrict people from owning the decisions and assets of community change on the other. In addition, it is critical as a partner in community change to stay in a learning place and not shy away from mistakes. Ownership isn’t just about building assets. We must all “own” our own change.
  9. Refuse to be defeated — The greatest innovations happen when we are stuck or when conventional ideas tank. Redouble efforts. Call in reinforcements. Cultivate new levels of creativity and new ways of looking at the work. Keep connected. Stay the course. It won’t take long for a sense of resourcefulness to overtake the sense of hopelessness and despair that hangs over unjust policies, blight, and disinvestment.
  10. Leap and the net will appear — Don’t wait for right answers. When in doubt, make a move and the path will reveal itself.

By practicing these, you will love the work, keep your own faith, and avoid damaging the faith of others.

For More On Community Change

This article is an excerpt from my recent book Courageous Philanthropy: Going Public in a Closely Held World.” For more on these and other lessons of community change, pick it up at iUniverse Bookstore, Amazon, or Barnes & Noble. 

Photo by Zac Ong on Unsplash

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