Stepping into unknown territory

Yessica, Paul and I spoke on the phone on yesterday to create a prioritized list for our initial relational meetings. I have not set up my meetings yet, but intend to send out emails for that purpose tomorrow. The three entities I hope to connect to: Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the Science and Cultural Facilities District, and Mile High Early Learning. A staff member at the Museum is already involved with the Denver Anchor Network and we have a good working relationship. Having a conversation with her about the CPA model will be fun and will hopefully open up avenues to connect with other leaders at the museum. I will be cold calling to SCFD and Mile High Early Learning. If that isn’t successful, Paul and Yessica have people they can contact to help me get the attention of those entities.

First some background on these entities:


Denver Museum of Nature and Science: one of Denver’s largest most successful museums in terms of resident and tourist visitation. I am starting to get to know them better. My contact is the Director of Early Education and Learning. She is keenly attuned to issues of racial equity and plays a leadership role in guiding the institution to change its ways and inch along towards dismantling the predominant white male perspective that pervades traditional museum culture. Anchor mission and community wealth building were new terms to her when we first met, but she quickly grasped the concepts and understood its relevance to the changes she wants to see at the museum, as well as more broadly in the community.

The Science and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD) is a tax, voted on by residents of the seven metro Denver counties, with the proceeds being distributed to arts and culture organizations in the seven counties. It was created in the late 1980s when the area’s arts organizations were struggling. It has led to very healthy balance sheets for our large arts institutions, who receive the majority of the funding. Medium and small arts organizations split a much smaller pool of funds. The tax is voted on every ten years, with the most recent re-authorization vote in 2018. It passed again, but there was considerable push back from smaller, more grassroots arts organizations, many of whom are led by and serve people of color. Consequently, the SCFD and the large institutions that receive the bulk of the tax proceeds are feeling the pressure of needing to become more relevant to communities of color, instead of primarily focusing their offerings to wealthier, white audiences. We want to explore the CPA concept with the SCFD thinking they could help us connect to the organizations that receive SCFD funds. We believe that CPA offers an avenue for them to demonstrate a greater commitment to creating a healthier community for all.

Mile High Early Learning (MHEL) is Denver’s oldest and largest provider of quality early childhood care and education. Their curriculum is based on the Montessori method. They operate seven early learning centers and two drop-in centers. Ninety-four percent of the families they serve live at or below the federal poverty level. They have an annual budget of $10 million. We know nothing about their procurement practices, but are excited to see if the CPA model will intrigue them.

What information or stories from your background do you plan to share with the person you’re meeting with so your meeting feels relational, rather than transactional?

With SCFD and MHEL I will share an explanation of the Center for Community Wealth Building and the Denver Anchor Network and our goals to change the current economic development paradigm in Denver, building an economy designed to serve people and strengthen local communities, with an emphasis on greater economic opportunity for people of color. The racial wealth gap is a reality that MHEL is very well aware of, so it will be interesting to see whether leveraging their purchasing to build community wealth is something that resonates with them.

I’m stumped right now to think of what information or stories from my background I will share. Most meetings I have feel more relational than transactional to me, yet I am learning through this CPA experience that I could bring more intentionality to my interactions. At the same time, I also feel my resistance to being more strategic about how I relate to people. It feels more natural for me to just be myself and speak from the heart about the work we are doing.

I genuinely care about people and am interested in people and it seems that is how most people experience me. It is also important to me that I have fun doing what I’m doing. I love to explore ideas with people and see how we can advance a common agenda — in this case it is about creating win-win situations for organizations and businesses, ultimately leading to a more just and healthy community. It’s fun to imagine the possibilities. Going to that happy place is what helps me have meetings that are relational.

Where will you take a risk? How you will you model vulnerability in a way that invites a deeper more meaningful sharing from the other person?

