Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Guest Post: Radical Collaboration - Tools for Partnering with Community Members

This guest post was written by my incredible colleagues, Stacey Marie Garcia and Emily Hope Dobkin, with minimal input from me. It started as a handout for a session that Stacey and I are doing at the California Association of Museums, and then I realized it was so darn useful that it was worth sharing with all of you. Can't wait to hear what you think.

The majority of our public programs at the Santa Cruz Museumof Art & History are created and produced through community collaborations. Each month we work with 50-100 individuals to co-produce our community programs.  It’s not unusual for us to meet with an environmental activist, a balloon artist, a farmer, and the Mayor of Santa Cruz all in one day. Every time we collaborate, we learn new ways to improve our process, organization and communication.

We never received a “how-to-guide” for collaborating with community members here at the MAH, but over time, we have acquired some basic tools that have shaped our approach. We realize collaboration differs greatly for each individual and organization. We offer these tools in the spirit of sharing and look forward to learning about the techniques you use in your own community.

Start with and continuously identify your communities.

  • Who are they?
  • What are their needs?
  • What are their assets?
  • Who is represented in your museum? Who isn’t?
One way we do this is through C3 (Creative Community Committee) meetings. C3 is a group of diverse community members that meets to creatively brainstorm new forms of collaboration with community members. C3 topics have ranged from exhibition development, community needs, outreach programs, our Loyalty Lab project, and family programs.

Reach out to and continuously seek diverse collaborators--not just the usual suspects.

We look for partners who have:
  • An understanding of and desire to help meet your community’s needs.
  • Incredible assets, skills and resources to offer to your community but they are in need of more awareness, promotion, visibility and representation.
  • A genuine enthusiasm for sharing their skills, building knowledge and developing relationships in the community even if they haven’t done it before. For example, a few months ago we had a couple approach us to propose a Pop-Up Tea Ceremony.  Their enthusiasm and commitment charmed us and aligned with our social bridging goals. We invited them to set up the day after we met them and they’ve been Friday regulars ever since.
  • Experience working with a wide variety of age groups or teaching in general. 
  • Good communication skills and are kind and friendly.
  • Large and small (or no) followings. When planning programs or events, we involve a combination of these groups to share and bridge audiences, bringing big, diverse crowds to new artists and ideas.

Openly invite collaboration by establishing and maintaining transparency about your partnerships with the public and fellow staff members.

  • On your website: share your programing goals, solicit collaborations in general and for specific events, provide easily accessible staff contact information, clearly state how your collaborations function, give thanks and acknowledgement to your collaborators through your website and on Facebook page.
  • At your museum: have your front desk staff aware of upcoming events and collaboration possibilities, always have business cards available for visitors interested in collaborating so they can easily contact staff members.  Be available to talk with people at your events and hand out your contact information to anyone who has an idea they’d like to talk with you about or is interested in helping. Follow up with them later.
  • Don’t pass judgment or make assumptions. Always be open to discussing collaborative possibilities with anyone and everyone and then decide if it’s a good fit.  
  • Mine your colleagues; ask for ideas and suggestions from staff members for resources. You never know who might have connections to some place or another. For our Art That Moves event, our Membership and Development Director suggested the incredibly popular Tarp Surfing activity.

Always meet your collaborators in person. We can’t overstate how important this is to getting everyone moving in the same direction.

  • Clearly explain how your organization collaborates with others before you meet.
  • Meet them at your museum so they begin to become more familiar and comfortable with the space and understand how they will fit into the event or program.
  • Ask them about their goals for this collaboration and share your goals.
  • Find a way, together, to achieve both.
  • Brainstorm together your wildest ideas and then scale back. For our 3rd Friday series, we like to have an initial meeting with all of our collaborators and together go over the community program goals tied to the theme of the event. Incredible projects can arise when you have a poet, a librarian, a printmaker, a bookbinder and a teacher all throwing out ideas together. (Radical Craft Night and Poetry & Book Arts)
  • Allow time to pass for further individual reflection, for them to share their ideas with other members of their organization and for you to give it further thought.
  • Confirm final details with them over phone, email or go to their location this time.

Collaboration is based upon communication. Get ready to talk.

  • Be prepared to spend an enormous amount of time communicating with each individual through email, over the phone and in person.
  • Make time for them. When you give collaborators more of your time, they will feel more confident about their role in the event, their project/workshop/demonstration will inevitably be stronger and your visitors will be happier.
  • When you produce a large event with many individuals, make sure they are all connected through email. This establishes communication across the entire group, collective teamwork, the opportunity to share resources and the possibility of future relationships and connections to develop amongst your collaborators.  Recently, we hosted a PechaKucha night at the MAH, which featured a wide range of community members presenting on eight different topics. These eight people didn't know each other at all before the event. In a pre-event email exchange, one presenter offered up a useful link to help practice giving this kind of talk. That email sparked several messages of appreciation and excitement, creating a sense of comradery.

Even if you can’t financially compensate your collaborators, show your collaborators how much you value them.

Many times, we cannot pay our collaborators. For some MAH events, we collaborate with 120 individuals across the spectrum from amateurs to professionals, all of whom have very different expectations about compensation. How do we pay a group of ukulele players, a teenage rock band and a world-renowned musician fairly and on a very limited budget?

Here are some other ways we compensate our collaborators:
  • Give them as much press as possible. Suggest them to press for a feature in the local paper.
  • Acknowledge them on your website and always link to their website.
  • Pay for all their materials.
  • Offer food and drinks for them at the event.
  • Give them a guest pass.
  • Thank them and credit them for their work and volunteered time.
  • Refer them if someone asks you for a recommendation.
  • Help them learn from the experience. We recently had a group of students creating balloon art during our Winterpalooza Family Festival. New to the art form and the museum, we gave them a gift certificate to reflect over milkshakes at a local burger joint after the event.
  • Encourage them to promote themselves/their organization and offer ways for visitors to learn more about their events at your event. It’s a reciprocal appreciation: we are able to showcase and share the amazing talent in our community, and they’re able to share their work with a larger audience, make new connections in the community and learn from their experiences interacting with the public

Your partners are doing a lot of work. Make it as easy for them as possible.

  • Share your resources and connections that can help make their activity/collaboration stronger. A friendly sheet metal company in Santa Cruz provided scrap metal for our Experience Metal festival last summer; we thanked them by donating back the giant robot visitors partly made from the scrap.
  • Buy, gather, and prep all the materials you can. This might mean cutting thousands of papers various sizes, wheeling hundreds of library books through downtown, dumpster diving for cardboard boxes and driving up to the mountains to move a 200lb letterpress to the MAH.
  • Set up their tables and materials for them before they arrive.
  • Have volunteers ready to assist them with set up and break down, as well as coverage during breaks.
  • Clearly communicate with them throughout the process, show them exactly where they will be and where everyone else will be, let them know the schedule, where to check in, how and where to find help and assistance and what is expected of them before, during and after the event.

Get collaborators' feedback and give them credit for their contributions.

  • Survey your collaborators extensively to find out: ways to improve for next time, what they appreciated, how or if they benefited from the collaboration, and what changes they’d like to see made. Here's a sample collaborator survey from our recent Poetry and Book Arts event.
  • Read the surveys and make active and immediate changes based upon their feedback.
  • Document the event: Share photographs of the event on social media outlets and always have fully downloadable photographs available for their use.
  • Keep in contact with them. These people are now one of your best and most reliable resources and you can be theirs as well. Stay up to date with them about future collaborations or other potential collaborators they may know. Be helpful to them and they will be helpful to you. 
How do you collaborate with your community? What tools and methods have you found beneficial?
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