Building Capacity to Support Community Listening


What can it look like to build capacity to support authentic community listening?

In this podcast discussion, we learn about the community listening work supported by Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg, based in St. Petersburg, Florida. We hear from a group of partners that worked together to establish community listening to support the South St. Petersburg CRA (Community Redevelopment Area), and what they learned along the way, including supporting community members’ capacity for listening, pivoting through evolving political priorities, and how a hurricane can change everything.

Joining this discussion to share what they learned is Deborah Grodzicki (RDL Insights), Carrie Y. Hepburn-Brown (Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg), Meiko Seymour (Uncommon City) and Julian Smith (Nixon & Co.)

Ways to listen: You can listen below or on your preferred podcast streaming service, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Simplecast, iHeartRadio, Amazon, and other podcast apps.

Please find a transcript of this talk further down this page.

References and Footnotes

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The Intro music, entitled “Running,” was composed by Rafael Krux, and can be found here and is licensed under CC: By 4.0.

The outro music, entitled “Deliberate Thought,” was composed by Kevin Macleod. Licensed under CC: By.

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Podcast Transcript

Welcome to the Collective Impact Forum podcast, here to share resources to support social change makers working on cross-sector collaboration.

The Collective Impact Forum is a nonprofit field-building initiative that is co-hosted in partnership by the nonprofit consulting firm FSG and the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions.

In this episode, we’re discussing community listening and what we can learn from launching a community listening program.

In this discussion, we learn about the community listening work supported by Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg, based in St. Petersburg, Florida. We hear from a group of partners that worked together to establish community listening to support the South St. Petersburg CRA, which stands for Community Redevelopment Area. We hear what they learned through launching this program, including supporting community members’ capacity for listening, pivoting through evolving political priorities, and how a hurricane can change everything.

Joining this discussion to share what they learned is Deborah Grodzicki, from RDL Insights, Carrie Y. Hepburn-Brown, from Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg, Meiko Seymour from Uncommon City, and Julian Smith from Nixon & Co. Moderating this discussion is the Collective Impact Forum’s Director of Programs and Partnerships Courtney W. Robertson. Let’s tune in.

Courtney W. Robertson: Welcome to the Collective Impact Forum podcast. My name is Courtney W. Robertson, director of programs and partnerships with the Collective Impact Forum, and I’m your host. This episode features the CRA Listening Project supported by the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg, based in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Joining me today are Carrie Y. Hepburn-Brown, Debbie Grodzicki, Jullian Smith, and Meiko Seymour. Welcome, everyone.

I’d love to start by having each of you introduce yourself, and if you could tell us a little bit more about Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg.

Meiko Seymour: Good to be here with you guys. My name is Meiko Seymour. I am the owner of Uncommon City where we are basically a think tank looking for uncommon solutions to an uncommon city. I am also a partner with St. Petian Collaborative, which is a nonprofit where we are advocating for equity in all spaces. Good to be here today.

Julian Smith: Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Julian Smith. I’m an associate with Nixon & Co. Consulting Group, which is a listening and community engagement consulting firm. Looking forward to speaking with you today in regards to the South St. Pete CRA, a listening project with the Foundation for a Healthy St. Pete. Thank you.

Debbie Grodzicki: Hello, everyone. My name is Debbie Grodzicki. I’m very happy to be here so thank you for inviting me today. I run a research and evaluation consulting firm called RDL Insights. What we do is we support mission-driven organizations, understand their learning needs, and use data to guide their efforts. I was very lucky to be a part of this project and happy to be here.

Carrie Y. Hepburn-Brown: Hi, everyone. Delighted to be here. I am Carrie Y. Hepburn-Brown, currently the senior engagement consultant for the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg, formerly the senior director of engagement when this project was happening. The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg, that we refer to as Foundation, is a private health care conversion foundation established in 2013, whose mission is to achieve health equity through racial equity by listening humbly, learning fearlessly, and leading courageously to impact systems change. So excited to tell you about how we did that with this project.

Courtney W. Robertson: Awesome. Thank you all so much for introducing yourselves and Carrie, thank you for that additional context around the Foundation, as you all affectionately call it.

Would love to dive in and learn more about the CRA Listening Project and the collaborative that you all are working together on. So just better understanding the collaborative’s goals, your role within that work, etc.

Carrie Y. Hepburn-Brown: I’ll start off and ask everybody else to jump in. As I mentioned, the mission statement of the foundation, one of the key aspects is to center the idea of listening, community listening specifically. That’s been a part of the foundation’s history since its inception, and it’s taken on multiple forms, sometimes community townhalls, focus groups with various stakeholders, and most recently, during the pandemic and now one-on-one organic listening.

It really is the impetus of what led me to work full time at the Foundation was this recent centering of listening humbly, which was upgraded, the mission statement was upgraded to add that back in December of 2021.

This project really had two goals, one was sort of philanthropically-minded which was to test this framework, listening framework that I had developed as part of this community listening idea. The second piece, which I think is the most important piece, was to explore community priorities, perspectives and attitudes relate to equitable economics, their perceived opportunities, and the ideas for improvement.

I want to just say one other thing about this particular work, and you’ll hear it as we continue. You’ve already said it a couple of times, Courtney, that this is referred to as the CRA Listening Project. CRA stands for Community Redevelopment Area. Under Florida law local governments can really identify specific communities or areas as a CRA district. It’s an opportunity to garner more funds specifically the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area, or CRA, was established to promote reinvestment in housing and neighborhoods, commercial corridors, business development, education, and workforce, as well as nonprofit capacity building.

