Date Archives

April 2018

No Wrong Door

The instructions were a little vague. It was clear that I needed to turn in the signed form at Town Hall, and so I entered the maze of corridors and staircases in an attempt to find the office that I needed.  From the second to the fourth and back to the first floor, I ran into a number of people who said, “No, this isn’t the right place. You have to go to this office” Finally, through the washing machine of being passed from place to place, I turned in the form at the correct office– or at least I think I did.

Similarly, I recent attempted to schedule a simple doctor’s appointment. I called the number and was asked to select from a long list of prompts. Unfortunately, by the way, the first prompts were  — if you’re a doctor, press “1”, if you’re a pharmacist, press “2” — a clear message that I was not the most important customer that might be calling this linle. Finally, after listening to all the options, identifying myself as a patient, avoiding the impulse to push too early (No! I don’t want to refill my medication)– you hopefully get to the right person to conduct the transaction that you want. But, god forbid you make a mistake and get the “That’s not my department, let me forward you to”– and you’re left to explain the reason for your call all over again to a new person who may or may not be able to help you.

Okay. Rant Over. This is something that we have all experienced from time to time and while some settings have dramatically changed the way they create access, too many are still stuck in the “Press 8 for” world.

Unfortunately, this is more than just a pet peeve and frustration for you and I. For lower-income individuals, tt can be the difference between someone getting the services that they need or not. In working with those who need help, sometimes the biggest barrier is not the availability of help, but the process by which assistance can be accessed. If I need to get signed up for healthcare and food assistance for example, I may have to go to two (or more) different sites, fill out two sets of paperwork (that mostly ask for the same information) and bring verification documents that may be slightly different for each place. No one wants to be passed around like a late-addition prompt on an automated answering service– and nowhere do we have system more like that than in our support services for social and health needs.

This obstacle course to get access to services is challenging for any person, let alone if you are socioeconomically or emotionally distressed. It is complicated even further if you are linguistically or culturally isolated. It’s darn near impossible if you’re working multiple jobs, lack consistent transportation or have any of dozens of other challenges that increase the size of the barriers between you and what you need.

That is why I am so thrilled with a concept that is beginning to grow called “No wrong door” (NWD).  NWD is a person-centered approach that streamlines access to the resources that are available to the person. Originally built as a collaborative enterprise between the Administration for Community Living, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the Veterans Health Administration, this government program worked to build better access to those requiring long-term services and support (LTSS). The concept has since expanded to other places that are using technology to unify resources like NY Connects.

The private sector is getting involved in this work as well. Take Single Stop. By providing a unified application form/process, they are streamlining access to a variety of resources, not sending individuals to multiple offices to get the things that they need. According to the Single Stop website, they have already served 1 million households in 9 states with a $20 to $1 return on investment. Other systems are beginning to take this promising approach including central intake systems for needs like housing assistance.

What do these approaches teach us and how can we build upon them?

Be person-centered. Just like my call to the doctor’s office, systems need to be designed for the people they are made to serve. This sounds like it should be obvious, but it is not standard practice. Instead our systems get designed for any number of reasons– to make it easiest for staff, to comply with the requirements of a funding source, or because we’ve always done it this way– If our services are centered on anything other than the person being served, we have missed the boat and will design systems that work for other purposes. Design thinking is a very useful tool here. Built out of the Stanford d school (Recommended Read: Change by Design), this framework grounds our innovation in the experience of the person. The first (and regularly-repeated step — as this is an iterative process) is empathy– developing an understanding for the processes that people face, including the problems and barriers that make accessing a service more difficult.

Over the years, I participated in so many meetings where organizational leaders talk about the experience of people. We hypothesize (though often with an assumption that we know the answer) the reasons why families use the emergency department frequently, why people don’t purchase fruits and vegetables, etc.). Yet despite the best intentions (sometimes), rarely are the actual people consulted. If we want to design person-centered systems, it must begin by actually interacting with the person–becoming a client.

If you ever have a chance to put yourself in the shoes of another, do it– even if it’s simulated. My friends at Pathways to Prosperity (and others out there) lead events called “Poverty Simulations”, where people (often professionals serving a low-income population either directly or indirectly) have the opportunity experience a small, simulated taste of what it is like to navigate the social service system. Participating in one of these events was an incredibly powerful experience because you see so clearly how “wrong doors” are slammed in faces all the time. You can sense the frustration of trying your best, but being thwarted by a system that wasn’t designed for you. If we want to really make an impact, we have to begin with the experience of the person in mind

Cut out the silos. One of the biggest drivers of “wrong door” thinking are what often get described as “silos”. These isolated structures may represent different organizations, different sectors or even programs or initiatives within a sector. Most of our organizations run within a certain framework that was developed based on their traditions, regulatory requirements, or leadership design. Even the best-designed system within a sector, let’s say healthcare– may create a barrier between another– say housing assistance.

