A Path Toward Cooperation

By Janet Lewis Muth

This summer I attended the State of the State conference hosted by MN Campus Compact at Macalester College.  While I appreciated all of the speakers in the “TED Talk” style sessions, I was most drawn to the message delivered by Dick Senese, from University of Minnesota Extension.  His main message – or at least what I took away from it – was that we too often surround ourselves by the messages that we already agree with, and neglect to listen to those messages that conflict with our already held beliefs about an issue.

I was intrigued enough by the topic to sit in on his small group discussion – and found myself the only community partner present in the group.  The conversation was a nice deepening of what he’d presented, along with resource and idea sharing for folks with specific issues they wanted to explore or address.  I raised the issue of having difficulty partnering with a group in our community because of their perception of who we are as an organization – and in particular who we aim to serve.  One of the ideas presented was to seek out an intermediary – or spanner – who has a relationship both with the group in question and our organization.  The point was to use existing relationships to strengthen avenues of communication and to even build new relationships.  I left the conference feeling far more confident than I had in weeks about how to move forward on several issues in our work.

So how did it work out?  In one instance, it didn’t really pan out.  We were trying to engage the local vendors at the farmers’ market to support the use of a card reader that would allow customers to shop using a debit card or their food support dollars.   We met with the local Chamber of Commerce to discuss the issue, and while they weren’t able to help us create new relationships or lines of communication, we did strengthen our relationship with them by broaching the subject and using them as a resource.  In the other instance, it appears to be working out quite well.  We’ve been dealing with a large-scale bed bug infestation in many of the low-income apartment complexes in our community.  We learned about the issue through tenants of the apartments who were frustrated at being asked to pay for the extermination costs.  Our initial approach was to pursue legal means to force landlords to pay for the extermination and relieve low-income families from this burden.  But through several conversations with multiple parties with whom we have relationships and who also have relationships with the landlords, it became clear that we were ignoring the significant problem/cost/burden that is placed on the landlords in this type of situation.  We have not yet come to a solution, but we have already partnered with Public Health to deliver a forum on the issue and are actively working to develop more educational opportunities for tenants.  In addition, we are pursuing a conversation with a City inspector, introduced to us through our partnership with Public Health, with the goal of brainstorming solutions that are acceptable to all parties involved.  I no longer feel like we are fighting an impossible battle; I feel like we are on the path toward cooperation.

In short, we’ve learned to take a step back from the really tough issues and approach them less from an “Us or Them” mentality and more from a “We’re in This Together” mentality.  Many thanks to Campus Compact for sponsoring the event and giving us the resources to move our work forward in such a positive way!

Janet Lewis Muth is Project Coordinator at Growing Up Healthy in Rice County.

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