We have, this particular CRA is one of the largest in the state. It’s 4,777 acres. It includes over 20 neighborhoods, business associations, and two Main Street designated districts. The reason that we use the CRA as a pilot to test this framework is because with—you would think about all this sort of unfortunate great assets but also a lot of deficits in terms of poverty and other poor health outcomes and those kinds of things. We really wanted to listen to community residents. We believe in this idea of content expertise as well as context expertise, and you know that residents know best how to deal with the issues that are happening in their community.

Courtney W. Robertson: Thanks, Carrie. That is wow, impressive, spanning lots of neighborhoods, which was not an understanding that I held. So thank you for sharing that, just like how vast this project is and how far reaching it is.

With that, you’ve touched on, I think, community in a couple of ways. I understand that you all, as a team, came together as a community, because Carrie, you’re the only person who’s anchored within the Foundation, if I understand correctly, right? And then you talk about these 20 neighborhoods which are communities.

I would love to understand more about how you define and understand the multiple communities that make up your collaborative’s work, right? Again, understanding that that’s a huge part of it, both in who you all center but also in how you all come together to lead this work. So would love to understand more about that.

Julian Smith: I’ll take that one. Courtney, this is Julian Smith again, from Nixon & Co. Consulting Group. How we define community here within this collaborative is it’s a body that’s jointly made of different components, different organizations, that have different skillsets. We were able to bring all our skillsets together, all our expertise, experiences, if you will, and come together to create this undertaking which I think Carrie may have mentioned or will mention that this was one of the bigger undertakings from a listening project standpoint for the foundation, and so us building community and how we define community is all of our different skillsets and organizations and perspectives of where we will bring this project together is where we have that cohesiveness to create community. That’s how I would define it amongst all of our partners here for this project.

Meiko Seymour: I would also add that it was a community in the making because really, we all came together not knowing each other. We all came together not necessarily knowing each other’s work, and so part of our process was really kind of centering in on like building relationships with one another similar to ultimately what we would have what we call our listeners doing within their own teams but then also out in the community in which they were listening.

And I like to think about it in terms of—I used this a couple of months ago with Debbie as we were debriefing on the project, but the project is really kind of like a cooking line in a restaurant, and we kind of—we opened the restaurant, we knew what we wanted to cook up or put out on a table, but we really needed to figure out who was going to do what and how that would all function. The process was a little bit messy, but it was like kind of a beautiful mess or beautiful chaos, if you will, and within that chaos we really got to define who was doing what on the line and in that process we really became much more than individual entities that came together to do work, and we really became family, really invested in the wellbeing of each other and the wellbeing of each other’s organizations that were represented.

Carrie Y. Hepburn-Brown: Thanks, Julian, and Meiko. I just wanted to add one thing. Courtney, you’ve heard from most of the five partners who have been part of this project. I do want to mention that we’ve got one of the partners who is not with us on the call and maybe that’s a whole separate podcast, but Building Reconciliation Inclusion Diversity and Gender Equity, also known as BRIDGE, is an organization that’s dedicated to providing equity in all spaces. Their founder and CEO, Reverend Rebecca Burrow, served as our movement chaplain for this project, and I think it’s important to mention that because we know how important our movement chaplain was to the work that we did.

The purpose of the movement chaplain is really to provide support to people who are working directly in social justice and equity movements, provide spiritual guidance and resources particularly around self-care, and for this particular work, because we were really, we had the lens of working toward systems change, our listeners, as we affectionately call them, really were in the heart of this social justice equity movement, hearing directly from residents about their struggles, what they were encountering as they themselves are also living life. So, I just wanted to make sure that we mentioned the other partner in this work.

Courtney W. Robertson: Thank you for that. And you and Meiko set up what I think is smart, hopefully. Next question, when you talked about like we figured out what our cooking line needed to look like, and Meiko, you must know that I love food, so I appreciate that analogy. Carrie, you lifted up a partner who’s not here, but I would love to hear just a little more in depth about each of your distinct roles within this collaborative.

Meiko Seymour: I would say the beginning of the project was really at least for the partners specifically on this podcast was about- we knew the expertise that we were coming in with and we knew what we wanted to end up with in terms of a package or an end result, but we didn’t necessarily know how all of that would come together, where we would need to push in, where we would need to kind of back up and let another organization, entity, or person take the rein. In terms of Uncommon City, Uncommon City is for the most part much more project management in the process, and then it also has, which perhaps we’ll talk about later, it also has an arm to this listening that actually kind of began near the tail end of the bigger project and is ongoing right now. That piece is still going on. St. Petian Collaborative was really about recruiting our listeners, doing the administrative pieces for the listeners being kind of like the tech, making sure that all of our listeners had what they needed when they were out on the field or when they were having their individual team meetings or one-to-one meetings with project partners. That’s Uncommon City and St. Petian Collaborative.

Julian Smith: This is a perfect segue. Thanks, Meiko, for teeing that off. My role within this project was to be one of the lead trainers for our listening team that was recruited by St. Petian, and this role, this is where we actually went through frameworks and models on how to listen, how to deal with conflict or confrontation, or any type of just conversation management, if you will.

Along with that is how do we collect the data, how do we take from what we’re listening from from the community and document it in the way that you can decipher it and create some takeaway from it, right? So there was a training component and there was a data collection component, and so that is where my role as one of the associates with the Nixon & Co. arm of this project took place at.

