Tying Knots: How Collaboration Builds Networks

Tying Knots: How Collaboration Builds Networks


Warm Memory, view from inside 36' x 11' x 21' 40,000 linear feet of string, aluminum conduit & hardware *photo by Justin Vaughn Photography 

Amie Sell, a Chicago-based artist whom I got to know through our work advocating for affordable housing in our Chicago neighborhood, recently held an art show where she constructed an installation made of 40,000 linear feet of string to "create an experience for the audience that allows them to feel the community networks and connections that anchor individuals to a neighborhood."

Thinking about the different networks that I am part of, I marveled at the structure, seeing visible ties and knots represent what usually is invisible. I think about all the different work I've been doing, and how my connections are strengthened through the work I've done with other people.

The installation was part of Re<new>All, an art show to start conversations around gentrification, the displacement that is happening through the rapid changes in Logan Square and the surrounding neighborhoods, and also to create a space for the community to come together. The art show was also a collaboration of local artists with the vision of bringing people together.

I want to bring forth the idea that collaboration not only grows your network, but also creates a connection to community. It is these connections and relationships that build movements for social change. I see collaborative work as the knots that bind these networks.

Working in the social change sector, a lot of our work might feel isolated. Social change work is complex and interwoven in communities' context and histories, and yet so many of us feel like the work we do in our organizations is separated from other organizations. How can we address complex social inequities, that are deeply rooted in histories, and peoples' lives, without connecting with each other?

Networks are often messy, and unstructured. Through collaborative work, these connections within your network become stronger. When you are collaborating, you have access to diverse perspectives, knowledge, and skills. From this, resources and action can be coordinated to spark movements. Movements then become a vehicle for social change.

I can think of examples from experiences from my professional and personal life, where my network has grown and strengthened through collaborative work.

We Are/Somos Logan Square, the community organization that I am part of in my neighborhood, is made of people who care deeply about affordable housing, and our shared vision is to stop displacement. Through this group, I have been able to meet people from my neighborhood outside my usual network (read: people in nonprofit and philanthropy). I have been able to learn from their stories, and see firsthand how people are willing to work collaboratively for a shared vision. I also learned a lot from community members who have been longtime residents whose perspectives had been invaluable in doing the work. And Amie was right, these relationships I have started to build with my community, really anchored me to my neighborhood.

Through the Launchpad Fellowship with YNPN, I have had the opportunity to work with amazing, talented people from all over the country! We all came from different backgrounds and do different things in our professional life; all of us live in different cities, and a lot of our work is done virtually. We share a commitment to social justice and an understanding of the importance of equipping a diverse set of emerging nonprofit leaders with the skills and networks they’ll need to make an impact. We work on this in different ways, from planning the Leaders' Conference to strategizing fundraising and innovate programs to make the network sustainable, to creating a unified voice for the network. Working together and having access to each other's skills have deepened our connection in ways ways that can only be achieved by true collaboration.

This is why YNPN's vision for stronger communities propelled by a network of inspired and engaged leaders really resonates with me. Networks not only connect people, weave social ties with common interests but through true collaboration they also anchor leaders to a shared vision, and can spark movements for social change.

True collaboration, though, can't happen without building relationships first. Sometimes collaborations fail. Sometimes, we take risks and what we envisioned didn't happen. True collaboration allows for these failures and risks. And especially in social change work, true collaboration comes with a deep trust we have in each other.

Coming back to Amie's structure, as I looked around the gallery and saw the different ways people were engaging with the structure, I thought about how once the networks are grounded in place, they do not stay static. As relationships and connections deepen, the structure becomes something more than just strings tied together --  it becomes part of people's lives, and their world, it builds community. The more we connect and collaborate with those in our network, and reach out to those outside of our networks, the more threads and ties and knots we can weave around a vision for our community and future.

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