From Human Services to Serving Humans: My conversation with Audrey Jordan

AudreyJordan2012 (at) gmail (dot) com

Published February 2014

One of the topics you will see addressed here in the future is the evaluation and measurement of civic and community engagement—a challenge I continue to struggle with in my work. A dear friend and generous colleague, Audrey Jordan, has worked on this and related issues for a while.  Although we no longer can walk into each other’s office and chat, we have been maintaining regular water cooler conversations via phone, email, and videochat and we decided to share a few of our conversations here.

As part of this work in community engagement, Audrey has been working with human service organizations who are starting to look at themselves less as “service provider professionals” delivering interventions to poor people but as partners with families in their own development.  This is a big mindset shift that has enormous implications for families and the organizations themselves.  I asked Audrey about her recent work and experiences with these organizations—how do they (and the rest of us, including evaluators) need to work differently.

 TOM:  Audrey, you spent considerable time over the last few years looking for and learning from organizations that provide human services and supports to families and community but who are trying to “flip” their way of thinking from providing social services to a needy client to being more of a partner with families in their own development and change. What is different about these organizations?

AUDREY:  This is a great question and I believe I have learned even more about the “why” of these organizations since Ties That Bind, the monograph published by Annie E. Casey Foundation in 2006.  People refer to it as “magic’ or “secret sauce”—it is not!  There are a set of known and knowable practices that clearly delineate what distinguishes organizations who engage people (a.k.a. participants, clients, consumers, customers, members, etc.)  as whole human beings and partners.  I’m basing my answers on the best of what I’ve learned over the years, giving appropriate shout-outs to those from whom I have learned—those who live and work in and value these principled environments.

There is much to say about the so-called mystery of what these organizations do, but to keep myself focused on the answer in a way that is most useful and useable I will refer to three resources:

1)       Ties That Bind: The Practice of Social Networks

This monograph is a compilation of learning by me and a team of colleagues funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation that describes six organizations around the country who practice “positive social network building.”  These organizations are:

Although manifesting in unique ways, and not necessarily referred to as “positive social network building” (Casey’s term), all six of these entities revealed this common set of practices:

  •  Are Demand-driven – programs and activities exist because they are what consumers of resources/services want and need
  • Form Follows Function – structures are formed and exist as needed
  • The network of relationships is inclusive and constantly expanding
  • Leadership is an expectation for all members, and everyone is accountable
  • The network is non-hierarchical
  • Staff are Facilitators not Prescribers
  • Power in relationships is explicitly acknowledged and addressed (shared whenever possible)

I have come across many other groups that embrace these same principles since 2006, who engage in peer-learning with these and other organizations and indeed, a few of the organizations/programs on this short list of six no longer exist because of funding challenges (see below). Other groups that deserve a shout out for their great principle-driven work are:

2)       Notes from a Community Network Builders convening hosted by Bill Traynor & Frankie Blackburn in the fall of 2011

Two of my mentors in community-building, Bill Traynor & Frankie Blackburn [Bill’s blog & Frankie’s blog], hosted a convening of several like-minded organizations from around the country with some funding from the Knight Foundation back in Miami in November of 2011.  At this convening the group assembled a set of practice principles that are very similar to those described above.  They are:

  • Knock on doors, invite people in, and always build relationships
  • Humility, truth-telling, transparency, and respect for the community and believing members have something of value—we must listen to, support and care for each other
  • Mutual support and a respect of assets, knowledge and value that comes from different truths and experiences and being intentional about this—everyone has something to contribute
  • Continuous learning and acknowledging what is already there by lifting it up and building upon it—redefining and reframing all that contributes to the whole
  • Creating intentional spaces for innovation and trust-building so people can do this work together– how do you open up the intentional spaces that usually leave many people out?  (People gravitate to this simple, but profound practice)
  • Being self-aware and present but also stepping back and letting the behaviors become a natural practice
  • Co-creation of change, design, implementation and evaluation