Debbie Grodzicki: I can jump in since—and this is Debbie from RDL Insights. My main role was to support Nixon & Co. as well as Uncommon City with the data, with the training on collecting quality data and thinking about the protocols and how do we gather that data, synthesize, analyze, and then share it back with trainers, with the listeners, I’m sorry. I support Nixon & Co. with the training as well with the behind-the-scenes analysis piece.

Another stream of my work was also to take more of a meta look at the project as a whole and really assess the process, which is what kind of some of the learnings that we’re talking about with you today came from that conversations that I’ve had with the project team, partners here, as well as the listeners, as well as the listening team leads, which we hopefully will talk about kind of the team structure in a little bit, and about how much value that brought to the project as well. I was kind of like the data arm and of course, I also spoke with the movement chaplain along the way as well.

Courtney W. Robertson: Awesome. Thank you all for painting that picture for us. As you all think about, and I think you’ve started to allude to this a bit, when you think about building sort of this culture of community across your initiative, what would you all say were some of those key factors that contributed the most to doing that?

Julian Smith: I’ll start it off. I think one of those key contributing I would say factors would be the fact that we were all in it for the community more than anything. I think having that as the North Star, if you will, to know how we want to move forward whatever conflict or whatever hurdle we may have to come across, I think just the love for the community that we serve in, that we live in, that we play in, that we praise in, all those different things allowed us to see past any type of obstacle that may have come about in going through this whole process.

Meiko Seymour: That’s so good. I was thinking, Julian, as you were talking, each individual or partner as we call them and then also our listeners being able to hold space as sacred, being able to walk into a listening session and understand that people’s vulnerabilities and transparencies were not just something that they were giving away for free that day, were entrusting the person that was listening with kind of their deepest pain points, their deepest fears, their big dreams and love for their neighborhoods and for their city.

In fact, you know, in many of our sessions that kind of came back in terms of the data that we got from those sessions, people were nervous—I wouldn’t say nervous, were somewhat jaded to enter into yet another session where someone was listening to them and asking the question, what will you do with this information because I’ve already given this information? I’ve been to different community listening session within the city or different organizations, why should I tell you, the listener, more or kind of the same story? No one has ever done anything with what I’ve shared.

So for our listeners to go into those spaces and saying I want to hold what you’re saying as sacred, as important, and as an advocate and champion for what you are sharing with me, I think was really, really, really, really important, even as the data from those sessions bubbled up to kind of the partner level and the data, the data level. Even now, we’re still asking questions what can we do with the information that we’ve garnered from the community because they did not give it to us as kind of toss-aways. They gave it to us as, you know, “Hey, here’s my heart. Take care of what I’m giving you.”

Carrie Y. Hepburn-Brown: That’s so good. Courtney, you can see why I was so excited to be a part of this project. A couple of other things, I think, in both, actually all the partners have already alluded to it, but relationship building. As Debbie mentioned, I had had the opportunity to know, get to work with each of the partners, but none of the partners other than myself actually knew each other. As you heard us talk about, there was already like this twofold goal with the project and then add on this other layer of a group of folks who had never worked together. So there was certainly a huge relationship building aspect to it, and then really key is adaptability, and I think Meiko and Julian are going to talk a little more about that. That was a huge piece of really the work from the beginning, how important it is to be adaptable, flexible, and to be willing to sort of follow this, I would say sort of organic path that ended happening.

Debbie Grodzicki: Another thing I would contribute, another factor, is one that I alluded to before, is the structure that was in place. It was very layered structure where we had the partners kind of at the top side, I would say, because we tried to keep it, we didn’t want to make it so hierarchical. But then we had our listener team leads, and then we had the listeners. The team lead were really there to provide that sense of smaller communities because it was a large project. There were a lot of listeners and so it really became little hubs for listeners to come together, have someone who isn’t a listener, such as themselves, that has a connection to the partners who are not always available. So it’s kind of that step approach.

It really provided, as some listeners even called it a safe haven, where they could just connect with each other and share their experiences, and they really liked that kind of the inclusivity and accessibility that the team leads provided. And those team leads were hand picked by Meiko, so they were individuals who had been a part of this experience before, have worked with Meiko at Uncommon City before, so they really were there and ready to provide and model the support that we were trying to create within this project.

Meiko Seymour: Yeah, I wanted to add as well that Debbie talked about how large the project is or was. We had a ton of listeners doing a ton of listening sessions. One thing in terms of creating that structure of team leads and teams and this sense of family and space is that we quickly recognized partially because there are some of us who have done listening before, but we quickly recognized that not only were the listeners going into the community to listen to the community, but they needed this too. There were four or five months of our listeners going into communities asking questions that they had their own answers to their heart or things that they’re walking through because they are also part of the community.

I want to say there was maybe one or two that did not live in the CRA that were listeners. Everyone else lived in the CRA so they’re asking questions and getting feedback from the community in which they also reside and have the same frustrations and heartaches and things like that, and so to be able to commiserate without even letting the person know that they were commiserating was a really big deal, and in so many ways validated what they were themselves feeling within the community so there’s this level of, you know, they’re out on the field, they’re listening to all of the things, they’re coming back to their team leads or in their team meetings, and they are sharing the things that they learn and they are emoting with one another and sharing space to be able to hold each other’s emotions from what they had heard.

And then that other piece of having that movement chaplain to be able to just go in and just dump all of the things that they were carrying not only from the sessions which themselves were at times heavy but then also what were those sessions—what were the answers or conversations from the people that they were listening to, what were those things that were being brought up in the listeners’ lives.

