New Ideas Emerging

seedlings sprout

Image credit: Jon Sullivan

On a recent Saturday, I offered a four-hour invitation to Come and Think About Hard Things in a facilitated discussion. Read to the end to find out what action I’m taking in response to their support and encouragement.

I was honored that 20 members of my professional (and personal) community came out to support me. I like to think my commitment to relationships and people in the past means my community is there for me – complex reciprocity at it’s best. And, it’s humbling.

the group

Four hours, on a Saturday in May

(Thanks to Lisa for facilitating, and to Michael for helping design the agenda and frame up my presentation.)

After a little getting to know one another, I offered my current thinking about the work I’d like to do [with others].

  1. First, I shared my idea of a healthy community, which is a place that achieves two specific goals. It must respect each person’s self-defined identity, in the design of spaces, in interactions with others, and offering reasonable access to the benefits of the city. It must also respect the self-determination of each person as they work towards personal and community goals, and as they voice their own needs.
  2. Second, I offered three guiding principles about how to get there, illustrating them each with local examples. We must remedy historical imbalances of power, naming them, rebalancing them, and redressing the compound interest that has already accumulated. Then, we must align our actions with our values, patiently and consistently acting with integrity. Finally, we must knit our community together, across racial, physical, and other gaps.
  3. Third, I shared why I think a network weaving approach offers the radical challenge to our current way of doing business that we’ll need to make the shift I hope for. Besides accelerating the great work that is already happening, it’s an approach that explicitly acknowledges that the patterns of relationships are replicated at all levels. It isn’t possible to build a balanced, healthy system on top of an unbalanced, unhealthy relationships.

I closed by asking people to explore this framework with me, both on the Saturday we were together and throughout the summer. (I am reworking my presentation to address some of the comments, and I will share that here.)

We spend the rest of the morning in small groups, exploring what resonated and what didn’t, as well trends and challenges people see. After lunch, they offered me a more focused “advice session” with suggestions, as well as points where they see connections with their own work. Then, they all offered me the most amazing series of wishes for the rest of my sabbatical.

One of the Small Groups Hard at Work Supporting Me

One of the Small Groups Hard at Work Supporting Me

I’ve been struggling to write up the rich feedback I received and what I’ll do with my colleagues’ contributions. Here are three reflections:

  • Generally, people welcomed the vision I shared. There is interest in exploring ways to work in a more networked way, but not in a new formal network. People asked me to make it more concrete, naming specific places to act on it. They asked what it might look like. And, they highlighted that design and accessibility will determine whether can work at all. 
  • The networked approach resonated with people because of its integrity: a healthy process is necessary for a healthy outcome. It’s authentic engagement for all individuals and perspectives, where each person and community leads from their expertise in their experience to the table. It requires healing at all scales, from individual relationships to systemic solutions. It addresses power as both a value and a methodology. It recognizes the importance of self-determination in naming, in action, in partnering. It’s not a silver bullet, so it has a chance of working.
  • That also raises a question about culture change: This is not only a shift required in individuals, but also in our places of employment, in how we relate to one another, and in the systems in which we exist. How do we act this out with one another, given the culture in which we live?
  • When I notice where my where my energy flows when my calendar has space to let it go freely, I gravitate towards city design and policy — transportation, land use, and urban design. I also am active in a good dose of building network weaving capacity locally. In both, I intentionally build in time to address the equity themes I’m called to focus on.

My Experimental Example

Michael suggested some small experiments as a practical next step for testing this out. They can build trust and lead the way towards larger efforts. That reinforced what I already found myself doing the last two weeks.

Graphic from Minneapolis 2040

Graphic from Minneapolis 2040

After a wonky conversation about zoning reform with a friend, we decided to explore the Minneapolis Comprehensive Plan (Minneapolis 2040) as an approach. The City’s plan will be in place for 20 years, and it’s an opportunity to strategically set the conditions for aggressive progress on equity, affordable housing, transit/transportation, and more — once adopted. We were both clear, though, that it would be a waste of our time if it was just people like us. We agreed to reach out to some new possible allies. 

I spent the last two weeks reaching out to people about collaborating. I was explicit that I think we have some shared goals, but the purpose of this initial meeting is to test that theory. 

Some of the calls were well-informed cold calls. Some were to people I’ve reached out to before but not yet found the right opportunity for collaboration. After rounds of follow-up calls, we have a meeting scheduled with a small, diverse group. We’re from different parts of the city, care about different but intersecting issues, and we have varied experiences and networks. I’m hoping we can:

  • understand the opportunity and what might come out of it,
  • identify possible/shared priorities (which will have to start with getting to know one another), and
  • identify who — us and/or others who are or might be interested in engaging. (This includes agreeing that we might not be the right partners.)

It may or may not go anywhere, but it’s a good example of how I think my work may look going forward.


This is the first major station along my sabbatical journey. As I take a breath before heading back out, I ask you to share your thoughts, suggestions, and resources I can learn from.