Try, Fail, Learn, and Try Again

I came to St. Louis six and a half years ago to go to the Brown School and didn’t know anyone in St. Louis ahead of time, but I’d always enjoyed it when I visited from Iowa. I came here to study community development. To me, it didn’t make any sense to go school in a place that you weren’t really willing to invest in and engage with. So before I even started, before I knew anyone, I went in with the attitude that I was going to stay here forever. Even if I left after a couple of years, planning to stay would encourage me to take the place more seriously. I would better engage with my surroundings, people would more authentically engage with me, and it would be a better experience. This was the best bet I’ve ever made. I wasn’t going to be able to afford to go to grad school again, and this was an investment and an opportunity to learn about a place on a deeper level. I fell in love with St. Louis. Certainly, there were a lot of challenges, but they were challenges I was well-suited to address where people welcomed me and wanted my help and we could craft things together.

I wanted to do everything and learn everything, which is still a problem. It’s part of my personality. I was pointed in the direction of Grace Hill for my first social work practicum because they do comprehensive community development work. I thought, “There’s a lot you can do and learn while you’re there. Why don’t you go to a place that is community-based and immersive and touching all sorts of different components of the community and people’s lives?” So when I graduated from the school in 2012, I got a full-time job at Grace Hill and have been there ever since.

At first, I ran a lot more direct social service programming with people in the College Hill community to work on family stability in schools, making sure that families had the support to get their kids where they needed to so they could thrive and learn. We pushed on the school district when we needed to, provided some direct assistance programs with people who struggled to make their rent and utility payments, and ran health programming. A couple of years ago, I came over to our administrative office in Old North to do strategic planning and communications. I crafted our messaging about how we approach the community, making sure that our talking points, programs, and fundraising asks aligned to what the community is looking for and what we’re actually doing – which I was excited to do because nonprofit administrative staff and programming often exist in separate universes, which makes them both weaker.

Paul Sorenson, photos by Lindy Drew

I also work on a project called GoodMap, an online platform I founded with a couple of other folks in 2012 that works to better connect non-profits to each other. One of the things I realized quickly when I started doing my practicum at Grace Hill is that I had an incredibly hard time understanding the world that was around me. There’s the world of community resources – other non-profits, other businesses, other people – that are essential to what make up a place and provide the backbone support to a place. It’s hard to understand, “What are we actually doing here? Is our program, project, or organization a feel-good thing or is it a response to a real community need? And how do you define that community need? Is it census data that’s taken once every 10 years or is it discovered by listening to people? Do we engage people who actually live in a place and ask, ‘What are you experiencing? What’s happening? What’s the best way that we can work on this together?’”

We were trying to figure out how mapping, as a metaphor, could describe trying to see where things are in relationship to each other. I also sometimes use an analogy of way-finding:How can you best go from A to B? There are so many different routes you can take, but there are definitely quicker routes; routes that don’t have many roadblocks, routes that are a little bit more scenic. So, in trying to figure out the way to best way find, organize, and share these resources, a map ends up being a good visual touchpoint. There are all of us who are trying to do “good,” for lack of a better word, but it’s hard to know where we’re going. Hence:GoodMap.

There’s little understanding of how the hundreds of millions of dollars that we invest in our community actually benefit the people who live in there every day.

Non-profits are an interesting business because we’re owned by and designed to be deeply responsive to the community and, yet, there’s often so little accountability to that community. There’s little understanding of how the hundreds of millions of dollars that we invest in our community actually benefit the people who live there every day. We’re trying to figure out how to craft the technological solution to some of that disconnect, and how we can craft an ongoing process to better listen and respond to the community. Non-profits take a lot of reassurance so they feel safe enough to be responsive to the community, and that their funders aren’t going to pull the funding out from under their feet. So, what processes do we need to be paired with technology to make sure that non-profits feel like they’re supported and that it’s worthwhile for them to share real information about what they’re doing? If they share it, how can we make sure that they feel protected? And how can we work with community members to make sure that these nonprofits are listening to their lived experience, and benefit from the resources they offer? We need to create and underline how an ongoing, reciprocal process of information sharing and response benefits everyone.