So we quickly realized, and I think probably one of the most important pieces to any kind of listening project, if the audience is embarking a similar journey is that listening cannot be done in a silo. It cannot be done alone. You have to listen within a community, to a community, and for a community.

Courtney W. Robertson: I love that, Meiko, and it’s this idea of care, right? Care for the community externally but also care for our communities internally and how are we protecting them because as you mentioned, there’s a lot that can be dumped on people, particularly when you’re proximate to the challenges and issues that are being shared, you experience it in a very different way and it impacts you very differently so the fact that you all saw that and it was like let us also create space within our small community to make sure that we’re taking care of.

I think that’s a beautiful segue to one of the questions I have which is around the thing people love to hear about like the challenges, right? So what would you all say were some of those challenges both within your team and across your initiative as you did try to be intentional around building and maintaining this culture of community? What were some of those challenges, and if I could add a couple more questions to it, just like not just what were the challenges but also how did you all address some of those challenges, and were there things that you thought about differently as well?

Meiko Seymour: I’ll start with—I don’t know if it’s an easy challenge but one that comes to mind was in the initial phase of training what we kept hearing from our listeners was, OK, what are we listening for, like what’s the question? What do we ask people, and so a lot of our listeners came in with this idea of kind of a polling-type framework that they would go out into the community with 10 questions, and they would just ask a bunch of people 10 questions, get the answers and turn in those answers, and it was really difficult for our listeners to move from you’re going to go and ask questions and get answers to you are going to go and build relationships with people. That was really difficult for our listeners to really sit in.

In fact, we quickly—Julian and I quickly realized that we needed to pivot our training. I think that was after—correct me if I’m wrong, Julian—I think that was after week one of training. We came back and we were like, no, no, no, no. We’ve got to rethink this whole thing because what we didn’t realize we had come in with a certain set of expectations. Even the folks that we chose to be listeners we thought would definitely be coming in understanding what listening is, what it means to hold space for conversation for people’s hearts but we were dreadfully wrong, and not that it was a negative on the listeners point or side but what we wanted to do and what we realized is that when you build relationships with people in communities, especially the South St. Pete CRA, that the conversations, the answers that you get back, they’re just richer and you get a wealth of information because you were able to create trust with people.

So what we had to do is slow everything down. I think we thought that we could get through training within like two weeks. We had to slow it down. I think it ended up being about four or five weeks, and then we did additional training every single month throughout the course of the project.

That was a challenge. We pivoted the way that we did training but then kind of the meta of this is, and I think you might hear this with some of the other answers, is that we recognized that we needed to slow down. Time is so important in this work. If we’re trying to listen in kind of a fast-paced scenario, it’s just not going to work. It’s not going to work really well, especially the type of listening that we endeavor to do, and so with the training we said why are we going so fast because if we work to deploy our listeners right now, we would get some feedback, we would get some answers, but they wouldn’t necessarily be what we were really trying to address and create within our community. It was not supposed to be transactional, so we needed to slow everything down and go in and build relationships.

Courtney W. Robertson: Thanks for that, Meiko, and I’d like to quickly ask a follow-up question. So you mentioned that initially you all thought two weeks of training and we’ll be done, so given that, what was your initial sort of timeline for this work, and then what did it actually end up being because I think that’s important for our listeners to hear.

Meiko Seymour: Man, Courtney—

Carrie Y. Hepburn-Brown: Do you want me to jump into that?

Meiko Seymour: Yeah, and then I just have like the ending piece of what you’re going to say. Go ahead.

Carrie Y. Hepburn-Brown: OK, and the only reason I just jumped in, Courtney, is because there’s some pre-project time as well as—so the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg who funded the partners to be able to do this work had a 12-ish-month timeframe which means that the project from a financial investment perspective started in July. Phase one which ended with the listening and folks wanting to hear what we heard, that ended in December of 2022, and then as you’ve heard us talk a little bit about and we’ll get a chance to share a little bit later about the next phase that’s really happening from January through about June.

But I wanted to actually jump in because I think this particular question that you asked actually underscores what one of the biggest challenges we faced was, and I know, Meiko, I’m going to give you some space to talk about it, is this whole idea of time and concept of what that really means, particularly in a relationship-building piece but the other thing is this idea of listening. So inherently people think, oh, you’re just listening, I know how to listen, right?

But the truth is most of us actually aren’t listeners and despite the fact that I would love to be a community listener, nobody on our team would let me listen because I talk too much. But this idea of understanding, as Meiko talked a little bit about, like to be holding sacred space to hear from people without these preconceived notions you heard Julian talk about, really working with listeners to talk about, think about like if there are biases and things that come up, reactions that come up when someone is sharing their story, your role as a listener is just to be present. So it was really twofold, right? Getting people to understand this concept of listening and then buy in to listening, and then this whole quasi-concept of time. Meiko, I’ll let you go off on that.

Meiko Seymour: Yeah, I was just going to say, and it will bring up another challenge and solution too because I know that was the original question. You know for our listeners when we were recruiting them and then working through all the admin stuff of getting them onboarded and training and all the things, we came in to this really trying to understand how the community was feeling around a certain development happening in the city of St. Petersburg so we have these 86 acres here in the city that is like the largest tract of land in an urban downtown core that was—the city was considering redeveloping and so we had a lot of questions that were really centered around that. We wanted to know how the community was feeling about it so when you’re recruited for that purpose, it’s easy to come in and say, OK, what are the specific questions that I need to ask so that I can get answers around how the community is feeling about the redevelopment.