I think that going in without all the answers and without a solid case-making proposition is perhaps modeling vulnerability. I will let people know up front that we are exploring an idea and are looking for early adopters who are willing to create this with us. I don’t try to make things appear more sure or certain than they are. I don’t sugar coat. My favorite zone is trying to figure out how to get something done and I believe that the quickest way to do that is to be as forthcoming as possible with both the upsides and the downsides.
With SCFD and MHEL, I will let them know that they are my first “cold calls” for this project and that it’s exciting to share this idea with them and also scary.

People like to talk about themselves. What questions about their background do you plan to ask? What are you genuinely curious to know? How will you move on if they’re talking too long?

I am curious about their appetite for leveraging their institution’s purchasing power. I wonder about how they feel about the gentrification that’s going on in Denver? How it is affecting them personally and their organization? I’m wondering whether their organization has started having conversations or is taking any action related to the impacts of gentrification.

With SCFD, I would like to get a better feel for how committed the organization is to becoming more relevant to the entire community and how they are looking at the issue of equity. They are a tax-funded entity, with the bulk of the resources going to the largest cultural organizations (e.g. The Colorado Symphony, Denver Art Museum, Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Colorado Ballet) that have a predominantly affluent white audience. They are taking some actions, but it isn’t clear how deep a commitment they have to address the inequities of their system. I am curious how their relatively new E.D. feels about all of this. We aren’t interested in helping them put a good public face on the organization (something CPA involvement could provide) if it really doesn’t reflect a deep commitment. So, I’d like to learn where she is coming from with respect to the larger controversy they are wrestling with.

From MHEL’s annual report, it appears they have noticeably strong business and corporate relationships. MHEL is a beloved organization amongst a lot of local movers and shakers. The relationships have been built over time (the organization was founded in 1970 by an icon in the early learning field who retired several years ago) and I’m curious how they nurture those relationships. It’s pretty phenomenal, as the organization serves about 1,000 children from very low-income families each year. I’m curious whether the concentration of business leaders on her board impacts the business aspects of the organization.

I’m obviously more curious at the outset about the organizations, and less curious about the individual I will be meeting with. I need to work on that! Each individual that I meet with is passionate about their work and so talking about their organization is deeply personal to them and I think there will be opportunities to connect on a personal level.

If the person is talking too long, I might let it go on if it feels like it is leading us to fertile, but unexpected territory, but most likely I would probably interject with an apology that I took the conversation off-track and out of the desire to respect the time allotted for our meeting, I’d like to tell them a bit more about the CPA model so I can get their feedback on it.

How do you balance the relational versus transactional nature of your work today? When are you good at this? When do you struggle with it? What would you like to get better at?

Because my work is so mission oriented, the lines between relational and transactional are often very blurry. I try to be very respectful of people’s time and recognize that for the most part I am clueless about all the demands on their time. I like to be as generous as I can with timelines and expectations as I don’t want to add stress for people.
I definitely understand that relationships are key to the success of any venture. An important component of my work is connecting people in the community to institutions, helping bring them into relationship. I find it very satisfying to be able to help build bridges that connect people in the community to people in institutions — bringing together people whose paths don’t cross naturally. When this happens, people feel good. It’s wonderful to witness and it’s wonderful to play a role in helping that happen.
Feeling pressed for time is something that feels like an epidemic these days. My personal relationships suffer because I am so focused on my work. I would definitely like to get better at carving more time to nurture my personal relationships.
With rare exception, I feel very good about the many people that I get to work with and so even though most of our time together is focused on accomplishing the work at hand, I feel a connection that is personal. Perhaps this is my own delusion, but I am grateful that this is how it feels! As an introvert, I also relish my down time and spending time by myself and so while I know there is value in building and nurturing new relationships, I am in a period of my life where I indulge my enjoyment of time to myself.

