Diverse relationships: the path to systemic change

A relationship built around a film

Soon after the Trayvon Martin verdict, I sat in a darkened movie theater with a mixed age and gender audience of predominantly, but not exclusively, people of color, watching “Fruitvale Station.” This powerful and highly acclaimed film clearly had drawn a group of people who related to or were curious about the subject matter. Some may have been intrigued by very thoughtful reviews on National Public Radio or urged to attend by a respected colleague. Regardless of the individual reasons that brought us all there, as the credits rolled and the lights came up, we all continued to sit in our seats, somehow connected by the anonymous shared experience. The theater crew stood by patiently as weeping strangers exchanged tissues across the rows, wiped their eyes and slowly filed out. No words were spoken. However, a sense of relationship now existed between us as we dispersed and considered the film’s impact on our individual beliefs and actions.

“Fruitvale Station” has since quietly disappeared from theaters. And, I am not writing a movie review. (Although, I urge you to see this excellent film.) Stay with me…

The importance of relationships

Years ago, I wrote for CausePlanet about my personal passion for systemic change. I spoke of my inclination to try to harness the moon and change the tide as opposed to throwing in starfish one-by-one, as the iconic story describes. It is not a lack of compassion for each one to whom it matters, but rather a deep desire to change everyone’s course for the best. That passion has not waned. At the same time, I recognize no approach to the most challenging issues that face our communities can stand alone. To that end, today I write about the importance of relationships in the context of individual beliefs and actions: relationships to systems, to communities, to neighborhoods, to schools and to each other.

Inclusiveness Project builds relationships and moves toward systemic change

In 2011, The Denver Foundation’s Inclusiveness Project (the 2009 recipient of the Council on Foundations’ Critical Impact Award) joined Dr. Vincent Harding and the Veterans of Hope Project in sponsoring Michelle Alexander’s visit to Denver. The dynamic author of The New Jim Crow riveted audiences at Manual High School, Iliff School of Theology and Park Hill United Methodist Church as she spoke about the history and impact of policies related to drug sentencing on mass incarceration of black men. One of the individuals in a pew was Barbara Grogan, a pioneer business woman, trustee and donor to The Denver Foundation. Barbara was not only touched by what she learned, but also spurred to relational action. She bought dozens of copies of the book and gave them out to every person of social and political influence she could imagine. At the same time, a local group of residents, law enforcement, advocacy, faith-based, and direct service groups came together to continue the discussion and elevate collective will to amend the devastation of over-representation of men of color in the criminal justice system.

That was Denver, but systemic work was happening across the country. Officials in several states and Attorney General Eric Holder have given voice and taken action to change laws and practices that unjustly incarcerate groups of people—leaving broken lives, families and communities in their wake. I celebrate these shifts in the tide. And, I believe those systems can be fraught with undercurrents and the tides can change. I also know the re-entry of individuals from prisons to productive lives will require the support of those who, like the starfish I mentioned in my years-ago column, help their neighbors one-by-one.

Today, I grieve again as I read headlines of events or circumstances within our global and local community. We can’t legislate or enforce the elimination of the effects of trauma, injustice, hate, poverty, intolerance, incarceration and violence.

Other ways The Denver Foundation builds relationships

What can we do? The Denver Foundation has spent years investing in the work of inclusiveness and resident engagement through the Inclusiveness Project and Strengthening Neighborhoods. Our new ten-year strategic plan calls for us to become champions of change for those who are most vulnerable and to help our community build racial, ethnic and economic equity. At the same time, we are working with cadres of leaders who are often unseen and unsung but work diligently daily for the common good. These members of our community are young, old, people of color, allies, of varying abilities, LGBTQ, residents, donors, business people, veterans, refugees, immigrants, and other diverse people who care deeply about our region. They are often the strangers who realize that when we are struck by a 100-year flood or an unspeakable tragedy or just winding our way through our lives, we all must reach out helping hands to support and love one another until the sun shines upon us and we rebuild.

As a part of The Denver Foundation’s work in schools, this capacity for good is recognized and supported through practices that divert young people from the school-to-prison pipeline and on to graduation. The visionary Unity Council, comprised of multigenerational men from the African-American and Latino communities, meets regularly to reach deep down to their “rootstraps” to heal wounds and build bridges between cultures. Our Basic Human Needs work includes neighbors who help others navigate systems. The Foundation’s partners show up every day to ensure we are all better for their having done so. The interns in our Nonprofit Internship Program share powerful stories that inspire them to become community and nonprofit leaders. Within the Foundation, we appreciate our individual personal journeys and gifts of time, talent and treasure that contribute to excellence.

How YOU can build relationships

Nonprofits (including philanthropic organizations) often build relationships and community in the following ways:

  • Listening campaigns that focus on assets, not just needs (Asset Based Community Development)
  • Feedback loops with constituents, residents, donors and partner organizations
  • Development of diverse and inclusive boards and staffs
  • Brown-bags, book clubs or movie groups for discussion purposes, not problem solving
  • Encouragement of curiosity and listening

Exploring tools to create dialogues:




So today, my “cause for the planet” is for relationships connected to a belief in the inherent decency of humankind. Those relationships may form in classrooms or boardrooms, on the streets or the light rail, over a seat or across an aisle.

See also:

The Power of Collaborative Solutions

Community: The Structure of Belonging

Salsa, Soul and Spirit: Leadership for a Multicultural Age

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