Much has been written about collective impact approaches– about getting organizations to identify a common agenda, to bring their own expertise and contribution to the table and to create greater capacity by uniting these efforts. This is absolutely essential for a no wrong door approach. Organizations have to be willing to change the way they interact with the people they serve and the other stakeholders. We can build a better network of resources that work together in a mutually-reinforcing way that support real change. This should include some of the unusual suspects as well– bringing business partners, town planners, etc. to the table– each with something to contribute to designing a better experience.

What about my door?

Finally, I want to write a bit not about organizational capacity or program design, but how this concept of No Wrong Door might apply to our roles as neighbors and community change agents. In one organization I worked in, we often had difficulty with people finding their way through our facility. A great deal of time and energy was spent in thinking about better signage, maps or even technologies to help people navigate through the buildings. But one of the most powerful interventions was much more simple. All of the leaders were encouraged to keep an eye out for a person who may look a little lost and simply do two things:  1) Ask “Can I help you find something?” and 2) after the person indicated where they were going to say “Let me take you there”. The simple, but powerful idea was that no matter who you were– a janitor or an executive– you could stop what you were doing to help the customer get to where they needed to be. This is no wrong door at its best. It doesn’t say– “this isn’t my job”– but says that whoever I happen upon I will take it on as my responsibility to get them where they need to be.

That works in organizations and I think it can work in our day to day interactions. Instead of saying “I don’t know” or putting your head down and minding your own business, can we go the extra mile and help folks get to where they need to go? Can we notice and empathize with the needs of our neighbors and those on the margins of our community? Can we help bridge connections that others may not have access to? Can we take every figurative knock on our door as an opportunity to build the beloved community one moment at a time?

I believe we can. Call it serendipity or karma or god’s will, but I’d challenge you to think that your door (literally or figuratively) is never the wrong one for someone in need.

Please share your ideas, questions, and comments below. Let’s think about how we can make sure there are no wrong doors in our communities.

Brewing Collaboration

Our confidence was pretty high. My friend and I were ready to unleash our first home brew on the world. A room full of dinner guests sat around the table as we pulled out our first bottle. Several weeks before we had bought a kit from a local lawn store and followed the instructions as closely as we could— and here we were, prepared to enjoy the fruits of our labor. What could go wrong?

It was a disaster. As I popped the top off that first bottle, an orange, foamy substance exploded from the lip and on to the floor. Once the carbonation had subsided and the floor was cleaned a taste of the remnants told us that this batch– in which we had invested time and money and energy– was simply undrinkable. We thought it might make good compost for the garden. It killed the plants.

We were homebrew failures.

Years went by before I would try again. This time I ventured out solo, and my results were mixed, but mostly I was left with this “meh” feeling of spending hours alone over a boiling pot. It wasn’t much of fun.

So, with these experiences behind me, I made one more attempt, to pull together a small group of guys to brew. We met to purchase supplies, for a main brew day and for a bottling session– and then came the big moment, when we’d open up and (hopefully) enjoy the fruits of our labor.

It was a smashing success. The New England IPA and Belgian Trippel that we produced were not just drinkable — and non-volatile– but really enjoyable! We had done it! And not only did we now have 60 plus bottles of successful homebrew to share– we had built relationships via common experience.

I think brewing beer is a lot like the work we do as community agents of change. It is a mysterious process– most of which occurs without human intervention, hidden under the lid of a bucket or concealed in a bottle. There is so much that is out of control and there is a whole lot of waiting that has to go on. Fresh off the taste of this successful experience, I wanted to share four lessons from home brewing that I believe can we applied to our work in the community