3)       The Full Frame Initiative (FFI) Five Domains of Well-Being

The Full Frame Initiative, a national non-profit at which I now work, supports organizations that share a similar, common “DNA.”  These organizations, with FFI’s learning support, build upon practices that are based upon working with individuals and families “in the full frame of their lives,” not in a snap shot or a cropped shot, using a video frame as a metaphor.  Unlike more conventional service organizations that work with individuals or families based upon their piece of the whole (e.g., mental health, or criminal justice), FFI organizations operate from the premise that all human beings – not just clients – seek a synergistic experience across five domains in their lives for optimal well-being: safety, social connectedness, meaningful access to relevant resources, mastery and stability.  When individuals and families are supported to maximize the assets and minimize the challenges in each of these domains – without having to make regressive trade-offs between them – they experience well-being.  And like a ripple, so do neighborhoods and communities.  The Missouri Division of Youth Services is a current example of a FFI partner that has begun to codify the five domains in their practice and policy—for example, rewriting treatment plans for youth and families using the five domains framework.

These three different sources all point to a short list of operating values:

  • Recognize and build on strengths of people, all people.
  • Understand that compassionate, trusting relationships are “the rails and roads” of transformative change
  • Believe in and practice reciprocity – based on the knowledge that everyone has something to give and to get
  • Emphasize every human being’s desire to be and the value there is in self-determination
  • Understand that attention to environment matters – both for the traumas and the gifts – and appropriately ameliorating the traumas and generating more of the gifts is “the work.”

TOM: The application of these principles and values in an organization is so critical I would think that evaluators need to be much more aware and observant of how they are expressed in practice. How do these organizations measure their success?

 AUDREY: These organizations all understand that a singular focus on individual measures of success of clients in programs will not make for transformative change – of communities or individuals in those communities.  And these organizations understand definitions for success cannot be imposed externally.  Furthermore, these organizations know that what is considered a success today is not what may be considered a success tomorrow; people and environments are too dynamic to believe that success measure are static. So these organizations:

  •  Have aligned success measures across individuals, organizations (including their own), and the communities in which the organizations operate that recognize strengths to build from and challenges to mediate at each level
  • Develop measures of success with clients/consumers/members, staff, and partners, and have a transparent process (with a timeline, result targets and deliverables) for learning and accountability in which stakeholders representing each of these constituencies learn and hold each other accountable together
  • Create touchstone-like roadmaps (i.e., theories or pathways of change) that lay-out consensus expectations for change at evolving stages toward meeting achievable goals, and use that roadmap at regular learning and reflective practice intervals.

Too often all three of these requirements are missing or compromised by the demands of funders, researchers, or just bad habits.  And each of these bullets requires capacity-building and long-term commitment – two investments few foundations and government agencies have shown themselves willing to make.  To add insult to injury, too many organizations who desire to build around the principles described above don’t have the resources to show their good work, and without the ability to show their good work they don’t get funded.  An exhausting and demoralizing vicious cycle.

TOM:  Why don’t we see more organizations like this?

AUDREY: Part of the answer to this question comes in the vicious cycle I just described.  The other part of the answer to this question is that building confident competence in the practices outlined at the beginning of this entry requires great investment of time and attention to (and documentation of) on-going “learning while doing.”  Which means this time and attention must involve the same people doing the work and living their lives.  Those who desire to invest in what works and are so focused on the end results could make a tremendous difference in all our learning and success by realizing that they must invest in the work and the “work behind the work” or the means to the ends, to get more of the success they want to see in the end.  And of course, the end is different today than it will be tomorrow.

When those groups who do the practice participate together in a learning community – those who are on-the-ground doing the work with everyday community folk who actually experience success (with all its stumbles)—and are conscientious and transparent in sharing their learning in real time, we ALL benefit greatly.  Especially the communities in the process of transforming.  I have had the privilege of participating in more than a few of these learning communities and it was the best work I have seen and been a part of (e.g., see Bonds, Bridges and Braids by Fulton & Jordan).  To do this well requires resources and IMHO, the best resources those who really want to see success can invest in.