Nov 09

Mutual Reinforcement: Cultivating greater alignment

11 / 09 / 15

Holly Bechiri, editor of The Rapidian, sat down with Kent County staffers Wayman Britt and Matthew Van Zetten to talk about working together to move the levers of change.

“We can do better together,” says Wayman Britt, assistant administrator for Kent County and KConnect trustee. “We can make significant gains if we put our collective efforts together and get smart about how we drive change… it’s proven that isolated approaches don’t work.”

“Everyone has their role,” says Matthew Van Zetten, management analyst for Kent County and KConnect founder. “Where are the levers you can move?”

Britt and Van Zetten are talking about collective impact, and why they thought it was so important to bring players from all sectors to the table to achieve better, faster, stronger change to Kent County.

The pair say the first step in doing better is to admit we don’t know everything.

The levers of county government, says Britt, are the abilities to work with power brokers and effect change at the policy level.

“We have to be brave enough—bold enough—to wrestle with the fact that we don’t know it all…so how do we then speed up the process of finding out what we don’t know?” says Britt. “Disparities exist. So let’s stop acting like we know it all. We don’t. That’s why we pulled collective impact together.”

Van Zetten interjects.

“To look at yourself in the mirror and actually be intellectually honest with yourself, and to say I don’t know it all; why are these things happening—and then have the courage to bring that to the fore—that takes courage, leadership, a willingness to be curious and intellectually honest.”

And that is exactly what Britt and Van Zetten see: community leaders responding by asking how they can help—and getting brave and honest.

“If you don’t know where you’re at,” says Britt, “you don’t know what the status of the work is, and then you can’t convince the power brokers of the things that you need to change. Legislators and board commissioners are not going to want to redo what has already been in motion without having good information. You have to have good, solid information to change the minds.”

One of the first points of clarity: for collective impact to work, a better analysis of county-wide data was needed.

“County-wide data is a dangerous term,” says Van Zetten. “You have pockets of our community that do really well, pockets of our community that are really vulnerable…”

Britt interrupts.

“It didn’t all show up in the areas that most people thought it was going to show up: in areas where there was free and reduced lunch,” he says. “We could have poured all of the resources into Grand Rapids Public Schools, but in fact the reality is we have pockets of poverty in Wyoming, Cedar Springs and other places in the community.

“We need the data to shine a light on the problems so that we can grow the capacity of the power brokers, the influencers in our community, to do what we need to do to move the dial,” says Britt. “This takes a community-wide effort. Those in business leadership—people who are in the top rungs of business organizations—they’re going to decide either to do or not to do.”

“They get people elected,” interjects Van Zetten.

“So we have to share how things overlay—how they connect—to show what we have to do structurally to change the system,” Britt continues. “Because the system is powerfully designed to give us the results that we’re getting.”

Including business leaders in a traditionally nonprofit arena is an important part of making change really happen in our community, the two say.

“Unless you change the rules of the game, you can’t change the things that we know work better,” says Van Zetten. “We need a team.”

Van Zetten and Britt have been there since the beginning, helping to build and empower that team. In true leader fashion, both Britt and Van Zetten refer to themselves as “just servants,” reluctant to talk about what they’ve been able to accomplish.

“Tell ‘em about what caused you to want to do this,” Britt tells Van Zetten. “Break it all down.” (Van Zetten was the first proponent of formalizing the work of collective impact in Kent County.)

“I’d go to these meetings,” Van Zetten begins. “And people were just really arguing all the time about how their idea was THE idea, and discounting other people’s work… but yet, when I just listened to what people were always talking about, they all wanted the same goals. Collective impact put language into what I was seeing that we needed to do differently.”

So what are they doing differently?

“KConnect has broken down the silos of blame or exclusion. It’s gotten people to become more inclusive; to say ‘we can’t produce real change unless we can get together and align our efforts…’” Van Zetten says.

“As difficult as it might be,“ adds Britt.

“And it is difficult,” Van Zetten agrees.

“We can’t do it by ourselves. It takes a team,” Britt emphasizes again.

The two launch into sports analogies—the Bulls winning the championship—until we bring it back around.

Britt explains the importance of not just a team in which you have everyone at the table, but a team in which everyone at that table has a voice and influence.

“If you’ve got one way of solving it, as complex as these issues are, you’re not going to get it solved,” says Britt. “That’s the beauty of collective impact—multiple, mutually aligning solutions.”

And the two race off, late to another meeting, working with power-brokers and policy-makers, bringing people together to improve the lives of the citizens they serve.