Promoting Innovation


California is well-known to be a firmly "blue" state with a rising population and a majority of people of color, but no matter how strong our liberal reputation is, those working on electoral politics know we have entrenched "red" districts, our fair share of "purple" districts, and enough blue-red flipping to keep us on our toes. In particular, as we look ahead to the 2018 election, funders and political organizers focused their concerns on two "purple" regions: the Inland Empire and Orange County. The California Public Leadership Pipeline Project—a collaborative of Emerge California, the New American Leaders Project, Progressive Majority, and Wellstone Action—asked me to conduct a landscape analysis and make recommendations for the development of a comprehensive elected leadership pipeline in three California counties (Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino) to identify, train, and support progressive leaders, particularly those from low-income communities, communities of color, and immigrant communities. After conducting numerous interviews with long-term organizers on the ground, I suggested the most effective potential partnerships to identify electoral opportunities and targeting, recruiting, preparing, and technically and politically supporting progressive leaders, particularly those from low-income communities, communities of color, and immigrant communities. With this information in hand, each of the Project’s four collaborating organizations was able to enter the three-county space effectively.


When the educational theorist and practitioner Étienne Wenger first studied communities of practice in the 1990s, he theorized that successful communities of practice can best be understood as the dynamic interaction between participants' drive for social connection, their motivation for learning, and their investment in shared leadership. For participants, he argued, the value of membership is found at the intersection of communication, climate, and content. Yet in the philanthropic world and nonprofit sector in the decades since, funder-initiated communities of practice—while often well-intended—disappoint members and reduce innovative outcomes by operating through a traditional top-down structure, with agenda-driven activities designed and implemented by philanthropic consultants, with little or no input from members, much less a sense of shared leadership. Based on my success in working with communities of practice in the nonprofit and public sectors, PolicyLink asked me to design and lead a three-part staff training on developing, supporting, and evaluating communities of practice to advance local to national initiatives for breakthrough innovations in public projects for the built environment. Leadership and staff from PolicyLink attended the three-part workshop and determined where they might sharpen their approaches to strengthen existing communities of practice, how they can ascertain the effectiveness of communities of practice coming to a close, and how best to approach decision-making about future PolicyLink communities of practice more methodically.