Building a Bigger Loom

weaving work

In a recent NYT column, David Brooks describes our current times as a war with two sides: those who sow division and discord in our communities, and those who nurture attachment and connectivity. “It’s as if we’re witnessing this vast showdown between the rippers and the weavers,” he writes.

Lest we feel too quickly our own superiority, Brooks observes that we are all part of the problem. We each struggle with overwork and a radical individualism that leaves us little time to know our neighbors. We are insulated from people who vote differently, dress differently, and use different words to express similar feelings of isolation, fear and concern for our future.

There are many more weavers than rippers, Brooks writes. There are more people who yearn to live in loving relationships and trusting communities, but they need strategies to strengthen their awareness and skills. Continue reading “Building a Bigger Loom”

A Jar Full of Jellybeans

close up of colorful jelly beans in a jar

I love walking into a room of people who want to make a difference in their community. Moms, doctors, elders, elected officials, teachers; people who are new to the work sitting with people at the height of their career. The range of experience and knowledge excites me. I’m confident that together they will yield new insights and approaches, and forge friendships that last beyond the project.

As a facilitator, I believe my best service to the work is to help draw out what I like to call the “wisdom in the room” – the inherent, sometimes dormant, intelligence that emerges when people feel safe, share freely, reflect on what they’re learning, and make choices on how to move forward.

It turns out that my belief that a group of people can be more insightful, more intelligent, than any one person, is more than just a belief. It’s also got some science behind it. Continue reading “A Jar Full of Jellybeans”

The Elephant in the Room

Oftentimes when working with communities, I retell the tale of the blind men who come across an elephant. One clasps the trunk and wonders, “Ah! But this beast is long and snakelike!” Another places his hand on a haunch: “No, it isn’t! It is coarse and broad.” “You’re both wrong,” says a third, who stands by a tusk. “It is smooth, hard and cool.”

The men argue. They are each correct in their experience, yet left to their own perceptions they are unable to discern the true nature of the beast.

I like to tell this story for two reasons. One, people like stories. They remind us “about who we are, why we are, where we come from and what might be possible,” as actor Alan Rickman once said.

The second reason is that the story beautifully illustrates why inviting in people with different perspectives is central to community building. Continue reading “The Elephant in the Room”

Collaborating With the Universe


I am lucky to live and work in Montana, which means I get a lot of drive time. Unlike my city-dweller friends, drives in Montana include mountain passes, buffalo herds, and irregular access to gas stations. Trips between towns can easily exceed three hours, and so podcasts are a welcome addition to the books-on-tape and agriculture talk shows that help pass the time.

One of my favorite podcasts is On Being with Krista Tippett– a show that explores the big questions of meaning in modern life: What does it mean to be human? How do we want to live? And who will we be to each other? Two recent podcasts – one with Nobel physicist Frank Wilczek; the other with author Elizabeth Gilbert– tapped  my own ponderings about the work I do: What does it mean to be a “community builder,” a collaborator, someone who believes not only that good is possible, but that good is our natural state of being? Continue reading “Collaborating With the Universe”

Feeding the Light

My teen daughter is going through the anxieties and insecurities we all remember from those coming-of-age years. Adding to the stresses of her life are the much-noted amplifying effects of modern living: social media, 24-hour news cycles and the dehumanizing pace of an unbalanced world.

Modern culture has given my daughter and her friends heavy labels (bi-polar, ADHD, suicidal) to describe their teen tumult, and violent narratives to exacerbate their anxieties. All of this is very scary. I want kids to grow up grounded, resilient and strong.

It reminds me of discussions I have with colleagues around the country who are reeling from the daily onslaught – school shootings, “fake news,” a sense of loss in the promise of our collective endeavor. How, we wonder, can we stay grounded, resilient and strong when so much draws us into the chaos? Continue reading “Feeding the Light”

Community Narratives

This fall I logged over 1,000 miles traveling to towns in western Montana to talk about community, on behalf of the Headwaters Health Foundation, which sought to engage communities in the design of their strategic plan.

At each meeting, we asked participants – healthcare and mental health professionals, educators, local government and nonprofit organizations – to describe the strengths their community brings to tackling challenges.  These strengths included a history of working well together, having local organizations with the vision and capacity to lead change, and local projects that make a difference. Continue reading “Community Narratives”

Collaborative Frameworks

This blog was originally published by the Tamarack Institute.

Earlier this month I participated in a workshop on collaboration at a gathering of several hundred grantmakers, hosted by Philanthropy Northwest. During the session, Collaborative Exchange, I presented on Graduation Matters Montana, a public-private initiative that resulted in record-breaking high school graduation rates.

As I was preparing for the session, I was reminded of a Tamarack Institute talk in which Liz Weaver and Mark Cabaj described what effective change efforts have in common. There are three things, they posited: (1) a framework; (2) principles; and (3) practices. How, I wondered, could I describe our work raising graduation rates, based on Weaver and Cabaj’s insights? Continue reading “Collaborative Frameworks”

Build your team like Broadway

This blog was originally published by the Collective Impact Forum.

Building a steering committee or leadership team for a collective impact initiative can feel high stakes. When done well, it opens the door to innovation and impact; when done poorly it can dissipate precious time, commitment and enthusiasm for the endeavor.

Whenever I build a leadership team, I like to think about Broadway. Not because we all need a little razzle-dazzle once in a while, but because recent research on teams, networks, collaboration and creativity has learned a lot from show biz. Continue reading “Build your team like Broadway”

Dance Like Nobody’s Watching

Have you ever heard the maxim, “Work like you don’t need the money, love like you’ve never been hurt, dance like nobody’s watching?”  You’ll see it on greeting cards, fridge magnets and Facebook memes.

I like the notion. It makes me think of having the freedom to be myself and to find joy in living. Friends of mine can attest that I’m often the first on the dance floor, and I have experienced great heartache yet now share a deep love with my husband.  It’s the first phrase, “Work like you don’t need the money” that’s been the hardest for me to grasp. Continue reading “Dance Like Nobody’s Watching”

After the Ecstasy, the Laundry

clothes line laundry

This blog was originally posted by Tamarack Institute.

I recently attended an extraordinary conference hosted by the Tamarack Institute. I met wonderful, warm and interesting people, the workshops I gave were well-received, and to top it off, my mother came to see me present and she was very proud of me. Really: I couldn’t imagine a better work week.

As I was flying home, relishing my experience, I thought: “Uh oh… After the ecstasy, comes the laundry. Time to prepare for the crash.” And sure enough, the following week was one of the roughest since starting my own business, with self-doubts and obstacles blocking my way at every turn.  How predictable. Continue reading “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry”