[Guest post by Patricia Brandes, Executive Director of the Barr Foundation. Brandes talks about the ways Barr has used disruption as a tool to spark bridging across difference among social change leaders – with clear positive effects for the leaders themselves, their organizations, and their city.]
I met Tom Sander in June at the annual meeting of Associated Grantmakers in Boston. The topic was social capital and Tom keynoted. David Crowley of Social Capital Inc. was there too, moderating a panel to which I was a last-minute addition (you can find David’s excellent roundup here on the SCI blog). I was invited after the Barr Foundation appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review – in a case study on the Barr Fellowship (see “The Currency of Social Change”), which is a story about the remarkable return we are seeing in Boston from an investment in social capital.
In his remarks, Tom reminded us that social capital comes in two types – bonding (i.e., with others like me) and bridging (i.e., across difference). Typically, building bonding ties are easier. Bridging is hard. Yet, bridging is vital. More often than not, new ideas, new approaches, and new solutions to persistent challenges come from leaders able to break out of silos and “groupthink” of homogenous networks. Bridging is also an essential capacity for urban leaders of the 21st century, who must cross boundaries of race and class to create community. This is what makes the Barr Fellowship so special. It is a tightly woven network of bridging connections. After seven years and four classes of twelve fellows each, the Barr Fellowship network represents a remarkable cross section of Boston. Its members are diverse in age, race, sector, geographic focus, and more. Few even knew each other before being inducted as Fellows. The few exceptions were those who knew each other from being on opposite ends of pitched battles over neighborhood projects, or funding, or politics. Now, they know and trust each other deeply, and Boston is reaping the benefits of their boundary-crossing collaborations. Just to name a few examples, there are Barr Fellows behind the scenes of two exciting new Boston Public Schools opening their doors this fall (the Dudley Street Neighborhood Charter School and the Margarita Muñiz Academy), and behind the new community garden that opened in the Bromley-Heath Public Housing Project last year.
The secret to forging these powerful, bridging connections? In a word…disruption.
The Barr Fellowship begins with a three-month sabbatical. In itself, this is a beneficial disruption for social change leaders, who typically have never had such an opportunity for personal growth and rejuvenation. As the 2009 report, “Creative Disruption,” noted, sabbaticals turn out to be highly beneficial to leaders’ organizations as well. Yet from the perspective of social capital, it is critical that each class of twelve Fellows spends the first two weeks of their sabbatical traveling together to the global south (for example, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Haiti). In later, years, members of different Fellows’ classes come together for similar journeys – as this group who traveled together to Haiti in March, 2012:Stefan Lanfer, who manages communications for Barr, traveled with an earlier group in January, and documented the trip here.
On these “learning journeys,” Fellows are immersed in experiences that open minds and hearts. They interact with social and environmental activists, who, despite scarce resources and great challenges, provide living examples that stir the imagination, inspire and confirm big aspirations, and bolster confidence for Fellows to achieve what they may never have considered possible. Conversations and connections happen among Fellows in many casual and unplanned ways during these journeys. A facilitator from Interaction Institute for Social Change also joins each group to provide more structured opportunities to debrief, reflect, and imagine together.
Barr has a detailed logic model (which you can see here) outlining our thinking for how this investment in disruption translates into big change for the leaders themselves, their organizations, Boston, and even the world. Here is the idea in brief:
When the boundaries are real and seemingly impenetrable, it takes disruption to get to authentic relationships. It takes authentic relationships to build trust. Only when you have real trust can people bridge across difference. And when you have a network of gifted leaders bridging across all kinds of differences, powerful change starts to emerge. This dynamic is best expressed in the words of one of the Barr Fellows, who shared this reflection on his first Barr Fellows learning journey with our evaluator, Claire Reinelt of the Leadership Learning Community:
We were able to open up to each other and state what we thought, what our fears were personally and professionally, where we thought we were going. That was fantastic! To have someone to whom you can say ‘I’ll call you at three in the morning,’ or ‘I’ll be over at your house,’ or, ‘I need some time to debrief, a mental health break,’ or ‘my spirits are low.’ Those are opportunities that were created. You can overcome any obstacle whatsoever if you have someone to fall back on.