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As a community health planner, I see community development as a space where engagement can come alive and inform the way cities and places are developed. Beyond the traditional community development ecosystem of community development corporations and the supporting financial structures, community development today is a tapestry of many different sectors and players.
As society’s needs are vast and ever expanding, community developers and planners, who work at the intersection of many sectors, play a necessary role to address these needs. Whether it is through municipal and state governance, housing and land use planning, or economic and real-estate development, we engage and work within many sectors. And through that engagement, we have the opportunity to directly impact and indirectly spillover their impact into other sectors.
Through my work in public health, I’ve witnessed firsthand the rising popularity of phrases like “housing is healthcare” amidst community developers and health care providers alike. Homelessness is now front and center as a priority for the healthcare sector because of the clear spillover impacts connecting housing to healthcare: as housing costs increase and people are priced out of homes, homelessness increases along with the risk of associated healthcare needs and costs; likewise as unexpected healthcare cost burden falls on families, housing stability can often be at risk.
Yet despite the recognition of this connection, we are still in the early stages of understanding how to integrate and break down these housing-specific sectorial silos. And this progress doesn’t even begin to dive into thinking about the various other systems that impact a person’s lived experience, e.g. educational or employment opportunities.
At least for housing and healthcare, connecting the dots between these sectors has begun in several places across the county. And within this space, there is tremendous work that planners and community developers can do to move cross-sectorial work forward.
But you might be thinking, “So, you’re saying I need to support cross sectorial work. Well, how do I do that effectively?”
There are all sorts of ways cross-sectorial work is framed: inter-sectorial efforts, multi-sectorial collaborations, and trans-sectorial partnerships. These three distinct but seemingly similar terms outline a spectrum, respectively, from sharing a minimal amount of power and decision making all the way to a blurring of the sectorial boundaries.
Arguably, however, the terms don’t matter as much as the quality of work produced and the voices included in the processes. When the strengths of different sectors can creatively develop solutions, that’s when I see magic happening. And much of the effective solution creation comes through gradual, longer-term professional relationships as well as the development and acceptance of modified practice standards.
In my own career I witness individuals who seem to have an ability to progress cross-sectorial relationships and trust building faster than others. And by comparison, I also witness folks who have seemingly less success. This observation and the similarities of the successful individuals lead me to believe there are four elements critical to that success:
1) Cultural Humility
Cultural humility seems to be the special sauce, or a key ingredient to the special sauce, for two distinct sectorial cultures to make magic. Cultural humility conceptually pulls from the more well-known concept of cultural competency but incorporates three critical elements that are often missing from cultural competency work: 1) a lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and critique, 2) the pursuit of fixing power imbalances, and 3) aspiration to work in non-paternalistic partnership with others who aspire to advocate for themselves and others.
This whole framework implies the practitioners have a base level of humility built into their emotional intelligence. In addition to creating successful cross-sectorial relationships, it can be critical for an individual’s own professional development within a single sector to better develop their emotional intelligence.
2) Value-Based Work
Conflict is bound to happen in teams with differing perspectives. While conflict is often seen as a dirty word, healthy conflict within teams can ultimately lead to better products. Just think, if you weren’t able to explain to your partner that their work had one fatal flaw, how would they ever be able to improve it? With that in mind, one of the best approaches to navigate a cross-sectorial space is through value-based efforts.
In other words, as practitioners, we need to try to understand the motivations of our counterparts and work to frame our feedback in a way to highlights those values. By understanding our values and theirs, we can better familiarize ourselves with currencies, e.g. public praise, staff time, etc., that can improve working relationships. Value-based approaches provide a social lubricant for navigating tricky conversations, developing shared goals, and laying the groundwork for improving shared products which ultimately will create more value.
3) Understanding Sector-Specific Strengths
Every sector has its own strengths: engineers have strong technical and technological expertise while economic developers are able to understand and build the business case for certain solutions. A strong sense of cultural humility and a value-based approach can then create grounding for an understanding of the strengths that each partner and respective sector brings to the relationship.
By better understanding the strengths of different sectors, community developers at the nexus of these different sectors are able to harness those strengths better. This understanding then translates into greater sense of where value can be gained through the collaboration and a collective impact realized.
4) Creating Trust and Informality
Trust ultimately builds off of the aforementioned elements – and is critical to successful relationships of any kind. Trust supports the development of new and dynamic solutions to our problems and lays the groundwork for informal spaces where ideas can be improved upon in their early, vulnerable stages. Without informal spaces, the perpetual cycle of action and reaction often doesn’t allow for sufficient space and incubation of ideas. In order to better curate ideas and solutions, one needs to create a space where stakes are not high to better understand what is possible.
I see community development very much at the forefront of solving the nasty problems we face today. It requires the diversity of thought often found in cross-sectorial, cross-group relationships to produce the best solutions. And it’s not easy and often messy.
Community development goes beyond meeting with people once, extracting ideas and then leaving. It’s building relationship and fellowship over time to ultimately create trust and informality. Then and only then can the development of our communities truly reflect, support, and create a healthy space for people living there.
Caption: Professional-style headshot of the post author, Halley Reeves. Photo credit: Halley Reeves
Halley Reeves a community health planner in the Boston area with a background in both public health and city planning. She concentrates on ‘Health in All Policies’ work specifically tied to (a) community health planning in health care policy, (b) the infusion of health considerations into the built-environment, and (c) data to support all of the aforementioned activities. As a result of the multi-disciplinary nature of her work, she focuses on cross-sectorial collaboration building with the aim of collectively impacting health and beginning to define how to measure that impact. She spent the last decade working on policy-related issues beginning from local-level community based participatory research to international governmental relations. Although much of that time was in locations where data was scarce, she has used data to inform work throughout her career. She was first introduced to public health data through an occupational health, community based research study with uranium workers in New Mexico seeking to influence US federal legislation. She then lived and worked in the Indian Himalayas helping to inform the development of a regional ambulance system through a demographic survey of subsistence farming villages administered by community health workers. Halley holds a Master of Public Health from the University of Washington and a Master of City Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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