Attempt at the Vulcan Mind Meld

In much of my work these days, when I encounter resistance, I don’t spend a lot of effort trying to persuade people and institutions to adopt an anchor mission lens. I try to inspire them with stories and examples, but I pretty much stop there. I feel that my energy is better spent with institutions that are ready to dip their toe in the water and see what’s possible. I think that helping birth demonstration projects with willing partners is the best way to create the change we are working towards. Additionally, it allows reluctant anchors to see that community wealth building strategies work, and we start to build a new norm for how anchor institutions are expected to show up in the community.

There is an exception to my current decision to not bang my head on an institution’s walls, as there is one institution where the stakes are too high. If they choose to reject the community wealth building lens as they build out their new campus, the surrounding neighborhoods, primarily home to immigrants from Latin America, will be displaced due to gentrification pressures. There is a long list of atrocities and injustices this neighborhood has endured since its early days, including being one of the most polluted zip codes in the country.

The governing body for the entity that will bring this campus to life and manage the public-private partnership, as well as the facilities and programming was seated by vote of the Denver City Council in early 2018 with the CEO and a skeleton staff hired in early 2019. The project gained traction in November 2015 after Denver voters approved extension of a tourist tax to provide $856 million in public funds for the campus redevelopment efforts. In addition to constructing a 250-acre campus, there are multiple infrastructure projects occurring simultaneously that are creating significant disruptions and inconveniences for residents, while also causing property values and rents to soar.

Their public relations materials not withstanding, increasing economic opportunity for their surrounding low-income neighbors is a low priority based on their actions to date. To help them be equipped to deliver on their stated intention of wanting to lift all boats, we proposed creating and funding a high level staff position within their organization that would be dedicated to applying the community wealth building lens to their operations. The offer wasn’t rejected out right, but the CEO told us he needed more time to convince his board that this was the right move for the organization. He asked us to give him six months.

We have a January meeting with them on the calendar (this is three months past the six months he requested). Our original idea to address their staffing capacity issues didn’t get us any closer to persuading them to adopt a community wealth building lens. So I am ready to dig into this week’s prompt to see if I can imagine the story they are telling themselves. Here goes …

Change is inevitable. Displacement is the story of the U.S. The land that Denver sits on was originally occupied by the Arapahoe tribe. Many of the original residents of the neighborhoods around this campus were Eastern European immigrants who worked in the smelter and refineries located there. The north-south Interstate (I25) divided the neighborhood, with construction completed in the late 50s and the east-west Interstate (I70) further bifurcated the neighborhood in the mid 60s. Today, the population is 90% Latino. Change is inevitable. We are making so many physical improvements to this neighborhood that it will at last become an amenity rich neighborhood. This is the march of progress.

We are building a campus from scratch and are responsible for animating this campus with programs and projects, scholarly research and world class entertainment, with the vision of being a profitable venue that contributes to solving global agriculture and water challenges. This is an audacious vision that we cannot be distracted from if we are to succeed. Our mission does not include creating a new economic development paradigm focused on an economic system that works for everyone. That is a huge undertaking that we are not equipped to take on. In fact, it isn’t congruent with the Western heritage of rugged individualism that our campus celebrates. We are under incredible pressure to deliver on the vision for this campus and building community wealth doesn’t fall within our wheelhouse or our mission.

There are so many different factions in the neighborhoods that it will be impossible for us to please everyone. We will become mired in conflicts that negate the good will we have been working so hard to secure. Bad publicity is the last thing we need.

We are already partnering with WorkNow to support residents in being hired for campus construction jobs.

Since we are creating this thing from scratch, we don’t know what jobs or goods and services we are going to need to purchase. The neighborhood businesses aren’t ones that provide the types of goods and services we are going to need. Fostering the development of new businesses and worker cooperatives to meet our business needs doesn’t fall within our mandate. We would be happy to communicate our needs, once we know them, to an entity that can help grow local business capacity.

We are really afraid of being distracted from our mission and afraid that we won’t be able to meet the mandate we have been given. We must stay laser focused on our mission.

We have expended considerable time and resources on engaging the community. We have bent over backwards to solicit input from our neighbors and many of our programming priorities have been shaped by residents. This reflects our desire to be a welcoming neighbor and to make this place one that is relevant to our neighbors. Yet, our audience is also the entire city, the region, the state, the West, the globe!! This hyper-local perspective you all are touting doesn’t mesh with our global vision.