The problem then with that is we launched the project, started the training, and then the political winds shifted in our city, and our mayor made a decision, and all of a sudden now what’s happening on those 86 acres is different, and so we had to not only pivot the training, but we had to expand the, I want to say perspective. I don’t know if that’s the right word. We needed to expand what people were thinking we wanted to hear from our community.

Not only did that happen but as—scope I think is—yeah, scope is probably a better word. We needed to expand the scope of what we were listening for. Not only did that happen, we walked through training, we deployed our listeners in the field or into the community. Probably a month and a half later or two months later, we have a hurricane that comes through. The hurricane comes through, and everything changes.

Now the community doesn’t necessarily want to talk about the things we’re wanting, or we initially wanted to talk to them about. They are wanting to talk about kind of the hardships that inherently come via the result of a hurricane. Even though this hurricane struck, you know, several miles to the south, the city was still impacted. Our listeners were impacted, and that really—I mean I think I can speak for all of the project partners, that’s really where we felt like there was a shift that happened, not only in the listening but in our listeners. They were finally getting it because now this was a very real lived experience that they were having, and they were listening to other—to their neighbors, and their neighbors were having the same experiences.

So the data that was coming in, if you were able to look at the scope of the data from the first time that they brought in information from the community to the very last month, it’s a wide range of information. We went in with one question and we actually came out with a plethora of data. I mean you can really mine this data and have several questions and find several different answers to it.

Courtney W. Robertson: So all the things that are beyond anybody’s control, like we don’t control what will—I won’t go into that on this podcast, but we don’t control weather. Debbie, Julian, anything that you all would add to the challenges?

Debbie Grodzicki: I can build off of Meiko. Given the seismic shift and the data and kind of the questions, there was a struggle of what’s the path forward now. How are we going to use the data? Where’s it going to go? And that is a challenge that we faced throughout in terms of both us having clarity on it and also because we didn’t have clarity on it, we as partners weren’t able to communicate it to the listeners. There was a struggle there because the listeners were kind of at a loss, right? So what are we doing? What happens now? What will the foundation do with this information? Are we going to go to the community, ask them for this information and then really have nothing to show for it? What if they ask me what I’m going to do with it? What do I say to them?

There are all these questions that came up amongst the listeners that we as partners weren’t able to answer at that time, and so I think the way we kind of tried to account for this or work through this is just communicate that as much as possible, explain, kind of show behind the scenes, pull the curtain, right, and say this is what’s going on, and sharing with them as much as we could so that then can then, if they wish, if they felt comfortable, share it with the community as well. So kind of the key learning there is to even communicate the lack of clarity. Whatever it is, just communicate because keeping it behind closed doors creates much more tenseness and just a feeling of discontentment with the work and with the project as a whole.

Julian Smith: As Meiko and Debbie stated, I do want to kind of point out to an issue that kind of came about—I won’t say an issue but it kind of assisted with some of the confusion that may have come about with our newly recruited listeners is when we first took this project on, this was during the first year of a new administration within the city, and then because of that new administration, there are a lot of—one of the biggest narratives that came out of the new mayor’s administration is what to do with this big piece of land that is centered in the CRA, that if you want to know even going back into what that 86 acres is, it is essentially a community that once was a predominantly Black neighborhood that was a thriving neighborhood, that had businesses and churches and residents and neighbors and homes, and it was redeveloped into a baseball stadium and parking lots, and so part of some of the narrative that came out of the administration is what do we do with this land? That was the biggest talking point.

Well, that land is also centered in CRA, and so I think because of the political landscape, some of the other community conversations that were taking place that was driven by the city, I think that also maybe created some I would say some issues or some adversary, if you will, because there were listeners coming in talking about this thing or these things but then also you had other community conversations that were taking place as well within the community so there could have been confusion around our listeners having clear directive of what they were actually listening for but then also the actual community members and neighbors themselves because they’ve been—what are we listening for? Is this about the Tropicana Field redevelopment? What is this for? Are you affiliated with the city? Who are you? Really kind of having that distinct differentiation between the different entities within the larger community that were actually doing something very similar to what we were doing.

So I think that was another thing, and I think what Debbie and Meiko said it is, with the training and with more communication and really, really having these conversations where questions could be answered and being very pointed into what we’re listening for kind of created some more clarity as we went forth with the project. Then of course all the other stuff happened with the hurricane and everything else as Meiko stated so there was a lot of different pivoting and adaptability that we had to take place in the project.

Courtney W. Robertson: Thank you, Julian, and thank you all for the insight. This brings up a question for me. How then has—how has the community responded to that? Where do you all stand with the community now given that there were all of these shifts and things that happened right in your initial intent, is it matching right what’s currently happening? How have they responded to that, sort of where do you all stand with the community? When I say community, the community of folks that you all solicited knowledge and expertise and feedback from.

Meiko Seymour: I would say to be clear, it’s almost like the listeners and the project partners were family so a lot of those challenges and tensions and, OK, we need to figure this out, that happened behind the scenes, right? So when the listeners became pretty—I would say when they became experts at doing this work which I really do feel probably after the hurricane, they were building community as they were listening, and so if we had several listeners on the podcast today, they can share with you how they even increased their networks, how they have become kind of a what I would call like hope pillars in their own neighborhoods, that the listening actually is continuing, that the listeners and our entities have been able to be like communication streams. Here’s what’s going on in the city. Here are some resources for you, and then get those things out to our communities, and continue to hear from the community and get, which we’ll talk about in a second, but get that information from the streets up to kind of policymakers and other organizations or entities in the city.

