How we’re bringing together partners to work collectively in Brownsville

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For years Brownsville, Brooklyn, has had one of the highest rates of family homelessness among all New York City neighborhoods. To learn how to change the conditions leading to homelessness, we joined forces with Greg Jackson, a legendary local leader and former professional basketball player who had grown up in Brownsville. Greg, a point guard, had a strategy: first build a team.

Since 2008 the Brownsville Partnership, an initiative of Community Solutions, has built a network of partner organizations and residents to reduce the risks faced by families there. In that time, we’ve learned that successful collaboration— the kind that leads to lasting change— requires more than good intentions. It also takes more than sharing the same space, more than having complementary goals, and more than regular check-ins with partners. It requires disciplined communications, driven by skilled facilitation.

Ten years into our work in Brownsville, more than two dozen partner organizations are regularly collaborating on critical shared aims designed to tackle the biggest issues facing neighborhood families. Greg led the effort until his unexpected death in 2012. Today Brownsville Partnership Director and Community Solutions Principal Mary Tobin channels Greg’s passion for the community and his relentless optimism.

In the early years the work of collaboration focused on meeting with residents, especially in the dense public housing developments that dominate Brownsville. It also involved recruiting high-performing organizations to come to the neighborhood, join the team, and work on the issues that mattered most to residents: crime, jobs, and creating more opportunities for children and youth. Addressing the poor conditions of public housing and public spaces in the community soon emerged as other challenges that would require group effort and a long-term plan.

In 2015 our team opened the Greg Jackson Center for Brownsville to provide co-located space for partner organizations as well as space for cultural and community gatherings. Our monthly partner meeting, which once fit comfortably in a modest-sized conference room, now takes over the building’s multi-purpose convening space on the third Wednesday of each month. Notably, senior leaders— those with decision-making authority for their organizations— attend the meeting.

As the lead facilitator, Mary spends a lot of time thinking about what will make for a good meeting. The details matter: how the room is set up, making sure there’s an ice breaker that gets people laughing and loosened up, building in time for people to network. There’s food, announcements, and then the structured part of the meeting begins. Neighborhood data provides a common language across different types of organizations and issues. Determining the most valuable data to pay attention to is a group project. What tells us what is changing, getting better— or worse— and for whom? Where are the problems occurring? Where are the bright spots? These questions inform joint efforts now underway to improve outcomes for 0-to 3-year-olds; to get more disconnected youth ages 16 to 24 into jobs; and to improve neighborhood common spaces to enhance connections between neighbors, improve public safety, and promote healthy activity. The effort to improve housing conditions is now formalized in the Brownsville Plan, which was adopted by city agencies and is guiding development in the neighborhood. Partners also work together to test and track the significance of various indicators to learn the best measures of positive change.

With 12 years as an Army officer under her belt, Mary knows how to lead. She keeps the conversation flowing by appreciating partners and shouting out successes, making sure that everyone is drawn into the discussion, guiding the group to concrete actions, and grounding commitments in measurable form.

We’re creating this space where people can talk about— and even debate— how we solve these complex problems. And crucially we’re ensuring accountability through rigorous follow-up.
— Mary Tobin, Director of the Brownsville Partnership

“With the partner meetings, we’re helping others see that they have value in this community and bringing them into the conversation,” says Mary. “We’re creating this space where people can talk about— and even debate— how we solve these complex problems. And crucially we’re ensuring accountability through rigorous follow-up.”

Community Solutions Chief Financial Officer and Chief Operating Officer Jamie Schleck agrees.

“The whole idea is we enhance serendipity,” says Jamie. “We create the opportunities for these collisions between people to take place, and the collaborations that emerge really move the needle on key issues.”

One of those collaborations is the Brownsville Portal, a new website under development that is assembling neighborhood data and a community calendar of events. The site came about in response to requests from partners to be able to better communicate with one another outside formal meetings.

“I think the true testament of whether or not we’re being successful is the extent to which these things start happening without us,” says Mary. “We provide the tools, we foster the initial conversations, we ensure there’s momentum, we track the results, but we know things are really working when we don’t have to make them work. What’s so exciting to me is building this ecosystem that works naturally.”