A Strong Neighborhood Senior Program Officer Nelson Beckford discusses the importance of partnerships.
Q: What are interesting ways partnership has unfolded in your work?
NB: A picnic table! While it may seem like an ordinary structure built for ordinary purposes – and certainly an odd example of partnership – it actually serves as a useful metaphor. Recently, students participating in the Making Our Own Space (MOOS) initiative, piloted by Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative (CUDC), built a picnic bench. Once finished, it was placed on the grounds of Saint Luke’s Manor, where it remains today.
In the course of monitoring the project, I learned that the fundamentals, or principles, of picnic bench design and construction are essentially the same as those of any building—even a skyscraper. Just as important, a picnic bench and a building also serve a similar purpose—they enable people to collectively experience a place, or in our case, a neighborhood.
And so the picnic bench at Saint Luke’s Manor is more than just a picnic bench. It’s a beacon for young and old to congregate, sit together, eat together, tell stories together, and forge in small but meaningful ways a connectedness, a foundation for the future, and a stronger neighborhood.
Q: So small wins are important, too?
NB: Absolutely. Small wins – like new picnic benches, neighborhood ice cream socials and artistic exhibitions and performances – add up over time to create lasting change in our neighborhoods. They engage residents and put smiles on faces; and that, in turn, helps to rebuild essential neighborhood structures that have fractured over the course of many decades. Through our A Strong Neighborhood program strategy, Saint Luke’s Foundation is committed to helping grantees and community partners make tangible impacts directly in the neighborhood—impacts that secure victories, no matter how big or small.
Q: What have you learned about the dynamics of community partnerships through your years of experience as a Senior Program Officer?
NB: Every day, I try to remind myself of two things: one, that philanthropy means the love of mankind – we should be coming from a place of caring. We are here to make a problem better. Secondly, I must always approach my work with humility and understand that we as a foundation are here to serve the residents. Our end customers are the residents, and the place. There’s so much noise in the broader conversation of how to serve vulnerable populations. Our big challenge is how to mitigate that noise, cut through the clutter, and focus on what the residents really need, as opposed to what we may think they need.
Q: Can you give an example of a Foundation partnership that’s working?
NB: Absolutely. In 2015, we forged a working relationship with the Cleveland police through the Community Policing initiative we support. It’s still in the early stages – a work in progress – but it’s beginning to bear fruit. It kicked off during a very volatile time of community/police relations in a neighborhood that has the highest rate of crime in the city. Both we and our police partners knew that we had to get in front of common perceptions and build authentic relationships between officers and residents.
Q: How can you tell if it’s working?
NB: Two months ago, I was taking the elevator up to our offices here at Saint Luke’s Pointe, and one of the kids from our co-tenant, Boys and Girls Clubs, got in the elevator and said, “I heard the police were planning another block party in the neighborhood; when’s it happening?” Well, in years past, you never heard questions like that. There now is an expectation by some residents that these police/community engagements and interactions will happen, and it’s obvious that they look forward to those occasions. That’s a very positive sign.
Q: How can grantees and other community stakeholders strengthen their partnership commitments with the Foundation?
NB: Communicate, communicate, communicate. It all comes down to so many of our foundation’s core values. From us to our grantees to stakeholders and residents, we’re in one big sandbox. As Saint Luke’s Foundation, we bring certain toys into it. Our toys will hopefully complement other toys and make it a better sandbox in certain ways; but it’s not our sandbox. For us to say that we’re going to buy the box, control the sand and make the rules, that’s not the way to build and sustain positive partnerships.