SATURDAY’S REFLECTIONS:

Once again, thanks to all who commented on my post and asked such thoughtful questions to help me go deeper. It is a treat to experience such a wonderfully generous and supportive community. For my reflection, I’m going to spend some time noodling over the encouragement to be able to articulate the story of self, to get more in touch with why I show up for this work. It feels akin to if you asked me why I put sunscreen on when I go outside. My skin is fair and I burn easily and I need to protect it. The answer to why I do what I do feels similar to me — it is a condition of who I am on this planet. Honestly, I’m baffled that everyone isn’t called to address the inequities and atrocities that we all live and breathe. How our species is able to see suffering and injustices on a continual feed is the question that I have. I am baffled that the words of all the various religions that many people listen to on a weekly basis don’t sink in and translate to how we live our lives. I am inspired by the words and speeches that describe democracy and don’t understand why those words don’t reflect reality. I guess I have always taken things literally. I believe with all my heart that we all deserve to be free and that justice and opportunity are fundamental and there is no explanation for why it is only supposed to be applied to privileged white people. To see so many people and communities that can’t achieve their potential because of deliberate choices made by our economic and political systems is criminal in my view. I will keep digging and see if I can describe an ‘ah ha’ moment for myself when this became my worldview. I know that from a young age (5 or 6) I was disturbed by inequality. I noticed that garbage men were treated differently from other people. I didn’t understand why. My first job aspiration was to be a garbage man, because I thought if people who looked like me were garbage men, then people would start treating them differently. I wanted to live in a world where people were loved regardless of what they looked like or what work they did and instead were loved because of the quality of their character and that we didn’t judge a person’s character by what they were wearing or their skin color or what kind of house they lived in or what gender or religion they were.

I’m still just that little girl that wants so much for everyone to belong and for everyone to look out for each other and to practice the Golden Rule. Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote, something to the effect of, ‘we all do better when we all do better’ just seems so basic and obvious to me.

Another trait of mine is that once I know something, I think that everyone knows it too. Maybe that comes from being the youngest in my family and always being the last one to figure something out! By the time I knew something, I was just catching up to the rest of the household. I am slowly coming to realize that just because I know or understand something doesn’t mean that everyone else does, too. Yes … seems pretty basic, I realize. I’m just figuring that out!

It’s also true that I’m just not that interested in talking about myself. I already know how I see the world and I have heard myself plenty of times. I’d rather hear other people’s stories. I haven’t heard those. I had a boss once who was an eloquent speaker and when I went to work at this organization many people said, ‘oh you are so lucky to get to work with X.’ However, I soon learned that X’s oratory also translated to our regular check-ins. I heard those same speeches, those same ideas over and over. I was ready to move on … what’s next? My point here, i’m not interested in my story because I’m too familiar with it. And since many people would rather talk about themselves anyway, it’s usually ok to skip telling my story. So making this shift to telling my story, with the intention of being able to help bring about change that is so desperately needed is the edge I need to work towards.

As I’m free-style writing here, what I’m trying to do is to see if I can start to look at things differently, start to see that sharing my story has the potential of helping me make more meaningful connections with people and ultimately be more effective at helping bring about the changes we want to see. Honestly, my story isn’t very compelling. (I think my vision for what the world could be is compelling … but I haven’t yet been able to come up with a compelling personal story.) I grew up comfortable and privileged, with two very sane and principled parents and two older siblings that were really good to me. We played neighborhood kickball games in the street in front of my house til it got dark on summer nights. I liked watching my brother, six years older than me, go at it with the other older neighborhood boys playing basketball in our driveway. My sister and our two best friends made “forts” in the woods behind their house, where we loved to hang out. My dad had a children’s clothing store and as early as eight years old, I started working in the store. I didn’t really like it that much, but I didn’t have much choice about that. We were expected to work there on weekends and holidays and summers. Of course, I learned a lot and was lucky to have the opportunity to earn money at a young age. I knew that retail wasn’t something I wanted to do long term.

