With support from the Knight Foundation through the Knight Community Information Challenge, community foundation leaders and their partners around the country are working to create more robust local information “ecosystems.” It was our privilege to get into the field to see what each of the four community foundations featured in the case studies is doing to promote information healthy communities.
Our eye for ethnographic detail helped to surface some of the real-life stories at the center of these efforts. Here is incontrovertible evidence that accessible, reliable and relevant news and information can enhance civic life and spark community change. Of course, we were particularly alert to the network building dimension in all of this. In addition to the local specifics about news and information, the cases also detail some basic network strategies that are relevant to any social change effort: how to create connections that open information pathways so that people can align and act. Which case most closely maps the challenges you face in your social change work? Any insights here that you might take forward?
Several years into the effort, membership and activities are robust in a city looking for renewal.
John Heiss, coordinator of the Greater Detroit Network of Social Innovators, reports on recent strategy developments as the network approaches its Fourth Annual Summit (November 12):
- Building Connectivity Among Network Members–Monthly meetings that generate collaborations and projects among members.
- Social Venture Business Development–Identify potential investors for promising triple bottom line business development; support deal-flow due diligence; and build capacity of management teams for these businesses.
- Learning Community of Social Innovators–An annual summit or conference for 80-100 people on social innovation/entrepreneurship topics, and a set of business planning courses.
- Sector-Based Network Hubs–The Network has developed several sector hubs or affinity groups for investors and participants, in Food Systems, Construction, Energy Efficiency/Building Retrofits, Deconstruction, Social Media/Marketing, Workforce Development and others. The hubs are “production centers” where social sector, public sector and private sector firms come together to pursue business deals and transactions on a broader scale than individual social ventures. The hubs seek to spawn ensembles of social innovation. For example, Food Systems is working on emerging growers, food entrepreneurs, urban agriculture, cast-iron cook-off, processing facilities, farmers markets) that investors and members will pursue.
When the community is the network, as it is in Lawrence, Massachusetts, design follows a few simple rules.
For more than five years we’ve tracked, cheered on, and worked with one of the most intriguing community-based networks in the U.S.—the 5,000 member strong Lawrence Community Works. In a case study several years ago we wrote about the origins of the grassroots network, its early growth, and contribution to rejuvenating Lawrence, a failing industrial city in Massachusetts. Since then, we’ve been impressed by LCW’s disciplined application of network thinking to organizing low-income families.
Recently we heard Bill Traynor, leader of the team that has built the network, share some of the lessons they’ve learned. “The challenge at the beginning was to create an environment rich enough and valuable enough for people to create the value they wanted to create.”
- The network was designed to offer many different value propositions to residents—access to programs for adult literacy or Individual Development Accounts; community organizing efforts; networks for youth, and more. “What works for engaging people is to have a lot of different things going on; people have choices and feel a connection, an identity, with that environment.”
- The network was designed for easy entry and easy exit by its members. “It’s a loose membership, which is a more modern, organic way for people to engage… You need to have environment in which people can come in and out. Membership is a choice, not an imperative or a burden.”
- The network’s evolution has been managed to allow form to follow function. In too many community organizations organizational turf and other concerns get more attention than creating value for people. “Who is the lead agency, who decides what, who we are trumps what we do. There’s too much structure, too many presidents. That environment is way over built.” The network provides an alternative to these unattractive dynamics.