So to answer your question, a lot of that didn’t happen in front of our community. I don’t—this is just my opinion though, I don’t think there are going to be a bunch of people out in the city or in the CRA that would say, man, you guys, first you came to me with this and now you’re coming to me with this. Really if we did our jobs well and I think we did, there are lasting relationships that have been built in the city or in the CRA that people actually would come back to, hey, when are we going to go and get coffee again or when can we sit down at the park or on a park bench and have some more conversations because this thing is happening now, or the city made this decision and now I want to talk about it. So it’s more I want to talk more because we built a relationship together.

Carrie Y. Hepburn-Brown: Meiko, I think that’s really good, and I wanted to just expand a little bit and Julian will probably want to add too. So I think the other piece of this which is really amazing is that this idea of doing this one-on-one organic community listening and the way that we’ve done it has become very much a mainstay in our community, and so there are other—if you don’t know anything about St. Petersburg, it’s an amazing, beautiful city. It’s growing, it’s thriving. It has challenges like every other community but there are several redevelopment projects and things that are happening and so now our partners have been able to really come alongside these other projects and really instill this idea of the importance of listening so it’s like some additional project opportunities as well just in the community and really this idea again about raising—not even raising but highlighting and amplifying community voice as like a key piece of any work that you’re doing in community.

Julian Smith: Yeah, I definitely can add to that, Carrie. I mean you’re right. A lot of what’s kind of spurned off of this project is other opportunities to take listening and make it more of a mainstream practice for other organizations or other ways of doing business. I’ll give you two examples. There are part of a housing solution, workforce development, excuse me, a workforce housing development was just awarded for teacher-only housing development where essentially half of the units are going to be situated for any individual who works for the local housing school board, whether it’s teacher, bus driver, lunch lady, janitor, maintenance person, whomever, but part of the thing that was very important to the school board was they wanted to have a listening component to understand how those renderings, how those concepts would come about in regards to that development of housing, right? Do you need a co-work spot? Do you need a spot where you can go and do lesson plans or whatever the case may be, right? But it’s something that is driven by getting, soliciting information from those who that particular project is for, and so that is one example on how listening is kind of moving into other areas of business that affects the overall community.

I could say that about another project about some affordable housing. They want to know what the community needs, what they want, things of that nature, and so we can go on and on. I’m sure there’s another question later on in this recording but I mean just the capacity that was built within our listeners and some of the things that they’re taking on themselves, I think it’s one of the things that’s hard to measure but is so important to highlight of what has come about with those listeners as well but not only with the partners and what we’re doing collectively and individually but then what’s also with our listeners as well.

Courtney W. Robertson: I remember a few questions back you all talked about how you reframed the listening around relationship, right, and let’s first build relationship, and this makes me think about relationship building as a journey, not a destination, right? Like this isn’t something—we’re going to build a relationship with you for the next nine months just to get information from you and then, see you later, we might cross paths again or maybe not, but it sounds like that actually set you all up to in some ways fail forward, right? Like there were things that were beyond your control that happened in this project but you all had built and established a solid enough relationship with the community, and not just with the community externally but with your listeners as well where you could be very transparent about what was happening and communicate that in real time versus it, you know, looking a certain way or coming across a certain way because you all built those relationships. People understood and knew your true intentions and your heart, if you will, which is incredibly important so thank you all for painting that picture.

You started to jump and talk about this a little bit, but I was very curious sort of like what’s next? Where do you all see this work going from here? It sounds like, and how I was thinking about this question is both from the information that you all gather, like what happens with that? But also with your listeners because you all have built up sort of this army of listeners who you’ve equipped to do this in a very meaningful way, so it sounds like there are other project opportunities that have come up for them but are there other things that you’d like to share around what’s next and where you want this work to go next?

Carrie Y. Hepburn-Brown: So as we mentioned before, this is a project that was supported by the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg, and from a resource perspective it was one of the largest investments, single-year investments that the Foundation made, and so the other side is that is to integrate the learnings and the findings into other aspects of the work.

So one way that what we’ve learned and what we’ve collected will be used is in our competitive grantmaking cycle. This year there will be a competitive grantmaking cycle focused on economic equity and justice, and so what we heard from residents will help to shape sort of how that RFP is laid out, the types of questions, the types of activities that people will be responding to.

Long term I hope that we also see some changes in philanthropy in general but specifically in the foundation around how to structure a project like this that allows community to move organically. For those of you who are familiar with how philanthropy works, there’s a lot of structure around it for good reason but what we found is that there’s some policies and some procedures that we had in place that really made it challenging for us to pivot like we needed to, to be adaptable. As you highlighted, Courtney, there were things that were beyond our control. We had no idea that as we started this project, the city literally was going to restart a whole development process. We had no way of knowing about the hurricane, just all kinds of things that we really couldn’t have anticipated, and so my long-term goal is to really help us as a Foundation understand how to work with community in a much more organic way, like how do we modify our policies and procedures to allow that to happen more smoothly.

Courtney W. Robertson: I just want you to know, Carrie, a tear is forming. That just warmed my heart to hear that so thank you for sharing that piece.

Carrie Y. Hepburn-Brown: You’re welcome.

