Delyse Sylvester – What Am I Skating Towards? Investing in Collaboration

This is Delyse Sylvester's response to What are you skating towards in 2012?

A more fully invested collaborator

We were very lucky to live our two daughters’ “success by six” years at a housing coop in Vancouver’s Commercial Drive neighbourhood. Last fall, after many years living in Nelson – our girls are now 19 and 20 – we returned to celebrate the coops 30th anniversary.   

That night, as we made our go around introductions, I joked that we joined the coop 20 years ago embroiled in a heated debate about where to locate the compost pile and I wondered if a decision had been made yet. The room erupted in knowing laughter. Collaboration is hard.

Little had changed in that department over the years. Consensus still takes an inordinate amount of time and everyone had a laugh and talked about the other burning issues that had consumed the coop over its history. 

But what had changed – and was very evident to both my husband Lex and me – was that the coop had never been more vibrant. There was something in the air – it was electric – there were passionate conversations about the future and a real sense of fun expressed.

I was reminded of the challenge Adam Kahane, author of Power and Love, put forth at the BC Innovation Summit in November. It was in the form of a rhetorical question: Why would you work collectively if you can do something on your own? He pointed out that collaboration is time consuming, messy, and filled with dynamics that need to be unpacked.  It is much faster and easier to DIY. But some things can’t be done alone, and the joys of working together successfully are unparalleled. The first critical step is to know that there is no alternative. Then step into the collective space with your full commitment to the messiness and all it brings. Invest your whole self with power and with love.

Back in our coop days, I realize now, I didn’t quite do that. In the back of my mind, I knew that we could purchase a small home for $180,000, which meant for us that we had options beyond the coop. We didn’t have to commit fully to a life of dialogue, compromise, and unpacking. I dreamed of a family home and frankly my half-hearted commitment to the coop showed.

I continued to contribute to meetings that were a mixed bag of wonderful community sharing and frustrating discussions. When the girls reached school age, we left for our DIY dream in Nelson.

Returning 15 years later on that anniversary evening, and watching as children of the current young families were rocked to sleep in the arms of neighbours, I saw this collective had some new inspiring plans. They had a pool of skills – trade, administrative, sustainable acumen, modest funding and even childcare. This was a group focused not on “maintenance” but on “revitalization.”

Today’s residents have few options. This will likely be their collective home for generations to come. Perhaps because of that fact – they are committed and frankly, thrilled about the challenge.  I saw in them the same promise of the coop life that had drawn me, a practical approach to problem solving mixed in with vision for a sustainable future.

This is what I am skating toward.

I take to heart what so many people I admire state: we have less than 50 years to turn this world around. There is extreme urgency now. And yet, this is not a DIY moment. We are in it together. This is the home we have to share – we have the skills to pool and we can and must enter into this fully knowing that we must work together.  It is a time where my own tendency toward the practical and demanding clear results must come together with my belief in the power of collaborative problem solving. I have to commit fully to the global coop.

Inherent in a collaborative approach is what a wonderful leader in our community, Shayla Wright, calls entering the space where “no one has to be wrong.”

This is profound as judgment has been my life’s sidekick – a side effect of having high expectations. The ability to listen without one-upping — or as Tim Broadhead cautions, the “gotcha accountability” — is required.

This is my work: for the next 50 to continue to welcome partners to the table with whom I’ve shared a history of finger pointing. To listen fully and to let go of the belief structures I’ve collected over the years that have resulted in fears and suspicions that prevent me from doing so. For me, this means the citizen sector, government and the private sector together. It doesn’t mean I have to agree to all I hear. But it means I must commit my whole self to collaboration.

I realize now that perhaps it was not the messy, slow pace of change that kept me from being fully invested in the coop. Perhaps it was the other way around. Maybe it’s our inability to fully commit to collaboration as the only option that is the problem. Now is the time to test my theory.

It’s a beginning and the ice feels a little thin. But like my backyard rink cousin says “yeah it takes commitment getting out there every cold winter night adding another layer, but in no time the ice is thick enough for the whole neighbourhood to skate on.”

Delyse Sylvester leads Ashoka's Changemakers Community Team creating compelling campaigns and messages that invite millions of changemakers to care and to act. She brings the lessons of successful fundraising and social marketing to inspire individuals, corporate leaders, media mavens, community organizers and enthusiasts to make a personal commitment for themselves and their loved ones as active members of the Ashoka community.

Note: I am releasing individual essays from the collection, What are you skating towards in 2012?  on a regular basis. Upcoming contributions are by Cheryl Rose, Jacques Dufresne, Linda Perry, John Stapleton, Sherri Torjman and many others. You can access the accumulated essays here.

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