Collaborating for Impact

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Earlier this week, we made a return trip up north to Ashland and Bayfield to continue engaging the local community about how an AmeriCorps supported program might add value to current and existing efforts to fight hunger. 

We had originally planned this trip for mid-July but the rains and floods that swept through the region postponed the trip. Two weeks out, the Bad River still seemed precipitously high and in a wooded area just south of Lake Superior, many trees lay toppled, almost all of them had been violently uprooted from the earth. 

It felt strange meeting with stakeholders to talk about fighting hunger while an active recovery was currently taking place. Just a dew days prior to our arrival, helicopters were dropping off emergency food at the Bad River Reservation and other AmeriCorps programs were organizing to help with the cleanup.

Or maybe it was the best time since the issue was front of mind. From a statistical perspective, Ashland county has the 5th highest food insecurity rate in our state, at nearly 14%. Iron and Vilas are the 6th and 7th highest at 13.5% and 13.2%. Often, food insecurity is framed as an urban problem but of the top 10 counties with highest rates of food insecurity, only one is a major metropolitan area - Milwaukee at number 2. The rest are places like Ashland, Iron and Vilas. 

Given the challenges - vast, sparsely populated region with little to no public transportation and few, full-service grocery stores - fighting hunger in these areas requires a different set of tools than fighting hunger in Milwaukee. 

The BRICK Ministries, a partner agency of our food bank Second Harvest Northern Lakes Food Bank, that serves a network of pantries throughout Ashland county, helped to convene the many stakeholders already fighting hunger in the community. 

It was a great privilege to learn from so many passionate local hunger fighters and food system advocates gathered in one place. Despite already knowing each other, it occurred to them that they had never all been in the same room together to discuss these issues in this format and as a result, even the local stakeholders were learning from each other. 

While there seemed to be some recognition that meetings like this could yield more impact, there was also hesitancy to add another meeting to the calendar. A similar insight came out of our Iron County meeting in June. 

Why is coordinated collaboration and collective impact so difficult? It’s not a product of lacking knowledge or resources. There are plenty of meetings, plenty of projects, plenty of knowledge and plenty of passion. So what’s stopping us from marshaling our resources and breaking through the silos in which we operate so that we may coordinate our projects to drive toward real impact?

We have to believe that it’ll work and that by collaborating in a deeper way, sharing resources and building capacity together, we will be able to build power and really start to address the big, hairy, systemic problems in our communities. 

It’s often just easier to stay in our own silos, do the good work we’re doing and just call it a day. Coordinating and collaborating deeply is a hard and messy work that is fraught with interpersonal dynamics, getting “credit,” and historical baggage.

If done right, however, we might actually go from transactional relationships to transformative impact. I think that's what we all want. We just have to commit to doing it. 

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