We are slightly intrigued by the idea of having a national spotlight shone on us for our successful efforts to minimize involuntary displacement by deliberately creating avenues for residents to access new economic opportunities created by our presence. However, the majority of our board members are conservative and want to let the free market dictate who benefits from our presence.

It is so much easier to work with large corporations that are well-oiled machines in terms of handling concessions, security, building and landscape maintenance, etc. Again, we just don’t have the bandwidth to nurture new businesses.

The Vulcan mind meld would sure be nice, right about now.

Another idea that comes to mind:
We discuss whether a 6-month contract with a business analyst consultant would be useful. This person would complete a business plan for their operations, which would identify future staffing needs and their projected needs for specific goods and services, including recommendation regarding out-sourcing or developing in-house capacity. Similar to our earlier proposal, we would offer to raise the funds for this hire. We would then need to build capacity within the Center for Community Wealth Building to be able to connect the community to the opportunities identified in the plan. This solution takes the burden of action away from them.

This idea still reflects holding onto my original, probably naive belief that it is their fear of being unable to deliver on their mandate that is what’s driving them. I want for this to be true! If it is, we should be able to problem solve with them about how the community wealth building work can be accomplished by others, as long as they commit to providing us with timely information about their business needs and requirements.

However, I’m afraid that what is driving them is a commitment to the status quo for how business is conducted. Fortunately, the new City Council person for this district is a Social Democrat and close friend of Yessica. There are strong resident leaders and growing momentum for developing a Community Benefits Agreement. A lot can be gained from a CBA, but it doesn’t achieve igniting their imagination for building community wealth.

NOTE: After this exercise is complete I want to remove this post since its contents are sensitive!

RS: The plot thickens … or maybe the plot thins. I’m not sure! I had a good telephone conversation with the CEOs deputy on Thursday afternoon. I called her to follow-up on a request that came in from a board committee chair. This is the first time I have spoken with her. I was surprised that she excused herself from a meeting to take my call and we had about a 30-minute conversation. And it was a real conversation.

The bad news is that it looks like they are moving in the direction of turning over facilities management to whomever is selected in response to an RFP that the City is currently drafting. It’s a bit too complicated to explain all the details, but there is a possibility that negotiating on the requirements stipulated in the RFP, could be influenced by community input, if the process for engaging the community in this effort is done well. To date, their idea of community engagement is very limited and ineffective. Yessica and others have provided input on how to effectively engage community voices, but so far it hasn’t resulted in new ways of doing business.

Traditional CBA’s are between a community and a developer. It looks like that is the direction things are going here, too. I think it will be a stronger message for a developer if there are requirements baked into the RFP that address local hiring and procurement, as well as committing to supporting the launch of worker cooperatives to fulfill some of the sub-contracting spots. Hopefully they will also include requirements for significant numbers of deeply affordably housing units. I don’t think the City has ever issued an RFP that would have these kinds of requirements, but the deputy shared with me that the RFP is emphasizing an equitable development framework for this parcel of land that is connected to the campus that I described in my post. I have no idea if this is possible, but I think it would be advantageous instead of setting up a CBA negotiation after the developer has already been selected by the City. I am not knowledgeable enough about these processes to know if my ideas have any chance of even being considered.

The deputy also shared with me that she has an upcoming 1:1 meeting with the City Councilwoman previously mentioned. They are definitely scared of her, because she has already proven a formidable opponent. Yessica will share with the City Councilwoman the intel that I picked up this week. Whether my approach can work or whether a CBA process is launched, there will be considerable pressure applied by the City Councilwoman to run an effective and legitimate community engagement process.

The deputy also shared that their board is scared of a CBA and wary of what it means to adopt an anchor mission approach. I really like Sheila’s idea to connect the board more directly with residents on residents’ turf. I am going to find out if that has happened already. I believe that staff feels like they have been going to community tables to have real conversations — but I’m skeptical about it. And I’m doubtful that the board members have been out in the community. There is one resident that sits on the board with a vote, but he is hardly representative of the community. There is also a non-voting resident that attends the board meetings and can participate, but not vote. She is an excellent participant and is providing effective leadership even without voting privileges. The board is so stacked and very clearly reflects tokenism when it comes to community engagement.

