We’ve been planning the symposium with MIT’s Community Innovators Lab (MIT CoLab). They believe excluded communities have knowledge that, when properly harnessed, can drive innovation. The challenge, however, is to facilitate a space in which these communities can share what they know – and to enable professionals within systems to listen. The shorthand for their approach is ‘think, link and do’ and I was lucky enough to ask Alyssa Bryson and Katherine Mella of CoLab what it means.
Pritpal: Hi Katherine and Alyssa. Let’s start with why you’re interested in health.
Katherine: We at CoLab acknowledge that generational disinvestment and the failure of health and economic systems have eviscerated the prospects for health and well-being amongst many marginalized communities. We think wellness-based development encapsulates the ways in which community and economic development impact health and well-being. It’s a cornerstone to developing a robust and just economy.
Pritpal: Gosh. When you put it that way… I know you’ve been thinking hard about how people from different sectors talk to each other, but why?
Alyssa: It’s common to find groups of ‘experts’ talking at, or over, one another. Yet, facing complex challenges requires multi-disciplinary responses – we can’t afford to rely only on our own expertise to generate different outcomes. This means talking across sectors and disciplines.
Pritpal: I agree with that; give me a real-world example.
Katherine: With an issue like asthma, you need more than just health experts at the table. In our ‘Bronx Healthy Buildings Program’, for instance, we’re aiming to reveal the ways disinvested buildings are full of triggers for people with asthma. We need local residents at the table sharing their struggles in getting building owners to deal with the mold in their apartments. We need folks in finance willing to think creatively about how to fund a program that spans health and energy retrofits. We need community organizing and leadership development. ‘Healthy Buildings’ has nearly 20 cross-sectoral partners bringing different expertise to collective problem solving.
Pritpal: Impressive. We heard about ‘Healthy Buildings’ last week. I know you have an approach called ‘think, link and do’; tell us more about it.
Alyssa: ‘Think, link and do’ are the three core instrumentalities that we use to realize our vision of building more just communities through collaborative innovation. Much of CoLab’s work involves engaging in structured processes to generate new knowledge about long-standing challenges by putting the expertise of lived experience in conversation with technical knowledge. If we do not engage community expertise in our responses to these challenges, we are missing a critical source of insight, and risk replicating the type of technocratic thinking that has resulted in so many failed policies and initiatives.
Pritpal: Devil’s advocate for a moment; is lived experience on par with technical knowledge?
Alyssa: It needs to be. Both lived experience and technical knowledge are ‘ways of knowing’. We need to cross the theory and practice divide to give knowledge derived from lived experience the weight it deserves.
Pritpal: So ‘think’ is about bringing together different types of expertise as well as different ways of knowing, What’s ‘link’?
Alyssa: ‘Link’ refers to creating spaces for stakeholders across multiple sectors to explore common interests and develop transformative projects. This means gathering them, of course, but it’s also about methods – it takes an intentional approach to design and facilitation to unlock the potential of these gatherings. Some specific ways in which we create a productive space for learning include emphasizing the importance of community expertise by inviting them to speak early on, using reflective questions to connect with the purpose and motivation behind each person’s work, and using facilitation to overcome discipline-specific language.
Pritpal: So, if we’ve gotten our head around the ‘thinking’ and have started the ‘linking’, we’re good to go?
Alyssa: Ultimately, we need to act. We need to build practical examples of how meaningful collaboration can help build more just communities. The act of collaborating is hard and requires intentional, daily practice – it’s a lot like developing a muscle. If you strengthen the capacity for collaboration over time, you are building resilience. This is essential because individual projects can fail but communities with a collaborative ‘social infrastructure’ are in a better position to try new things and adapt to change.
Pritpal: Fascinating. So, where do people go to learn more about all this?
Alyssa: You can visit the CoLab website to learn more about our work. For more information on collaboration and innovation methods, I recommend the Presencing Institute website – we work closely with them and frequently use the Theory U framework in our work. Additionally, some of these are translated into Spanish on CoLab’s Community Innovation School website.
Pritpal: Thank you, and thanks also for helping us to shape the experience at the symposium.
Katherine: We are very happy to be part of it! We look forward to learning from the range of participants already doing innovative work in this space.
For all the talk of cross-sector collaboration and community engagement, I rarely hear the kinds of ideas and practices that the folks at CoLab advocate, and am pleased they’ve been such an integral part of our symposium planning.