A second chapter (analysis by Robert Leger)

light_rail_bridge_over_tempe_town_lake_1-2011The Sustainable Communities Collaborative is about to embark on a second chapter. This one will test whether pure collaboration is possible.

For the past six years, the Collaborative has brought diverse voices together, forged partnerships across the three cities on the original light-rail corridor, changed the conversation about transit-oriented development and become vital to many of its members. It has also leaned heavily on co-founder and executive director Shannon Scutari. Her departure presents an opportunity to re-imagine the future.

‘These things have a life cycle,” she says. “If we’re not willing to change, we don’t acknowledge that.”

Discussion at the June meeting, the last for the original group, centered on two options for the future:

  • Continuing with the current framework, which would require affiliating with an existing organization or finding a new source of funding and someone to fill the executive director’s role.
  • Becoming a pure collaboration, which would entail a constantly shifting leadership and a requirement for every member to share responsibility. This would be trail blazing.

Smart people, deeply invested in the Collaborative, sit around the table. I have neither their history nor their experience, but I can offer something they don’t have: The fresh eye of a disinterested observer. When they reconvene in August, they could best harness their history, experience and knowledge by going through a number of questions. The Socratic method often leads to the right answers.

— Why should the Collaborative continue? What does it offer that isn’t available anywhere else? What would Collaborative 2.0’s essential mission be?

The Collaborative eschewed formality. It never legally incorporated, avoiding the temptations of defending turf. It was about mission, not survival.

So why should it survive?

For many members, the prime benefit has been having a safe place to bounce ideas off like-minded people. The Collaborative bred partnerships that accomplished more than a single individual or city could have.

For others, the Collaborative provided a means to rally support for transit-oriented development and related issues. That often meant pressuring elected officials or breaking down barriers to get stuff done, which required some members to take the heat that city staffers, for instance, could not. It meant pressing cultural change.

Each of those missions requires a different set of skills. Can an all-volunteer Collaborative do it all? Must it prioritize? Or is paid staff the only way?

This leads to the next set of questions.

Scutari, the paid executive director, has been the glue and the oil of the collaborative, holding everything together and mobilizing the group to action. She welcomed new members, supported longtime members, worked behind the scenes between meetings, moved easily between elected officials, developers, staffers and neighborhood and community advocates.

In large part because of Scutari, this was the most successful collaboration most people have seen. There is some irony in this: The act of bringing diverse talents and personalities together to work toward a common goal, without worrying about who received credit, was enhanced by having a strong, if self-effacing, leader.

— Does the collaborative need to find the money to pay a new executive? If so, is that more about mission or survival?

— Can the leadership role be filled by volunteers? Can they take time from their challenging, paid jobs to be the glue and the oil, stepping in where necessary?

— Or can it be done with a new model, one in which leadership shifts depending on the need — someone to organize a monthly meeting, someone else to rally support at a public hearing, someone else to have coffee with a mayor? Can each member take responsibility, ringing a digital bell and knowing others will respond?

It’s an exciting idea, full of possibility.

And full of potential landmines.

— What would keep this from descending into anarchy? How does a true collaborative set priorities, so that the digital bell isn’t constantly bleating, leading to both the urgent and parochial being ignored?

This doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It would be difficult, because there is no good model for it.

But in its six years, the Collaborative has regularly defied expectations. It pushed cultural changes in places no one thought possible. It changed the conversation around light rail. The group’s history positions it well to make a pure collaborative work — if the members are willing to commit to it.

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