GoodMap’s target audience is the non-profits themselves. They hold the information and services that need to be shared with the community every day. That’s their value. They often struggle to share their services effectively, and they consistently miss opportunities to better allocate their time and resources. We decided as a society that non-profits should work to improve the community on our behalf, and we pay them to do it. But so many of our nonprofits fall short or are not sure how they can do better. That’s leaving aside those neighborhood leaders, parent leaders, and others in the community who aren’t professionally in this space but are central to sharing their own resources with others — the connectors. That’s who GoodMap is trying to reach – helping those connectors share better information and provide better services. If you are sharing information and connecting people to services on a regular basis, you are in a much better place to help improve it:“Was this resource or non-profit any good? What was the follow-up? What’s the best process to contact them? Did you need to bring any documentation? Who else should you be looking for?” We’re trying to better capture this information from the organizations and connectors themselves on an ongoing basis to improve how people can access programs and services and to inform how we can improve systems across St. Louis to better address the significant barriers we face.

We had been struggling to get GoodMap off the ground, but last year we started partnering with Social Innovation District, operating with people who were pushing for change within the context of Racial Equity and Forward Through Ferguson’s work, and everything clicked. I start as GoodMap’s full-time CEO in February, and we’ll be piloting with the Normandy Schools Collaborative and Wyman, working with dozens of partners to assess program capacity and connect the dots between services and schools.

All of this new GoodMap work is informed and grounded in the years I spent at Grace Hill. In the last two and a half years, we’ve seen such a change in how people talk about our work in communities – predominantly communities of color that have clearly seen all sorts of discrimination and a lack of equity, housing, health, and education – like Old North and College Hill. We saw these barriers every day, we lived it every day, but for years and years, so few people knew how to talk about it. We lived in this world of euphemism, where folks would only talk about, “On the north side…” Or, they would frame everything in terms of class:“In lower-income communities…”

What’s critical is that after Ferguson and the response to Ferguson, and after everybody had to pay attention to race and our racial divides, you could sense a real change. If you compare the same community meetings in early 2014 and early 2015, all of a sudden people were talking very directly about race and Racial Equity. Maybe that term wasn’t always used, but people started to shed the euphemism. They stopped trying to hide behind polite, indirect speech, and even though people know what you’re talking about, there was this hidden agreement that it wasn’t good form to talk about race out loud. The opportunity we have now to actually look at and address issues and to speak about them directly is huge.

We’re seeing a lot of momentum in north St. Louis around the work that Grace Hill and our partners are helping to move forward. Grace Hill is focusing more and more directly on health and racial disparities in a way that we haven’t done before. We’re a big, 114-year-old organization that has a lot of institutional ties. So we’re slow to move like a lot of bigger institutions are, but we’re moving toward directly addressing those things for the first time since I’ve been affiliated with it. Even though it sometimes exposes wounds, those wounds were there all along. Now we can more accurately talk about what’s happening.

What are the challenges for those of us who provide resources or work with the community? What are the barriers that we’re really trying to address? And what is our best path forward?

In the community development world, we had these pockets of neighborhoods and activity that spring up and, for a long time, people were just forming their own disconnected collaboratives to try to bring all the pieces together. We knew we had to work together, and our funders and partners pushed neighborhood groups to collaborate more. Collaboration became a buzzword, and everyone rushed to create something new. The College Hill neighborhood had a collaborative and so did Old North, and Hyde Park, and The Ville. Sometimes these partnerships were real and deep, changing the way we worked together on the ground. But sometimes they didn’t have the capacity or willpower to succeed or were just paving the way for collaborative grant opportunities that were popping up. You would go to these meetings and everyone showed up with their flyers about their programs, they passed them along, we went around the circle, and that was that.

First, it wasn’t very efficient. Second, there needed to be a way to bring together folks from across the north side to define priorities together, as there wasn’t a substantial barrier or difference between them. We reached out to all those collaboratives across the north side to focus on doing one big collaborative meeting; to get everybody in the room to talk about what’s really going on in our communities:“What are the challenges for those of us who provide resources or work with the community? What are the barriers that we’re really trying to address? And what is our best path forward?” That became the Northside Service Providers group. We had 160 people at our first meeting, and over 100 separate organizations shared information with each other. Now, there’s a Facebook group, and a resource guide that’s over 100 pages long, containing info about individual organizations, regional initiatives like Ready by 21 and For the Sake of All, and critical city services that everyone should be able to access.

The first Northside Service Provider meeting is where I noticed the shift toward focusing on Racial Equity. I had been going to meetings in different neighborhoods for years. You could almost predict what would be discussed — the schools weren’t great, there weren’t enough after school programs, violence was happening across the street, such and such corner store was really a nuisance, we needed more health services. But, when we first got everyone together in the spring of 2015, about nine or ten months after Michael Brown was killed, people started shifting from talking about problems to talking about why we had these issues in the first place.

