Creative New Jersey Kickstarts Community Collaboration & Trust

This story was originally published as a guest blog of the Jefferson Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan citizen engagement organization working on crafting democratic solutions to today's toughest challenges. (https://jefferson-center.org/)

 Kacy O'Brien, Director of Programming, with Creative NJ Participants

Kacy O'Brien, Director of Programming, with Creative NJ Participants

“How can we provide our youth with safe places for creative expression?”

“How can we encourage young professionals to live, work, and raise families here?”

These and dozens of other questions have been explored and debated in a remarkable series of “creative convenings” around the state of New Jersey over the past seven years. From Skylands in the Ramapo Mountains region in the Northwest to Atlantic City on the Jersey Shore in the Southeast, in fourteen different communities, groups of 100 to 200 citizens from diverse fields and walks of life have met together for the first time and in a new way. They emerge a day later with a powerful new sense of purpose and agency, ready to work together to change their communities, and realizing – in many cases – that they will be the change. What’s been going on?

Inclusive Calls to Collaboration

 Image credit: Creative New Jersey

Image credit: Creative New Jersey

Creative New Jersey, a statewide civic initiative fostering “creativity, collaboration and inclusion” was launched in 2011 by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, a New Jersey-based philanthropy focused on arts education and environmental sustainability.  Each of the two-day Creative NJ “Calls to Collaboration” are planned over several months in two phases:

  1. A cross-sector Host Team of 12 to 20 local residents is developed through a process of introductions, referrals, and discussions that identify civic-minded leaders of diverse communities as well as quieter, behind-the-scenes activists or connectors. The host group receives coaching in team-building, common goal-setting, and inclusion.

  2. The Team then issues personal invitations to a cross-section of citizens representing diverse sectors, generations, and ethnicities, to attend a two-day “Call to Collaboration” that explores questions such as: “How can we collaborate to build community esteem, foster an innovative, entrepreneurial spirit, and attract more residents and investments in order to create a thriving Atlantic City? ” The ‘whole nine yards’ format of the framing question is intentional, to pique the curiosity of a broad range of participants.

 Image credit: Creative New Jersey

Image credit: Creative New Jersey

Respectful Exchange

Creative New Jersey adapts many of the Open Space Technology concepts developed decades ago by Harrison Owen and used internationally by businesses, nonprofits. and government agencies. The format bypasses pre-set agendas, panels of experts, and trainers, and even cuts introductions to avoid creating unintended hierarchies based on titles or affiliations.

Day One begins with all the participants choosing seats in several large, concentric circles.  Following a brief, warm welcome, they’re invited to get to work — using magic markers to scrawl questions they care about onto large pieces of paper, which are then posted and assigned a time and location as a break-out session.  Citizens who never knew they were leaders find themselves moderating a discussion. The “Law of Two Feet”(also defined by Owen) means anyone, anytime, is free to roam from one corner and conversation to another, so moderators work to keep their discussion brisk, engaging, and respectful.

By mid-afternoon, the hundred-plus participants have taken part in at least four “pop-up” discussions, and often many more, if they’ve behaved as “pollinators” who choose to drop in and out of concurrent dialogues.   Conversations are often a mixing pot of ideas, resources, and proposed solutions from participants. In this collaborative work model, Day One serves as the “opening” phase, to be followed by “narrowing” and “closing” in on practicalities on Day Two.

Creative Atlantic City Bets on Diversity

 

I served on the volunteer steering committee during CNJ’s start-up years, but still wasn’t prepared for the palpable sense of energy and exuberance I encountered upon arriving at three different “Calls to Collaboration” in Monmouth County, Atlantic City, and Camden. Each time, people were engaged and enthused, and scores of New Jersey citizens were clearly perceiving their communities in a whole new light. “I’ve lived here 25 years, and had no idea so many others cared about the goals I’m passionate about,” was a common response.

“I’ve lived here 25 years, and had no idea so many others cared about the goals I’m passionate about.”

When Day 2 begins the next morning – with everyone again seated in large circles – people greet one another with ease and familiarity.  Elizabeth Murphy, Director of Creative New Jersey and Call to Collaboration facilitator, invites participants to move from yesterday’s open-ended questions and trading of ideas to feasible next steps.  Though missing another day of work can be challenging for some, the second day has proved to be critical for “focusing on planning and action, and deepening relationships and trust,” says Kacy O’Brien, Creative NJ’s Director of Programming.

Success Factors

When I asked Kacy what makes CNJ’s methods so well suited to large, diverse communities, she describes the Call to Collaboration as a “modified Open Space framework that includes engagement, team-building, knowledge-sharing, and network-building to support community connection and collaboration.”  She explains, “people become energized and excited when they 1) can connect with others who feel passionately about common issues, 2) realize that they’re not alone – they’re sitting shoulder to shoulder with others who are also deeply committed to their community, even if they don’t agree, and 3) can lead from where they are, given the time and space for generating solutions to complex community issues.”

The genius of Creative New Jersey, to me, is the speed with which people are propelled out of status quo thinking and freed from prevailing narratives of civic inadequacy or democratic decline.  Conversations abound, in twos, threes, fives or more, and ideas are exchanged in a congenial atmosphere that accommodates young and old, extraverts and introverts. One senses new possibilities being hatched in every corner of the room.

Ready for Deliberation

Certainly the more sustained work of deliberation – considering options and carefully weighing trade-offs – may require a more reflective environment than the ‘free-flow’ of Creative New Jersey gatherings.  But the required components of deliberative work…

  • listen with care

  • focus on the issue at hand

  • stay in learning mode

  • participate fully

  • disagree positively

…are present at Creative New Jersey Calls for Collaboration as well.   Participants adopt a lexicon of respect and empowerment that will serve them in future deliberative environments. As Director Elizabeth Murphy notes during the wrap-up of Creative Atlantic City, “what you all created here today was a democratic, egalitarian, respectful way of hearing each other out, and coming together to work together.”

Creative Monmouth

 

Mature Leadership

It should be noted that both Murphy and O’Brien play key facilitating roles at Creative New Jersey gatherings, deftly guiding participants through both days with a subtly tight timeframe for interaction. Both are experienced theatre producers and are comfortable working with people of a variety of experiences, talents and backgrounds.

Their deep understanding of citizens as fully creative beings defines – for me – the essence of Creative New Jersey.   The program’s spirited affirmation of each participant as uniquely valuable to the whole community generates – again and again – a powerful sense of hope, possibility, and agency for 21st century New Jersey communities.

Susan Haig is Founder & Creative Director of CivicStory.org, a nonprofit news site advancing solutions-based news about sustainability, civics, and creative change. Currently Conductor of the South Orange (NJ) Symphony Orchestra, she held conducting posts with the Windsor (Canada) and South Dakota symphony orchestras, Florida Orchestra (Tampa-St. Petersburg,) Calgary Philharmonic, and New York City Opera. A 5-term trustee of the National Music Museum, she served as 2017-18 president of the Summit-New Providence Rotary and is a founding member of the Summit-Chatham GreenFaith Circle. Haig holds a BA from Princeton University and a DMA from Stony Brook University, and was a 2017 Fellow of Lead NJ.

 
Susan HaigComment