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June 09, 2014

Breaking Down Silos to Harness Collective Power

Sierra_Club-6Remarkable things happen when dedicated people working on one cause get a chance to talk shop with dedicated people working on another cause. They not only discover that stories and strategies are similar, but also that seemingly distinct issues share common ground when it comes to questions of equity.

I witnessed this as one of the facilitators at a recent workshop coordinated by Groundwork Portland and the Sierra Club at the Center for Intercultural Organizing. Thirty-five activists from groups such as Right to Dream Too and Right to Survive, Portland Harbor Community Coalition (PHCC), and the Sierra Club gathered to exchange ideas about community organizing.

Covering the philosophical as well as the tactical, houseless advocates shared power maps with campaigners from Beyond Coal. Representatives from Physicians for Social Responsibility and the PHCC modeled how to move decision makers with story-based testimony. People from diverse backgrounds and experiences talked about how to reach out to allies, engage neighbors in conversation, and build relationships that ultimately can help build a movement.

Cassie Cohen, executive director of Groundwork Portland, said the idea for the workshop grew out of a practical need to help the many groups that are working to clean up Portland Harbor and prepare for upcoming Environmental Protection Agency hearings.

"Although people have been working on this issue for a long time, the Coalition itself is new, so the training seemed like a good way to help people coalesce around the campaign in addition to building skills," explained Cohen.

Cohen and co-organizer Laura Stevens, of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, invited Steve Goldstein, Cesia Kerns, and Diana Pei-Wu to facilitate sessions on relationship-building, power mapping, and story-telling. The co-organizers quickly saw the opportunity to open up the event to help cross-pollinate and create a more dynamic learning environment.

Sierra_Club-35"There is so much knowledge out there in the community, but we tend to keep focused on just our issues," Stevens explained. "We hoped people would walk away with some practical strategies and also have a chance to network with people they might not meet otherwise."

Reaching out across issues, participants rediscovered the uniting principle of equity work: to help all people have happy, productive lives in a healthy environment. They also found new energy and inspiration for their work. Activist Les Shannon said, "The event was nourishment for my spirit."

That was the ultimate goal of the workshop, to help participants tap into their individual and collective power for change. In the process, people started to break down silos and form alliances based not just on joint strategies but on a comprehensive vision for equity. As we tackle some of the most complex and daunting problems that any generation has had to face, this is the kind of leadership that Oregon needs now. As progressives we need to find more ways to promote it.

-- Mary Fifield, Sierra Club Oregon executive committee

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