Community leaders and non-profits talked about the big picture, focused on Racial Equity, and pushed on the systemic challenges that we had around education, health, poverty, housing, and community investment. It could be a hard conversation. There were people like me who worked for a community organization but didn’t look like or have the same lived experience as those who grew up in and still stay in these neighborhoods. But, in that moment, it seemed like we were all looking at our community, facing it together, and trying to figure out how to come together to, at the very least, talk about our realities in a more honest way. Change is difficult. We’ve had a couple of Northside Service Provider events afterward that haven’t summoned millions of dollars into the north side. But when I look back on the openness, honesty, and clarity that that initial meeting brought, I’m deeply encouraged. I don’t think that progress could have happened in May of 2014.

I grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I was the oldest of five kids in a big, Catholic family. I have two siblings who have developmental disabilities:a brother with autism and a sister who has mild mental retardation, and two of my siblings were adopted – a brother from Vietnam and a sister from South Korea. We lived in this small, cramped house. So I grew up in this dense, diverse environment, which didn’t have a lot of density or diversity otherwise, and in a place where we didn’t really talk about any of these things out loud. I have no recollection of the word “diversity” being used as a value, but it was a lived reality. I think about this when I wonder how I ended up really connecting to a place like St. Louis. “Why I am committed to this work of trying to figure out that we don’t all have to be the same to live together in a place where we can all succeed?”

My understanding of the city, social services, non-profits, and everything that makes up this messy field came from Grace Hill. I don’t know how one changes non-profits or is able to be innovative in this space without knowing what it feels like to work here every day and see these efforts from different angles. Non-profit and community change work is very, very complicated. I think it’s the hardest work in the world. But, people don’t oftentimes approach it like that. You tell someone what you do for a living, and they’ll say, “Good for you. You must be doing that from the goodness of your heart.” My heart’s fine, but that’s not the point. It’s hard to convince people that having a more equitable society is in their best interests and that it should matter to them, whether or not they see the direct benefit themselves.

There are certain folks who have accepted that St. Louis is a town whose glory days are behind it – that it’s a smaller, less successful region that it once was. That the forces that set us back are not forces we have any control over, it’s just how the city is. It’s not going to change. The people are the people who’ve always been in power. Whether people talk about old money or political dynasties, there’s this sense of stasis or, “Yeah, we were once great. But we’re not now.” I don’t really know what it’s going to take to move us forward. Sometimes it’s outsiders who come in and say, “No, this is a great city. There’s so much history here and the people are great.” And even though some of the smallness of communities and how interconnected everything is can seem a little obnoxious, it’s also a huge value.

Investments can be made to move us forward. There is a future that looks different than its most recent past. Understanding how Racial Equity fits into that, there are all sorts of tangible economic and social benefits for being a more equitable, inclusive St. Louis. It’s clear to anyone who has their eyes open even a little bit, that the current institutions, resources, and way that we’re doing things now is not going to be enough. It necessitates a new style of thinking, new organizations, new investments — something beyond the acknowledgment that what we’re doing now is not working, but actually investing in and being committed to building the people, systems, processes, and institutions that will take us from where we are to where we know we can be.

A lot of my interactions are with organizations that feel more driven by their funding streams than by collective action. When Forward Through Ferguson mentions the transition from a scarcity to an abundance mentality, I think about all the non-profits I’ve encountered that have taught themselves to operate from a scarcity mentality:“We could do more, but this is what our funding stream dictates.” Or, “The old families in town really want to fund sob stories. They want things that tug at their heartstrings. They’re not necessarily as interested in things that are going to address system problems.” It may even cost the same amount of money to make an infrastructure investment to reinforce a clear focus on racial disparities at an organization as it does to provide backpacks at the beginning of a school year. Clearly, there’s nothing wrong with providing for immediate, basic needs, but it’s not enough. We need to come together to focus on changes to the system in the ecosystem of non-profits and governments and our funders that allow us to focus on the core of our missions. These missions are not about compliance with a government contract or counting heads, but about real social change. And the funding streams and family foundations we already have in town can be essential tools in making that happen.

There are a lot of people, programs, and money that are being utilized to make sure that every person in our community is healthy, is supported in the ways they need to be, and has a bright future that’s right for them.

