Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Power of Implicit Networks

“Tea is not sweetened until the lump of sugar is dissolved,” said a wise man.

In my book, Trustbuilding, I highlight the power of "implicit networks" in the life of a community. These networks are not linked by organizational structure, but by “intangible threads of relationships, shared understanding, and selfless care for the ‘other.’….These implicit networks provide the moral and spiritual support for courageous initiatives. .. And they are willing to be ‘silent partners,’ ready to support the hopes and needs of others without any public credit or monetary advantage.”

In a city like Richmond where traditional political and business mechanisms are often hindered by racial or cultural barriers, these informal networks play a vital role.  I blogged recently about Audrey and Collie Burton, activists in the black community who built trust with a white city administrator in the 1980s, paving the way for many other unexpected partnerships. Last week, the Richmond Times-Dispatch carried a front page story on Boaz and Ruth, a faith-based organization in an impoverished neighborhood that has gained national recognition for its work to enable ex-offenders to rebuild their lives and learn business skills. It was the bold vision of Martha Rollins, a white businesswoman, who lives in the Burtons’ neighborhood. Audrey Burton introduced Martha to the Highland Park community on the city’s North Side and to her informal roundtable for women in executive positions. There Martha met Ellen Robertson, the founder of Highland Park Restoration and Preservation Program, who made available an old firehouse as a business location for Boaz and Ruth. 

One hero of the Richmond’s network is John Moeser, a quiet but persistent voice for truth and justice. John is a senior fellow at the University of Richmond’s Bonner Center for Civic Engagement. Long recognized as the city’s dean of urban studies, his analysis of 2010 Census data demonstrates starkly the impact of poverty in the region and the extent to which it is influenced by a history of racial and jurisdictional separation. John’s prophet role has not always made him popular but Richmond owes much to him. Among other things, his research on voting patterns formed the cornerstone of the city’s successful bid to change its electoral system to allow a popularly elected mayor.

Another unassuming but indispensible resource is Phil Schwarz, a former chair of the History Department at Virginia Commonwealth University. Phil, more than any other individual, is responsible for unearthing and documenting the facts surrounding Richmond’s slave trade. Since the first “walk through history” in 1993, he has been our go-to person for accurate telling of history and he is an endless fund of fascinating stories which he loves to share. I was at city hall a few days ago when Phil was honored for his outstanding service on the Slave Trail Commission.

John and Phil personify the power of implicit networks. They are accessible, supportive, and always willing to “show up.” They are generous in sharing their knowledge and their time. 

Ben Campbell, the pastoral director of Richmond Hill retreat center, says, “In this movement we are part of, people are held together by a sense of intentional mutuality more than any particular outcome.” Trustbuilders do not stand out for their own glory. Implicit networks are the glue that holds the community together. They nurture the environment in which change can occur; they enable good things to happen.

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