Q&A with Mary Tobin

Mary is a principal at Community Solutions and Director of the Brownsville Partnership, which brings together residents and organizations to collaborate in solving the neighborhood’s most pressing challenges.


What is facilitation?

Facilitation is the art of bringing together interested parties to brainstorm, express feedback, and implement initiatives that help us achieve shared aims for Brownsville. It’s creating a space where people can talk about how we solve complex problems and then take collective responsibility for taking action and achieving results.


Why is attention to facilitation important when problem-solving?

Ultimately facilitation is about helping people collaborate to solve problems that no one person or group can solve alone. That’s what we’re doing in Brownsville. We’re bringing together people who have different skills to the table and getting them to all work together toward a shared mission. This collaborative approach has lead to real progress on the challenges the community is facing.


How does facilitation fit into the larger work being done by the Brownsville Partnership?

Facilitation works in conjunction with all of the other problem-solving tools we deploy. Our team aims to catalyze change across the whole neighborhood, so we’ve got to shape a vision that includes everyone. The best way to do that is to use data as the foundation. We start with aggregate information on what’s going on in Brownsville, but we also look at the program landscape. What’s been tried before? Has it worked? Where are the bright spots? Data can identify challenges, but it can also highlight new opportunities for collaboration, which helps complex facilitation.

Sometimes we speak of our work like a command center. There’s so much data available, but our job is to help people act on it. Good facilitation helps our group of partners turn raw information into a shared aim and a collaborative strategy. Our monthly Brownsville Partner meetings have created a place where people who want to see the best for the community gather and actively work toward these solutions together.

Ultimately facilitation is about helping people collaborate to solve problems that no one person or group can solve alone.
— Mary Tobin, Director of the Brownsville Partnership


How do you facilitate progress through these meetings?

The secret to the meetings is that it’s not just a meeting— again, it’s that command center approach to problem solving. Every meeting we build on solutions and feedback from our past meetings. We’ve implemented a rigorous structure intended to invite participation from our partners and lead to meaningful progress.

In response to the issues raised in these meetings, we’ve created some simple problem-solving tools to better serve our partners and the neighborhood. One of these is the Brownsville Partners Portal, where we will provide detailed data on the community. The portal helps you ask better questions. How is this neighborhood doing? How does this compare to five years ago? Are we improving in specific areas?

We’re also working on a resource map that shows where more than 100 partners are operating in the neighborhood. The map will provide a vetted picture of good programming and services in the community and hopefully expose some of the gaps too.