Most non-profits suffer from what I call the customer-consumer divide, meaning that the people who pay us to provide our programs and services are not often the people who actually receive or participate in these programs or services. Our primary check-and-balance is to keep our customer happy, but because the consumer is separate, we don’t always develop mechanisms that allow us to listen to the people that we serve. The customer and the consumer don’t always align. We aren’t always paid for the things that our communities are looking for. That’s a big disconnect, and non-profits drive it as much as funders do. We need to better understand what will actually help our communities thrive, we need to evaluate what money is on the table to get this work done, and, if the money isn’t out there, we need to find new ways to get it. That’s a big, collaborative task, and because non-profits live in this scarcity mindset, because we’re taught to be competitive with each other, we don’t have the collective strength to define and acquire what communities need.

A barrier to an abundance mentality is that we often won’t share, collaborate, or talk about our own strengths and weaknesses because we think this makes us look bad or that we won’t be as competitive. This is true whether it’s a non-profit, a community leader, or a teenager trying to find his place. We’re afraid of being punished and that if we’re actually honest about what we see and what we experience, it will be viewed as a weakness. Everybody is fighting for resources, believing that there is not enough. So if I say, “We need help,” I’m afraid people are going to look at me and say, “They’re a weak organization. We’re not going to fund them. They’re not resilient. We’re going to push them aside.” That’s incredibly harmful because it diminishes that we’re in this together. We become reactive and fear-based, rather than proactively driving toward shared responsibility to each other, our work, and ourselves. We need to be willing to look at ourselves honestly, with all of our faults, and to accept when other people do the same. That’s a necessary condition for change because whether or not an organization says, “We’re not very good at community engagement,” the truth is that they may not be good at community engagement.

The problem is that we don’t always know what resource is right for which person or how valuable a program can be.

One of our big reasons for launching GoodMap is that there’s a sense that everything is too competitive, but if you create a space in which it’s safe to share information about who you are, and what you do, and what you need help with, people will focus on the learning and on working together more effectively. There are a lot of people, programs, and money being utilized to make sure every person in our community is healthy, supported in the ways they need to be, and has a bright future that’s right for them. The problem is that we don’t always know what resource is right for which person or how valuable a program can be. If something’s falling short, we don’t have the right information on how it can get better. So, oftentimes, it simply doesn’t improve. It stays where it is, reaching the people that may or may not be a good fit, and we continue this cycle:a series of missed connections. GoodMap tries to facilitate the right connections for the right people, to make sure that if something isn’t working, it has the opportunity to get better.

GoodMap is also helping implement a platform to evaluate effective partnerships, as well as developing new tools to enhance youth voice. What do we mean by voice? We mean that you can share your experiences about your life and in your neighborhood. That your experiences inform our collective understanding of our communities, which are missing so many important voices. And that you can play a role in designing the solutions to issues in your community. That’s voice:Sharing, understanding, and co-design. We’re trying to figure out how to best develop these skills with small groups of youth across St. Louis, and how to capture and compare the information they share with new tech tools built for this purpose. What GoodMap has tried to do so far is organize all of the resources we pay for to respond to community issues, but now we’re also asking a deeper question:“Are we certain we really understand what’s going on every day, or are we throwing money at incomplete guesses and surprised when nothing significant changes?” Putting youth at the center of this question is critical.

Systems are resistant to change. It’s going to take years to have a substantial impact. It took generations to create racial and economic gaps in our education and health systems. But one of the things that I hope I can help change with all the others who are pushing is that we can focus on what works so perhaps it will only take one generation to dig ourselves out. If we want things to be different, we have to be in it for the long haul. We have to be able to try, fail, learn, and try again.

I was never someone who could just do one thing. I grew up in a home where not everyone had the capability to contribute as much. I’m a straight White dude who hasn’t had a lot of challenges in my past, or who suffers from the barriers or trauma that a lot of our neighbors do. I feel a deep sense of responsibility, I have a deep interest in making this community better, and it helps that it’s also fascinating and engaging work. It’s up to people like me to step up, as well. It’s going to take everybody. When you tell folks you work in non-profits, they’re like, “That so good of you.” They pat you on the back. There’s somehow an assumption that if you’re someone with privilege and you have doors open to you, you will just take the money and run. That expectation can turn into a justification for a lot of people, but I can’t stand it. I feel a responsibility to St. Louis and everybody here who’s trying to do better. I feel driven to work harder. That’s what it takes.

– Paul Sorenson, Founder and CEO at GoodMap and Former Director of Strategic Communications and Planning at Grace Hill Settlement House