Meiko Seymour: Yeah, I think some of the other things that we’re trying to—and I’ll kind of give this example with Uncommon City, so my listening is still continuing and really kind of picked up at the top of the year. I was in a session with a representative from a major organization here in the city and I said something like the community still feels that the—our baseball team, the Tampa Bay Rays, really kind of took over this land, came in and really kind of bulldozed this neighborhood, and they don’t trust anything that’s coming out from the Tampa Bay Rays media office. When I was sharing this, you know, to this person, the person had a like—just he was shocked, and I said, this is not my opinion, this is what the communication is saying, and his response was, well, the Rays actually weren’t here when all of that occurred which is true. That is absolutely true but what I was trying to get him to understand is that our community looks at our major league baseball team as the group of people or the organization that actually came in and hurt the city.

I give you that example because sometimes at a systems change level or major organization level, there making decisions not understanding where the true pain points are and how the community actually interprets actions from organizations and perceives those actions from organizations.

So with Uncommon City, the idea is that we can roll up those findings from those sessions and really put them in front of people who are making these decisions because even in that example I’m not sure that this is going to occur but my hope would be that then that information gets up to the Tampa Bay Rays and the Tampa Bay Rays actually make a concerted effort to really speak to the community in the CRA so Uncommon City is doing that work.

We’re also really kind of packaging up this process of empathetic listening into a book with some of the narratives around some of the things that we heard, and then also we are—maybe Julian will talk about this, but we are trying to launch a website where we’re just doing continual listening, and the things that we’re hearing, that stuff will come out on that website so that everyone in the city can really see what others are saying about any particular project or process.

Coutney W. Robertson: Meiko, just so I don’t forget to ask, if you don’t mind sharing that website with our listeners.

Meiko Seymour: Well, it’s not launched yet.

Courtney W. Robertson: OK, I got excited.

Meiko Seymour: Yeah.

Courtney W. Robertson: Forthcoming, thank you for that.

Julian Smith: I can jump in and share some of the things from my perspective, from the Nixon and Co. perspective, and it really is just about holding space to be honest with you. We have a space that’s in the middle—and I want to say a space, literally a brick-and-mortar space that is a community space that anybody can use where we can hold space and have conversation, and to continue any type of dialog. It could be planned, it could be unplanned.

We have something that we call a monthly pullup where community listeners come into the space, and we just eat food and just talk and really just continue to check in with each other to see how everyone is doing. Community members who might be walking by may walk in and want to know what’s going on in here, and we say come on in and have this conversation with us so it’s really about just holding space more than anything.

And then also just, you know, any type of projects or opportunities that are out there within the city, particularly in the South St. Pete CRA, that lends to a listening component where they want a perspective from community, we would love to have those conversations with them to see if and how we can help them help themselves, if you will, to be a little bit more conscious to the community that they actually live and serve in, and this could be organizations, it could be business, it could be city municipalities, what have you so that’s really our perspective. There’s really just continue to hold space and have conversations and build relationship. As you say, this is relational listening and these friendships, these relationships do not end at the end of a project. We just want to continue to create that space and be intentional about that.

Meiko Seymour: Courtney, I just want to add, you know, that the things that we’re endeavoring to do that we mentioned on this podcast so far is really kind of organization-centric, but I also want to turn it back to like our listeners because at this point, we have activated people in our community, and they are actually doing a lot of work. I mean organizations like the Foundation, major organizations, really hard to pivot lots of, I don’t want to say hoops, but it takes a lot to make certain decisions to kind of advance the work but our listeners are really nimble, and they have been activated and are using what they’ve learned in terms of how to listen but then also what they’ve heard from the community to do deeper work in their own capacities, their own nonprofits or businesses that they have started or are endeavoring to start because of this work. I mean we even heard from listeners that said they didn’t even realize that they could do this, that they could be a community advocate, and so we’re really excited that now we have 16 listeners that are activated out in the CRA and they’re doing the work.

Debbie Grodzicki: Yeah, just something quickly and kind of talk about from the research and evaluation phase so RDL Insights is taking this learning. As Carrie had mentioned, foundations in Florida and across the entire country are engaging in listening work, and so this is something foundations are trying to figure out, and what RDL Insights is doing is working with these foundations to help them kind of find that balance between authentic listening and relationship building and gathering quality data. Sometimes it can be—it can work against each other if not done well or appropriately which is something that we—our challenge that we had in this project, kind of figuring out how to make the data work while also not taking away from that time and the relationship and the authenticity of the experience. So that is what RDL Insights is doing with this information, this learning, as it continues to support other foundations across the country.

Courtney W. Robertson: Debbie, tell me you’re making that a book as well. No?

Debbie Grodzicki: We’ll see.

Courtney W. Robertson: You’ll see. I think that would be an awesome book. Thank you. As we unfortunately come towards the end of our time together I would love to hear from each of you because there are folks out here as you mentioned, Debbie, who are trying to figure this out and are really tackling similar work in their own communities so what is one message or one recommendation that you would want them to take away from today’s conversation, and it can be something that’s already been mentioned that you want to just reiterate or something beyond that but what is one thing from each of you that you would want our listeners to take away from today.