  1. We’re Better Together: When I was brewing alone in my kitchen, it was relaxing– and I don’t mind that sort of internal retreat that solo brewing might afford, but it wasn’t as effective and fun as doing it in a group. In a group, we were able to troubleshoot together. There were times where the directions we had were simply not clear. We had to discuss and make a communal decision about what we wanted to do. There were times where we weren’t sure how to do something. By sharing resources and ideas, we were able to come to the best decision. And the by-product of this was not just spent grains and oxygen bubbles– it was community, forged out of common experience. The same is true for the work we do in the community. While this may seem obvious, too many individuals or organizations go it alone– laboring in solitude, and the primary and secondary results simply aren’t as good.
  2. Ingredients Matter: This is an obvious statement to those who engage in any type of culinary pursuit, but it is an important lesson for those thinking about creating community change. Our friendly salesman at Cask and Kettle Home Brew made a great case for us to invest in Cryo Hops. Not only do these super-science-induced hops produce better taste, you have to use less of them than the normal hop variety. In our community work, we’re often coming with a set of ingredients that we have– and a common refrain in circles is “If we only”— had that grant, knew this person, got this funding, etc. Building the right ingredient mix is essential to making a batch that matters. Sometimes that means bringing a new stakeholder to the table. Sometimes that involves thinking outside the bounds of our normal relationships and resources, but whatever it is we have to put the right stuff in to get the right product.
  3. Fear Contaminants: In beer brewing the biggest enemy is bacteria. Every piece of equipment that touches the beer must be meticulously sanitized– otherwise you end up with the foaming orange stuff from my first batch. The same is true for community development. There are so many things that can inhibit the work– mistrust can seep its way in between potential collaborators, often undetectable at first until it blows up down the road. Small, indiscernible things can create disengagement, especially when people come to the table for the first time. Just like in brewing, we have to be extremely mindful of the potential contaminants that may affect our collaboration. This can be challenging because we always like to stay positive. We like to talk about the potential of this shared venture, which is important… but we should also stay really focused on things that could potentially go wrong so that we can do our best to avoid them.
  4. Embrace the mystery, magic and waiting:  Despite all our best efforts, in the end we don’t really know how something is going to turn out. That is the beauty of craft brewing, really. Because it is a process that is creative and collaborative– as opposed to standardized and systematic– it creates beautiful variation. And all of this takes something we don’t like talking about– time. In the “same-day-delivery” world that we are in today, the idea of aging things is a lost art. But there is no way around that in beer brewing, nor in collaboration for community change. Relationships, even between two individuals, take time and effort to form into meaningful collaborations. This becomes all the more complicated when talking about organizations or multiple stakeholders. And these relationships always occur in a context…there is history, there are cultural and social norms– that either facilitate or slow down the process. But, herein lies that most critical lesson from brewing– sometimes you just have to pitch in the yeast and let it do its work. Start the process with the right people, the right ingredients and the right intentions– and who knows something magical and tasty might happen.

The Beloved Community

As I drove across Vancouver Island today, I was listening to the radio and hearing stories about the last days of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. It was the 50th anniversary of this death– a milestone that gives us opportunity to pause and reflect on the message behind the man — a message so challenging to the status quo that his life was repeatedly threatened and eventually taken away from us.

I surmise that if you asked most Americans who MLK was, they would identify him as a civil rights leader who advocated for equal rights for Black americans. While certainly this definition is true, it is incomplete because King’s work was not just about lunch counters and water fountains– it was about power and injustice.

No doctrine of King’s illustrates this most poignantly than his vision of “the beloved community”. First coined by Josiah Royce, the founder of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, this term was popularized (although not sufficiently) by King. For those unfamiliar with the term, the King Center defines the beloved community as:

“a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries , instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.”

Sign me up! This vision gives us a powerful picture of what we should strive for and aligns closely with what many other prophets and teachers have described, including Jesus’ notion of the “kingdom of god”.

This radical vision cannot be addressed without thinking about King’s triple evils: poverty, racism, and militarism. Much has been written about King’s legacy on racism and areas of progress and lack thereof. In these past years alone we have seen plenty of evidence that this exists– from police shootings of unarmed black men to white supremacist rallies.

We also must not forget the other two evils. Where do we stand there? In 2017, the gap between the rich and the poor hit one of its highest levels ever in the United States— and the policies of the current administration have further favored those who possess wealth and influence. We remain entrenched in a militaristic mindset– fueled by increased vitriol between nations and a general movement toward nationalism that threatens the progress of the previous decades. King would remind us to call these things what they are– evils– and to recognize them as the ultimate threats to building a beloved community.

And so the challenge is before us. What kind of community will we create? While few of us have broad ability to influence whether we keep troops in Syria or pass tax policies that entrench individuals in poverty–we all have the opportunity to contribute in more localized contexts.

Think about this?

Poverty. Does it exist in your neighborhood or town? Are people hungry or homeless? Why? Do we accept these disparities as a fact of life? Do we give a pittance to charity to show our sympathy? Or do we act compassionately to eradicate what is unacceptable based on the standards of human decency. King called a great nation a “compassionate nation”.

Racism: Are there people in your community who are excluded from the mainstream? These slights may not be overt discrimination, but simply a lack of connectedness. How can you break down the barriers? — by inviting the immigrant family to your next cookouts? by taking time to get to know the new person on the street? These little things can make a big difference.

Militarism: How do we settle our differences? What about your local police force? Are they engaged in community policing or embracing militaristic methods? Do the words we use on social media or at the football game reflect the beloved community or a militaristic approach to the world?

These are simple, little actions that we can all take action on. Of course, we must also use the power of our voices, our votes, and our purchasing to fuel larger, more systemic change. By dogged persistence and unwavering diligence, we can continue the progress, honoring Dr. King’s legacy and moving us closer to the beloved community of which he inspired us to dream.