“I don’t think this approach is working.”
It was a straightforward observation and opinion shared by one of several partners working together on a new design prototype. Four of us—two with a local community organization, and two from an external partner organization—sat around a cafeteria table discussing how our feedback collection process felt so far that morning.
During planning, our team had collaboratively decided that leaders working in the community should facilitate feedback conversations with community members, with two of us from outside of the community taking notes in the back of the room. We thought it would create a more comfortable space for transparent feedback and input. We were wrong.
“I think that you even being in the room makes people less comfortable with sharing. They don’t know you, and you’re not from here,” she continued. “I think you should hang out the rest of the day, we’ll run the rest of the sessions, and we can report back when we finish.”
It was the right decision, and our external partner team sat out the remainder of the feedback sessions.
The design process is an emergent one, which requires listening, being open to learning, and pivoting as needed. But if design partners—whether they are community members or partner organizations—don’t feel like they can show up, engage, and share openly and as safely as possible, then there isn’t much of a foundation for working collaboratively. As I reflect on our team’s conversation in the cafeteria that day, I feel grateful for the trust our partner organizations had built together during that project, and my peers' transparency around what was needed in the moment.
Partnerships, from an equity-centered design perspective, are the heart of it all. At the most basic level, when you’re designing with community members and stakeholders most impacted by a design topic, you are working in partnership with those co-designers. And when you’re designing within the food system—a complex and interconnected web that involves a multitude of organizations and entities, communities, and individuals—any work means collaboration. And quality work requires thoughtful, respectful, and aligned partnership between collaborators.
This month, I am beyond excited to welcome Syed Ali, partnerships and operations director for an NYC-based philanthropic organization and organizer with the Working Families Party, to The Magic Word! Syed joins us to talk about the role of partnerships in planning and organizing based on his decade of experience planning for equity in food, health, housing, and wealth.
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Syed, I’m so excited to have this conversation with you! To get started, can you share with folks a bit about who you are, what you do, and what brought you to your work?
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Thanks so much for including me in The Magic Word, Lucy! I absolutely love what you’re doing with Studio Magic Hour. I’ve always found your work and perspective inspiring, so The Magic Word has been a wonderful chance to tap back into your mind.
My name is Syed and I’m allergic to wearing only one hat at a time. I’m trained as an urban planner, work for a philanthropic foundation, and spend nights and weekends on political organizing. Through all of these levers, I’m fundamentally interested in one goal: working towards a future in which where one lives does not determine one’s health and wealth.
I was born and raised in New York City, the child of immigrants from Bangladesh in the Bronx. That shapes everything I do today. The food apartheid whose roots crack through the sidewalks of the city brought me to FoodCorps, where you and I worked together to connect kids to healthy food in school. The segregation of the city and its resources brought me to urban planning, a discipline through which I could unravel how the Bronx became the poster place of planned shrinkage and municipal disinvestment. The rich landscape of community organizations and long tradition of activism across the city helped inspire me to go into philanthropy, through which I could support that work.
You’re dedicated to using urban planning, organizing, and philanthropy to advance health equity. What role do partnerships play in your work?
Partnerships are central to my work.
As an urban planning consultant, partnerships meant many things. There are formal partnerships in this context: contracts with clients and subconsultants. That might look like working with architects, community engagement specialists, or issue experts to articulate a new vision for a place or program. Bigger picture, the most critical partner is the least formal and defined: the community. The most difficult challenge is to understand how to identify—with an equity lens—who you need to serve and how to elevate them. That could mean giving a values-anchored, community-based organization a formal role on the project team. It could mean contracting with a local firm. It could mean developing a group of key stakeholders who can hold you and your client accountable.
In my political organizing, co-governance is the animating vision. The New York Working Families Party, for which I’m a Brooklyn chapter leader and State Committee member, is fundamentally a coalition. We have an incredibly skilled and strategic staff, but we also have affiliate organizations with shared values, and members we directly mobilize through local chapters. When we endorse a candidate, our process forces us to reconcile differences in approach and policy priority. After we endorse, that means working hand in hand with campaigns to help them speak to the people they need to. After they win, that means us offering specific guidance and assistance to elected officials but also them coming to us for grassroots perspective and helping to build the progressive movement with us.
