May 17th, 2008

Civic Entrepreneur

Geoff DiMasi

The other night, Alex Hilllman and I were having a conversation about our project, Independents Hall, and he mentioned the term "civic entrepreneur" in the course of a story. It immediately caught my attention because of my background as a co-founder of a civic association in Philadelphia.

As a follow up to our conversation, Alex emailed me an article titled, "Civic Entrepreneurs: Economic Professional as Collaborative Leader" that he wrote a post about after our conversation. Reading it over, though, reminded me of a different concern that I have had for awhile.

A lot of people form groups of people that share similar backgrounds, educations, and aspirations. In my mind, that is not really a challenge and does not lead to unique new solutions. And while I am very proud of Independents Hall, I would count it in that category. It is not that hard to get like-minded people with straight-forward goals to work together. I think we can do so much more.

The challenge is to bridge the gap between people that think very differently.

I learned that first hand co-founding that civic association in South Philadelphia. It is one of America's most amazing and most diverse neighborhoods. It is a place where day laborers live next door to doctors. It is a place where a web design studio that does yoga together is across from an auto body shop. It is a place where the poor rub shoulders with (and sometime live next door to) millionaires.

The article I mentioned talks about bringing diverse parties to the table:

Civic entrepreneurs exert a collaborative style of leadership. They know how to work with people to get results. Civic entrepreneurs believe that the benefits of a changed economic context can be realized only with more collaborative, resilient connections between the new economy and the community. They provide collaborative leadership to bring diverse parties to the table, identify common ground, and take joint action. They build bridges.

More often than not, civic entrepreneurs lead with no formal power or authority, with only their credibility. Civic entrepreneurs are worthy of people's trust.

Many of us that were raised in the United States after World War II do not have practice working with people that are not from the same socio-economic background. We are products of the trend where people moved to suburban neighborhoods filled with people that were much like them. That was my experience. My father is a PhD Chemical Engineer, so most of my friends' parents were engineers, doctors, or lawyers.

Growing up like that does not give us the skills to have an empathetic world view. In other words, it does not give us first-hand experiences of working with vastly different people so that we can develop the skills one needs to build bridges. I want to challenge more people to bring diverse groups to the table to solve problems to improve our communities, and more importantly, I want to challenge people to empower other people. Empowering others brings about unexpected and beautiful results. It will require many of us to leave our comfort zones on a regular basis, but the payoff is worth it.

Are you up for the challenge?

P.S. If you take a careful look at the shirts that my neighbors are wearing above, you will notice the words "celebrating diversity" in multiple languages.
Geoff DiMasi

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One Thing For Sale