Julian Smith: I’ll start. I think it was one thing that was mentioned maybe several times in this discussion but it’s hard to put a timeline on listening and particularly relational listening. This is not polling. This is not surveying. This is not getting, you know, borrowing you for a few months and getting something out of you, some information out of you and then doing what we need to do with it and saying, you know, and never having a conversation with you again. I think making sure you understand that if you embark on a journey like this, that you be mindful and flexible. It’s hard to put time constraints on really having authentic, genuine relationships and relational listening versus just the standard community forum. You fill out this survey and then we have this data on you so be mindful of the time commitment that it takes to really do this type of listening.

Meiko Seymour: Yeah, so good. I would add that this work moves at the speed of trust, and it really is trust from—because you’ve got to think about it and you’re leveraging the relationships of these listeners and their networks, their neighbors, that you can instill trust in what you are going to do with the information, that you can instill trust between the team, between the partners that are around the table, and that you are doing it in earnest, that you yourself are entering into this work with the idea of moving people forward, moving a neighborhood forward, moving a city forward, and when you do that in earnest, when your heart is committed to that meaning if one aspect fails, you’re not throwing in the towel. You’re going to pivot and you’re going to try to figure out, OK, how can we make this work. We say this around here, it’s not that like this is an option for us, we have to do this. This has to work. We have to figure out a way through it because the community is depending on us, and I think because we held that as sacred, then our listeners, even if they didn’t know how to do it initially or what we would be doing with the information, they trusted us because our hearts were in it. So I would say this work, the success rises and falls with that speed of trust.

Debbie Grodzicki: I would say there’s two, but I think I’ll just pick one. It was actually Carrie’s words, so I don’t know if, Carrie, this is going to be yours and I’m taking it from you but prepare for pivots. So unexpected events are bound to happen, so you’ve got to plan for the unexpected, and really plan for the unexpected. In the span of three months we had two major events that changed the course of the project, so we had to do that. We had to plan for that, and it’s going to happen to everyone, so this is a process that needs to be integrated, essentially create a plan. You need to integrate, not just say we’re going to plan for it but really create a process for how and what are you going to do when these changes occur.

Carrie Y. Hepburn-Brown: Thanks everyone for sharing. I think, Courtney, what I just want to underscore is the idea about what led to this podcast in the first place, and so this year’s action summit, Collective Impact Action Summit, was really around trying things and we picked listening with community, and so as folks have listened to this, they may not have gotten a sense of what the actual listening project was, and that’s because that’s probably a full podcast by itself. You know, what did we learn and how did that happen but what I do want to highlight here is that this idea of wisdomin the community. It’s more than a cliché. It really is the truth of how we approach this work and the reason why, despite all of the things that happened, we were still at the table. I mean you heard us say that it took relationship building, like we didn’t know each other. There were arguments. They were like, who’s supposed to do this? I thought you were doing that, like those things happen. I want to be real with folks to understand like this is a love fest because we truly do love each other and you can probably sense it through our conversation, but we worked at it to get to the place, and I think Julian started at the beginning when he said one of the key factors was that we all had passion for community. It is that and it is the fact that we really and truly—like we truly believe that wisdom is in the community and that no one knows better than community members themselves how to improve their circumstances and situation.

Courtney W. Robertson: One thousand percent agree with everything that you all have shared, and I just want to thank you all so much. Quickly before we close out, and, Carrie, maybe you can answer this one, how can folks keep up with the work? If they’re interested in seeing sort of where it goes, how it manifests, continue to gather lessons learned from you all, where can they keep up with it?

Carrie Y. Hepburn-Brown: I think one place is the forthcoming website. It will be so don’t go there yet but it will be available. We do have some additional content we want to put there. Also on Uncommon City, Meiko can share a little bit more about this Uncommon City Instagram. You can actually go there and see firsthand some of the stories from our listeners, listeners themselves as well as community residents that they talked to. Maybe some of the other partner websites but I would say those are two probably the biggest ones, and certainly as we continue with this work, we want to make sure that folks have a way of keeping in touch. The other way would be to reach out to the Foundation to get a real time update on where we are, and that website I think you could put those in the show notes, the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg.

Courtney W. Robertson: Thank you so much, Carrie, Debbie, Julian, and Meiko. Thank you, thank you so much for your just gift of time, knowledge, expertise. Thank you for being very transparent just about the process and the ins and outs of this work. Thank you all so much, and I want to thank our listeners for continuing to support the Collective Impact Forum podcast.

(Outro) And this closes out this episode of the Collective Impact Forum podcast. If you are interested in learning more about what was discussed, you can find links to resources in the footnotes for this episode.

We would like to acknowledge that this episode was produced and edited on the unceded, traditional lands of the Coast Salish people, including the Duwamish, Suquamish, Stillaguamish, and Muckleshoot tribes. We honor with gratitude the land itself and the past, present, and futures of these tribes.

The Intro music for this episode was composed by Rafael Krux and our outro music is composed by Kevin Macleod.

In Forum news, we’re excited to share that registration is open for our fall workshop series titled “Essentials for Collective Impact.” This is a new series of online workshops focused on building practical knowledge and understanding around four key areas that support collective impact efforts. These focus areas are collaborative planning and engagement, facilitating results-focused meetings, strengthening trust and relationships, and avoiding common challenges that stymie the work of collectives.

If you would like join us, you can register for the full series of workshops or just the topics that interest you most. You can find out more about this online workshop series in the events section of our website at One note is that registration for the full series closes on September 8 so we recommend registering soon to save your spot.

This is Tracy Timmons-Gray, Associate Director here at the Collective Impact Forum, and your podcast producer. I want to say thank you so much for listening, and we look forward to connecting with you more in our next episode. Until next time, we hope you are safe and well.


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