Of course I had challenges, too, but my life’s work … to address in one way or another the systems and wrongs that define our society — are not because I have had to overcome any significant adversity. I feel issues of social and racial justice down to my core because I believe we are all one. We are all worthy, we are all connected, we all have the right to be able to go after our dreams … but we don’t have the right to pursue our own interests at the expense of others. I am a very sensitive person … I am impacted by the pain that I see around me. I think that’s just my chemical composition. It’s who I am. I have fair skin. I burn in the sun. I am sensitive to others’ pain and can’t pretend that it has nothing to do with me. Pain is a part of the human experience. But the pain that is inflicted by choice and design is something we can collectively do something about. We can make different choices than we’ve made. We can live up to the values and ideals of our religions and democracies. I really believe deep down in these lofty expressions of the human capacity to love and to give and to soar. It’s a pretty simple story of self. I have always looked around me and not understood why things are the way they are. They don’t have to be this way.

Well, I’m past the deadline and I’m way ready for bed. I recognize that I’m still just scratching the surface on this one, but baby steps are still steps. I really feel lucky to be in the company of everyone in this CPA incubator. Thank you to all for sharing your wisdom, grace, compassion, and warmth.

9 thoughts on “Stepping into unknown territory”

  1. Michelle, have you considered taking some time to reflect on why it is that you do what you do? Why do you pour your heart and soul into this work? You have so many powerful personal stories. While I understand your need to go with the flow, which is a great skill to have, it’s also important to consider preparing (and knowing) your story in case it’s needed. I find that when I share about myself, people tend to be much more receptive when we can make a connection beyond the transaction.

    Also, while we want to learn more about the institutions, individuals play a critical role by helping us get the information needed to know the institution better. Since two meetings will be with complete strangers, have you considered taking a risk and building a personal connection?

    I’m looking forward to hearing about your process as you step into unknown territory, personally.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Michelle! I really appreciated your post both because I learned a lot and because your genuine voice shone through. I love the anchor institution model and vision your organization is putting forward as you take on exploring CPA. I want to read more about it and maybe practice incorporating that language into my framing as well. It makes intuitive sense and underlies a of the “why” the IAF has focused on the institution it has for a long time, but gives it new words and focus which I appreciate. I was struck by these lines in your post:

    “We aren’t interested in helping them put a good public face on the organization (something CPA involvement could provide) if it really doesn’t reflect a deep commitment. So, I’d like to learn where she is coming from with respect to the larger controversy they are wrestling with.”

    When I first read about this entity my reaction was “Well shouldn’t they be working with the smaller scale arts community and helping them save money through CPA and have a forum for organizing an action to get a larger piece of that tax-revenue pie?” which is to say, my first choice for solidarity was for those who were left out (seemingly) of the public funding for arts. It was therefore helpful to see you be aware of how CPA could just be a good coms strategy for the larger players. Are you intending to reach out to those who felt left out by SCFD? Do you think CPA is a way of building relationships across those institutions?

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    1. Jessica, thanks so much for your comments and questions. As for your questions in the last paragraph …. I didn’t provide enough explanation, but smaller organizations are funded through the SCFD revenue, but the situation is that they are more numerous than the larger, primarily white-serving entities, and they split a much smaller piece of the pie. There are people working on trying to change the allocations. It’s a huge equity issue … but reality is that right now we don’t have capacity to tackle this one too. And yes, we are interested in seeing if SCFD becomes a facile way for us to connect with smaller (and larger) arts organizations to save them money. It is definitely delicate, however. We will have to try to get a sense of how dedicated they are to looking towards a more equitable solution. What they did come up during the most recent reauthorization vote was pretty lame on the face of it. We don’t have to work through SCFD to connect with arts groups, but it feels like the logical place to start getting to know the landscape. A side note: the Denver Museum of Nature and Science is one of the large entities that receives a disproportionate amount of the SCFD proceeds. However, they are doing some genuine work as an institution to address their culture and their commitment to using their resources to create greater economic opportunity, so we are excited to introduce them to the CPA idea, as well as encourage them to take other steps in line with leveraging their economic power.

