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Drew O’Connor on Building Community Resilience

When Drew O’Connor looks to see if a community is resilient and healthy, he knows the numbers and other indicators are important – but it’s not the only thing he’s looking for.

As co-director of The Civic Canopy, a Denver, Colorado based networking organization that “helps bring together the players and capacities needed to work on a critical community issue,” O’Connor’s sense is that a well and healthy community is one that focuses on results, is inclusive, has high-quality dialogue, acts and learns from what they do. These characteristics comprise a cycle that becomes stronger the more it’s practiced.

“A marker of resilience in a community is the existence of these patterns to come together to address issues, which engender a culture of collaboration,” he says. “Trust and action replace suspicion and blame as the community default mode.”

O’Connor and the Civic Canopy’s charge is to help communities gain the resilience they need to solve problems in ways that build an inclusive community. He says their work is often focused on identifying shared outcomes, engendering healthy dialogue, and building powerful networks to address tough challenges.

“Results are at the center of our work. It’s critical communities have clarity on what they’re trying to achieve and some way to measure progress. That’s why we’ve been using the development of indicators as means for engagement and shared accountability.”

The approach of The Civic Canopy is somewhat different than traditional strategic planning change models, that O’Connor says tend to produce a “laundry list” of strategies that often aren’t revisited.

“Now I’m a bit more of a fan of picking an issue, moving  through the cycle (results, inclusiveness, dialogue, action, learning) together, see how we do, and assess what we learn together– then let’s try it again and see how we do better,” he says.

What that looks like in practice is exemplified in a number of neighborhoods where Civic Canopy has worked – like in Athmar Park in South Denver, an ethnically diverse neighborhood where residents “recognized they weren’t operating as a whole community.”

O’Connor and others worked with local leaders to host inclusiveness conversations, and with participants began envisioning what an “inclusiveness indicator” might look like. Those indicators are an important and growing part of the Civic Canopy’s work to develop a set of “Neighborhood Vital Signs” that can serve as concrete information to tell if the broader Denver community is making progress toward change.

Sometimes having those conversations around change can be tough. But O’Connor says that once the opportunity is opened, “most people want to have the space in their community to have important conversations in a rationale way.

“The problem is, we’ve developed a set of bad habits and systems that prevent that from being the default mode. So a big part of our work is re-setting the community operating system to reflect civil dialogue.”

He’ll ask participants, “Which would you like to be your community ‘MO’? To exclude, divide, block and blame – or, include, dialogue, act and learn?” When confronted with the pathos they find themselves in, he says that most make the rationale choice. “When you can get a community into a conversation where they themselves can identify the patterns that have kept them from getting what they want, it becomes easier to move into a different kind of discussion,” he says.

O’Connor believes that grassroots grants are an excellent vehicle around which ongoing community conversations can revolve. “The smaller and more focused projects are ideal for this learning model, where people take one issue or project through the cycle, and then do it again ” he says.

And it’s these ongoing conversations and small scale community changes that are all a part of what he calls “21st Century Democracy.”

“Our nostalgic notions of democracy tend to keep us focused on voting and town hall meetings as the means for creating change, but our problems are complex and democratic practices need to reflect that complexity,” says O’Connor. “We’ve got to build the patterns of engagement at the neighborhood level that bring us together to address and achieve change around the toughest issues. That’s what effective democracy is.”

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