In my philanthropic work, we actually have begun shifting away from word partnerships to describe how we relate to our grantees. Instead, we prefer to say we are walking alongside our grantees. The term comes from our unique perspective within a church. We do this in three ways: (1) offering technical assistance programs that build the capacities of the grantee organizations; (2) convening people and offering them space to convene others; and (3) using our institutional voice to champion the causes of our grantees. That’s not all, though. It’s clear we have the greatest impact by working in coalition. We developed a coalition of faith leaders to call for a more just reentry for New Yorkers leaving the city’s jails, we pool funds and share strategies with other philanthropic foundations to make our money go further, and we work closely with government officials and agencies to help shape public policy.
Sometimes partnerships don’t play out as you expect them to, or they can change over time in ways that no longer serve a shared mission. How can you navigate those changes when both organizations will continue to work alongside one another?
I don’t think most partnerships are meant to last forever. In the same way that we negotiate the terms when forming partnerships, it’s probably healthiest when we negotiate the terms of ending partnerships. That’s easier said than done, but might be best in the long run for each of the partners.
As with role clarity within a partnership, discussing the distinct lanes that the organizations will occupy moving forward can be helpful. If all of the organizations try to occupy the full lane, someone’s going to get hurt. In social justice work, it always feels like there’s more than enough work to do.
Where can folks go if they want to learn more about you and your work?
Folks can learn more about me on my website, at syedali.nyc. I’d also welcome the Studio Magic Hour community to stay in touch via social media. I’m @SyedAAli on Twitter, @SyedAgmalAli on Instagram, and am also around on LinkedIn. I’d love to hear about your most complicated partnerships and what advice you have for growing them.”
From your perspective, what do authentic and impactful partnerships look like?
Authentic and impactful partnerships require some of the same things our life partners, friends, and teams at work require.
Fundamentally, partnerships require honesty. That’s the foundation for the trust we leverage as we collaborate. It’s always better to have clear communication about the facts and your (organization’s) shortcomings, because it often prevents trouble down the road. We also have to be honest in acknowledging power dynamics. There are power dynamics in the relationships between organizations—how much money you’re contributing, how early you came into a collaboration, who you’re connected to—and there are of course power dynamics between the individual people who serve as points of contact.
Effective partnerships also require compromise. It’s likely not a deep or compelling partnership if you don’t have to change the way you work at all. All of us have preferences and all of our organizations have policies, but there’s usually some bending required to fit the pieces together. It can be in something as simple as when and where one organization is allowed to use the other’s logo, or developed shared language on how you describe the partnership.
Partnerships also require balancing shared and distinct identities. The legal definition of partnership implies liability for each others’ actions. It means shared ownership and responsibility, particularly when things go wrong. In a good partnership, hopefully all of the parties involved feel confident defending each other. On the other hand, you should be able to defend your organizations’ distinct north stars to each other. At FoodCorps, our north star was healthy food. For our community partners, it could be agriculture, sustainability, or education. At the end of the day, the crossing of those distinct north stars was a strength.
[Image description: Syed is smiling while wearing a gray jacket and white t-shirt. He is in front of a canal, two boats, and colorful row houses.]
Every month we'll share a variety of books, articles, podcasts, and other resources on the month's concept and other topics at the intersection of food x equity x design.
The Spectrum of Community Engagement to Ownership charts a pathway to strengthen and transform our local democracies. Leaders across multiple sectors, such as community-based organizations, local governments, philanthropic partners, and facilitative leaders trusted by communities, can use this spectrum to assess and revolutionize community engagement efforts to advance community-driven solutions.
Co-Design or Faux-Design? A Chat with Jo Szczepanska by Simon Katterl (article)
‘Co-design’ in social policy is a paradox. On the one hand, it refers to a transformative set of mindsets, tools, ways of knowing and ways of collaborating to design better (and better design) services, policies and systems. On the other hand, everyone seems to be doing it, but our services, policies and systems remain the same! Either co-design isn’t cracked up to what it claims to be, or people aren’t really doing co-design. I believe it is the latter.
Design Justice Network’s Inaugural Theme-Weaving Event (event)
March 25, 2023
Registration for the Design Justice Network’s Inaugural Theme-Weaving Kick-off event is open! This digital gathering sets a stage for ongoing connection between the practices that ground us as a Network and the dreams that inspire us to design liberatory experiences for all. This series is for members and will culminate in a Design Justice Theme that informs how we embody Design Justice throughout the year. Note: You must be a paid member of the network to attend this event.
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