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  3. Hi Michelle, I really appreciated the thoughtfulness and vulnerability of your post. Thank you! I certainly resonate with being an introvert and appreciating the personal connections while also wanting to respect people’s time. Your connection to this project and your work is very clear from this post. Last week Paul asked me how I find space and time to rebuild and take a break from my work. His comments were really helpful for me and I find it helpful to hear from other people about how they work at this as well. So how to you make space for yourself, rebuild, and recover?

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    1. Kate, thank you for your comments. Making space for myself is something I need to get way better at. Often I am pretty good about starting each day doing Yoga with Adrienne on my laptop. That has slipped up lately. But that is a very helpful practice for me. Her style doesn’t appeal to everyone, but I find her very helpful.
      Because I’m an independent contractor and work from home, the lines are very blurry between work and home. I have a lot of flexibility, which is super. But it is also difficult for me to stop working at night, unless I am just so beat or if I have a specific plan to spend time with a friend. A tricky thing for me is that I like to have unstructured time … so I don’t want to fill up my evenings with plans, even if they are fun, social things. But the catch is, that if I don’t have something that makes me leave my desk … I often don’t!
      The key to my sanity these days is that I had the great good fortune of buying a cabin last winter. It’s a little over an hour away from my house and starting this past June, I have been going up on most weekends. Even tho I go up on Saturday and come home on Sunday, I am able to really decompress there. Being in nature is how I fill up. I have a hard time believing this is now a reality for me. Yet, I still want to get better about being more balanced during the week, as I know that I am much more effective when I’m feeling full instead of depleted. Vacations can help a lot, too … but I haven’t had a vacation in a number of years as I spend a lot of time going to visit my ailing father who lives in east Tennessee. This reality is another reason why this cabin is such a game changer for me. I can escape frequently without having to do much planning.
      I appreciate your question as it reminds me that I have slipped up in terms of being more conscious about taking care of my needs. There were a couple of weeks in August that I really made a concerted effort to get up from my desk and get outside and putter in my little yard that resembles a jungle (especially if you are a cat). This helped me a lot … as once I’m outside weeding or dead-heading, my brain turns off and I connect with nature and appreciate my surroundings in a visceral way.

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  4. Hi Michelle – Love this post! I’m left with a lots of questions based on these two quotes from your post:

    “I love to explore ideas with people and see how we can advance a common agenda — in this case it is about creating win-win situations for organizations and businesses, ultimately leading to a more just and healthy community.”

    I’m wondering how you show, rather than tell, people you meet about your passion for a most just and healthy community. How do the people you work with understand the values you hold around these things? How would the people you’re meeting with feel different about working with you if they knew you left a cushy job after 10 years because the org wasn’t aligned to your values, like you told us in small group? How would they feel if as you told that story, you brought them with you into that moment, so they could feel the tension you held that moment, and so they could see the same old fancy art work you saw on the walls that day, and see that wealthy lady completely unaccountable to the people she purported to serve?

    “I wonder about how they feel about the gentrification that’s going on in Denver? How it is affecting them personally and their organization?”