Jenai the points you raise around how our negotiating position could be stronger if we more deliberately partnered with others raises some interesting issues. Yessica is very connected in this community and has been working behind-the-scenes and overtly as an advocate lifting up voices of resident and small business owners. The City and the authority for the campus are very adept at dodging responsibility and pointing away from themselves and then presenting things as ‘done deals.’ It’s been maddening, pretty much from day one. Center for Community Wealth Building has yet to position itself as an adversary. So far, we have tried to overtly work with the authority, while still very clearly being an overt advocate for community members. Behind the scenes, Yessica helps community organizers and leaders, the councilwoman and our few allies on the board develop strategy for how to prevail. Politically, I think it is probably important for us to continue in this vein, primarily because we want anchor institutions to trust that we want to work with them.

The drama continues.

5 thoughts on “Attempt at the Vulcan Mind Meld”

  1. As someone who is in almost every way the product of globalization and both my mother and father not being particularly concerned with the local, I appreciate you naming wanting to be relevant on a global scale within this institutions’ mindset. I appreciate you naming that very universal need to focus hard on key issues and let other aspect slide in order to move forward. I think your insight that the ability to be a leader nationally or even internationally around building such a big campus without displacement is a very important one. That may be the winning argument.

    Do you feel any better prepared for your January meeting after writing this post? Is there a way for you to incorporate a global perspective into your framing of being an anchor institution locally? How did writing this post feel?

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  2. Hi Michelle!

    Loved the Star Trek reference haha! So when I see you analyzing these postures, I wonder how much of what you’re analyzing is coming from your own mental frameworks. Maybe to inspire a new level of creative thinking I’d ask you: what do you think the CEO would say about you if he had to do this exercise with you on the other end? Then based on how you think he thinks as if you were doing this exercise, maybe you can go a layer deeper into the fears and motivations? Thinking about their history, politics and more.

    Looking forward to speaking again soon!

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  3. Michelle, this is so well-written and full, I can picture this man speaking to you (and I’m feeling some rising indignation because I can see his view is limited by his own narrative about his board. Maybe this has already happened, but have he and his board had a chance to have a meal with some of the local residents? I wonder if his story might be disrupted when his board members are not in the board room, but in the community? It’s easy to be bold and breezy when there is no name or face attached to a plan. Focus groups can also be very contained. But what if it’s a celebration in the local park or church or elders’ backyard? Hmmm… Much gratitude for your sharing and for your courage!

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  4. Michelle. I’m in awe. Thanks for digging in deep on this one. this post helps me appreciate the depth and breadth of your work and passion and commitment.
    Is there any new insight from this exercise for you?

    Is trying to deal with you (the neighborhood) just a big inconvenience that he can mostly ignore?

    At the end of the piece — I also liked hearing you reflect on a few leverage points that it sounds like you might have with the Social Democrat on the Council. How realistic might a CBA be?
    Have you heard of anybody use a CBA type negotiating arrangement to put in place a Community Wealth Building Agreement?
    What might that look like?
    What teeth might that have?
    What other points of leverage might you have?

    I’m grateful for your work here. Thank you for sharing so deeply and contributing so much to this space. I’m excited to see how I can continue to learn from your work at CCWB and how you can help us shape the broader CPA Co-op network that I hope will continue to emerge and grow.

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  5. Thanks for sharing, Michelle! As I read your post, it didn’t take any effort to imagine the CEO actually sitting across from you, saying some of these words (not sure he’d be clued in enough to reference the area’s history or to acknowledge that once upon a time Native Americans called the land their home, but maybe I’m not giving him enough credit :D)

    A couple of thoughts:
    #1: You did a great job of identifying and speaking to very practical, logical concerns that might be going through the CEO (and staff). I think that to empathize means to acknowledge that one’s opponent may have practical, logical ideas/concerns!

    “We are under incredible pressure to deliver on the vision for this campus and building community wealth doesn’t fall within our wheelhouse or our mission.”

    “Again, we just don’t have the bandwidth to nurture new businesses.”

    In addition to your Plan B (the 6 month contract with a business analyst), can your team think of other potential strategies to speak to these particular concerns so that you’re presenting more than a or b?

    #2: Building off of Felipe’s point, could there be opportunity to partner with the coalition behind the CBA push and WorkNow to present a broader community investment agenda for this development? How would you get City/civic leaders (from both within and outside of government) to embrace this agenda and have your back as you negotiate with the organization from a position of community-backed strength?

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