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Town of Reading Community Conversations Part 3: Transparency, Ownership and Heros

December 2, 2011 by Deborah Gilburg

This is the third and final chapter in a three-part blog series about my community of Reading, MA, and its approach to recent drug-related murders of two former Reading High graduates. The town hosted three consecutive community meetings to address the public outcry against teen substance abuse and violence in our town, and the demand that local authorities be accountable.

If you want to catch up, you can read about the first community meeting held in September using the World Café conversation process, and the second held in early October. 

One of the characteristics of the Town’s process that has made this a story worth telling is the fact that community leaders did not jump to solutions in meeting one, despite the public appetite for answers. Rather, they created an opportunity for the public to take the time needed — and employed good process — to explore the problem, get clear about the impacts on the community, and absorb the facts about teen substance abuse in Reading. As a result, we had our eyes opened to the depth, complexity and adult complicity that are fundamentally a part of this challenge here and possibly everywhere. No simple solutions—not just about more enforcement or “bad” kids, not something that happens “in other towns.”

The third meeting was billed as the time to talk about solutions. It was held in late October, and consisted of short presentations by panelists that included: Reading Police Chief, Assistant District Attorney, Reading Schools Superintendent, and Director of Reading Coalition Against Substance Abuse (RCASA).  Each presenter responded to the questions they had been receiving from the public – they were honest and clear about what they were doing about the issue, what they could do more of, and what they could not do. And they asked for help.

What struck me was how earnest and transparent the presenters were. They clearly cared about this problem as much as we did, and owned up to their frustration about their limitations in solving it. There was only so much a police department, a DA, school staff, or a coalition could do — this was a true community problem, and by now, most of the 180 or so of us in the audience were starting to understand this.

They also shared more information, the crime statistics, the impact of “see something, say something,” the results of a recent behavioral health assessment of the schools, facts about teen substance abuse.  After each presentation, there was time for questions, and at the end the community (seated at round tables) had time to talk together about what we could do. While there were no silver bullet solutions, many of us walked away with more clarity about steps we could take as parents and residents.

The leadership stance I witnessed that night was a shift from what I’ve experienced in the past. No one played the Hero – no promises were made to control or fix this problem, to “clean up” Reading. The issues were not candy-coated or minimized, and answers weren’t simplified into digestible sound bites. Yet these leaders showed a refreshing courage, making apparent the stark truth of this challenge and its community-wide, systemic implications. The RCASA director pulled no punches when she told the audience, “We need to ask ourselves about our own behavior, our own history and experience with substance abuse. Are we being honest with ourselves?”

In our work with leaders we often talk about the need for this kind of "post-heroic" leadership mind-set in our times. This term was originally coined by David Bradford and Allan Cohen in their book Power Up: Transforming Organizations Through Shared Leadership. Today, many leadership scholars, theorists and practitioners emphasize the need for leaders to shift away from controlling, expertise-driven or “heroic” stances, to more facilitative approaches aimed at developing highly participatory teams, organizations and stakeholders, who share commitment and leadership for the challenges they collectively face. And we are told this form of leadership is rare – there are few examples to point to.

So what happened in Reading? Are these humble local leaders really pioneering a new era of leadership? I’m not sure they would think so, but they nonetheless took the risk to try something different. They knew the nature of teen substance abuse was not going to be solved under their authority alone. Rather than pander to a naive and angry public, these local leaders made time and space for people to explore the problem together and come to see its facets of complexity. They made the choice to be transparent, to share all that they knew, and were able to take ownership for what they could and could not do. They asked for help.  They became “post-heroic” in this effort because they had few options, and it made practical sense. 

So will this stick? Will this new form of leadership transcend into other aspects of their work? Will our town slip back into a haze of denial? Hard to tell, but in my experience there will always be some back sliding. But seeds have been planted and successful experiences have been had. It was the closing question to the audience by the Town Manager, however, that really gives me hope: “How many of you would like us to have more conversations like this about important local issues?” We all raised our hands.

*****

A comment from Karen about my blog of the first meeting asked: When and how should leaders make the investment (time, money) needed to stage this kind of community engagement?

This is my answer: If the challenges your department, organization, and/or community are complex; and, if as a leader you have no obvious answers, or if solutions require others to play a role, to adapt or change, then the time is NOW.  And as to HOW, call a professional who knows the processes that help people to discover their collective investment in the challenge and take shared leadership for the solution. Call us.