    How do you feel about the gentrification in Denver? What do the people you’re meeting with know about how you feel about that situation? How can you adequately convey the depth of your commitment to combating gentrification and other results of an economic system built on extraction? How you can use a moment like this in a meeting to bolster your moral credentials–and thus build trust–for working together to tackle gentrification?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Michelle! I love the thoughtful tensions that emerge as you describe how highly you respect other people’s time while acknowledging that you’d like to carve out more time to nurture your own personal relationships. Specifically, I see these themes when you state:
    “Because my work is so mission oriented, the lines between relational and transactional are often very blurry. I try to be very respectful of people’s time and recognize that for the most part I am clueless about all the demands on their time. I like to be as generous as I can with timelines and expectations as I don’t want to add stress for people. […]
    Feeling pressed for time is something that feels like an epidemic these days. My personal relationships suffer because I am so focused on my work. I would definitely like to get better at carving more time to nurture my personal relationships.”
    What would happen if you prioritized carving (respecting) time for yourself at least equally to the care you take in considering others’ time? What if you were as generous as you are to others, to yourself?
    Another interesting comment you made was, “I’m obviously more curious at the outset about the organizations, and less curious about the individual I will be meeting with. I need to work on that!” You mention that your mission-oriented work makes it hard to distinguish between relational and transactional sometimes. How much do you think these organizations may represent the individuals, and vice versa? Is it possible you might be able to connect the organization to the individual, and that there is a relational aspect to embracing the organization’s work as representative of the individual’s own values? How much do you identify with your own organization? Does identifying with your organization feel transactional to you?

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  6. Hi Michelle,

    I really enjoyed your post and enjoyed the juxtaposition between the thoughts and ideas around the CPA model and how to get institutions to best click with it.

    I find it interesting you’d say you resist being strategic in your interactions with people, when I, for one, feel you can be very strategic trying to stay zoomed out and exploring an idea with them. I’ve often found that the key to generating buy-in at an institution is co-creating an idea with them, and that takes a strategic perspective to even dare embark.

    I guess if I had to ask questions to help you go even deeper, I would ask:

    1. How can you best leverage your own experience to help guide a conversation of co-ideation with your potential partner institutions?
    2. If we consider the relational meeting all about sharing and establishing a bond, then a way to model vulnerability would be to share something personal and not just coming with a blank slate. What do you think?

    I understand and can relate to the tendency to want to detach your personal story from the work. In this line of work, however, I’ve found that it is often unproductive and inappropriate to do so, just because sharing our values and vision can be so much more powerful when we have our undeniable lived experience to ground it all with. What’re your thoughts on this?

    Looking forward to seeing you next week!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi Michelle! I, too, really enjoyed your post. I appreciate how direct you are, how deep your commitment to mission runs (I believe you said last week that your personal mission and organizational mission are closely aligned), and how thoughtful you’ve been in considering the potential win-win that could come from working with each of the organizations that you described.
    That also speaks to how you mentioned being mindful of people’s times and more broadly to how conscious you are of taking the needs and desires of others into consideration. I love the sentiment that you express here:

    “I think that going in without all the answers and without a solid case-making proposition is perhaps modeling vulnerability. I will let people know up front that we are exploring an idea and are looking for early adopters who are willing to create this with us.”

    I love how open you are to the idea of co-creation. One of the things that I struggle with in my work, at times, is being more committed and invested in seeing my vision realized than taking genuine interest in having a process or idea be truly shaped in partnership with others. I love being able to control processes and outcomes, yet, I recognize the limitations of that mindset. Thank you modeling what it looks like to be fiercely committed to a mission while working with an open hand rather than a closed fist.

    I completely see how your unscripted approach to engaging in conversations that intentionally center the mission and the work could build trust, respect, and a willingness to get to the work (which is your end objective!). I still see that as leaving the door open to possibilities for personal connection. In that process of you showing up as your full self in those conversations, curious about possibilities, curious (hopefully!) about the person sitting across from you, I imagine that the other person will become curious about you, and opportunities for articulating your values and elements of your personal story can organically emerge. To Yessica’s point, having done some pre-thinking around elements of your narrative that form your core “why”, can help you not be caught off guard or miss points that you feel are important when you’re in that situation.

    Finally, when it comes to asking people about their views on gentrification, I think it may be helpful to consider in advance about asking in a way that disarms the other person and holds them back from erecting a wall of defensiveness, which some folks (especially privileged white folks) sometimes put up when confronted with the reality of oppressive systems and structures that they may- willingly or not- be complicit in perpetuating.

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