For us, this has meant reflecting on questions like: What does it mean to work in partnership? What does it look like to be in relationship? What does it feel like to act in relational ways within partnership?
This two part blog shares highlights of what we’ve been (un)learning about what it means to actively engage in relationshipping through partnership. Skip to part two here.
It all starts with purpose
Rather than a traditional vendor/client model, the relationship between RECOVER and IWF can be understood as a partnership, or strategic alliance.
Within a consult/vendor relationship, a consultant is hired by an organization to complete a task or create a deliverable that the organization cannot do on its own. The consultant uses their own means to meet the organization’s ends. There is often an expectation that the consultant will fulfill the contract with relatively low involvement from the organization aside from perhaps navigating approvals and the internal machinery of the organization.
By contrast, within a partnership/strategic alliance relationship, the consultant and the organization both bring their skills and expertise to the work, to learn and work alongside each other towards shared ends.
It is the latter model that IWF and RECOVER have been working within. InWithForward exists to advance a social mission of reimagining how we care for and support each others’ flourishing, in community, in collaboration with other organizations. RECOVER exists to nourish the conditions for wellbeing for everyone in Edmonton, and in particular for those who have been systemically marginalized by dominant structures and systems. We share ends.
Within our partnership, we strive to make decisions about our work in a collaborative manner. Decisions are informed by multiple perspectives. As such, they may not be made immediately. There is time, care and attention paid to numerous possibilities, with everyone being able to offer insight. This means that there are often tensions that must be held — and not necessarily resolved — while we strive towards shared decision-making within the hierarchical structure of a municipal government.
Changing what we exchange
Within a traditional vendor/client relationship, resources are framed and understood in terms of payment and deliverables. The parties involved agree on the work that will be completed, by what date, and for how much money.
Within a strategic alliance partnership, resources are framed and understood in terms of an exchange not only of dollars, but of time, expertise and networks. In our case, this has taken shape in forms including pro bono work, co-written grants, co-presenting at conferences, involvement of volunteers, and nourishing conditions for care of communities within those communities. Nobody is billing by the hour: we work in the spirit of doing what is necessary and possible to achieve what we set out to achieve.
Being in it together
In our partnership, we’re working from the understanding that we share risks and successes together. This mutualism is especially important within our experimental context. We trust each other enough to be out on proverbial limbs together. We also collaborate to mitigate risks to the future of our work by using our shared expertise to effectively communicate the why behind what we’re doing to City Council and beyond.
Valuing what really matters
In our partnership, we’ve moved away from valuing notions of “professionalism,” “performance,” and “achievement”, and moved towards valuing vulnerability, honesty and learning. We are learning about shifting team power dynamics, working with uncertainty, reframing questions, and sharing control. We’re also moving away from focusing on coordination and alternative frontline services, and towards focusing on how we might shift the relational basis, logics and values behind community engagement, capability-building, and support systems.
Renewing our commitments to each other
Most vendor/client relationships end through contractual agreements. When the terms of the agreement have been met (or in less than ideal scenarios — not met), the relationship ends. In our partnership, IWF and RECOVER’s relationship and commitment to each other has shifted and blossomed over time. When our relationship began, it was for a relatively straightforward ethnography contract. As we discovered our shared values over time — through theory of change workshops, developing and socializing the wellbeing framework, and prototyping with blended teams — our partnership has been renewed and deepened over time.
We believe in accountability — to people who are marginalized by our current systems and structures, and to Edmontonians who want greater connection and wellbeing in communities. We also believe in accountability to the integrity of the work, to each other, and to the people in Edmonton. Our understanding of accountability however is not solely a vertical one — we do report progress on our deliverables upward; however, we believe in horizontal accountability — where we reflect on what we learn together and what we achieve together. We are continually wondering if we are moving together on joint inquiries.
We’re excited that as we close out 2021, the answer is a resounding yes!
Beyond rainbows and gumdrops
Part of being authentic involves being honest. If we are honest about our partnership, it has not always been easy or comfortable.
We’ve wrestled with balancing the municipal mandate of serving everyone who lives in Edmonton, with focusing on those who have experienced life in the margins.
We’ve struggled with the power imbalances inherent within a municipal government structure and how they manifest within our team.
We’ve experienced difficulty in bringing the wellbeing framework to life within ourselves and our teams.
Along our journey, some of the decisions made have been difficult to make. But we have worked together to find the paths we want to travel together, and are committed to sitting with tension, even when it’s uncomfortable.
A helpful summary chart
— Written with Miki Stricker-Talbot, City of Edmonton’s RECOVER team