“Everything grows from the ground up,” said Angela Blanchard, President and CEO of BakerRipley, in a recent Business Model Sandbox Podcast with our Chief Catalyst, Saul Kaplan.
As one of the largest community development corporations in Houston and the US, BakerRipley employs a human-centered approach to community transformation that today serves over half a million people. Angela emphasizes the need for “appreciative inquiry” and the holistic integration of services when it comes to community work, and isn’t going to wait until government figures out how to provide for communities before identifying what neighborhoods and their residents already have to work with.
BIF is delighted to welcome Angela to our Board of Directors, and thankful for the following insights shared during her recent interview with Saul. They resonate particularly well with us here in BIF’s Citizen Experience Lab, as they are truly demonstrative of what it means to be “citizen-centered” in the work that we do.
Everything Grows from the Ground Up
In the podcast, Angela revealed that she is an avid gardener and enjoys working in the soil. Like the plants she spends time cultivating, community work, she recognizes, won’t take off unless you start on the ground. You have to get to know the community with which you are working, the people that live there, and what their aspirations are before you can begin any sort of sustainable work in community transformation, and we feel similarly here at the BIF. That’s why the first stage of any human-centered work is the participatory analysis element, in which our designers, working with our clients, take some quality time to really get to know the users of the systems we seek to re-create. “Everything grows from the ground up” functions as an excellent reminder that our work must always be grounded in a strong intimacy with the community members, patients, students, and in the CXL, citizens that we seek to serve if we can reasonably expect those systems to grow and thrive.
Work with What You’ve Got – And Build
Angela recognizes that approaches to community development typically fixate on problems. Practitioners attempt to offer technical solutions to ‘broken neighborhoods,’ ‘broken communities,’ and ‘broken families’ that fall short of affecting any holistic change. This deficits approach to community development, she claims, is not working. Rather, BakerRipley engages communities through the lens of “appreciative inquiry” and “appreciative community building,” which draws upon existing community assets and provides for self-determined change. Here at BIF, we know it is important to consider and leverage the existing capabilities of any organization when seeking transformation through business model innovation — to identify and work with what you already have. Recognizing what you have to work with and moving forward with that is the first step towards change, and Angela is a person who doesn’t like to waste any time waiting around for government or “someone somewhere else to figure things out” to start making a difference. Like us, she operates with a bias for action.
Another good reminder from Angela is that you can’t help those who haven’t asked for help; this most often results in agenda-pushing, amounting to what she referred to as appropriation or even “colonization.” This is especially important when working with communities that have been marginalized or disenfranchised because otherwise, you’re just another group forcing your own agenda onto them. Angela recognizes that BakerRipley’s role in these neighborhoods is one of an ‘enabler.’ They enable change and transformation founded on the goals and aspirations they hear on the ground, using the strengths and assets of the community to build upon, and thus facilitate change by enabling the agency of the folks who have asked BakerRipley to assist them.
This is hugely important for not only community buy-in of projects, but to work on projects identified and driven by the very community they seek to help — because you can’t help people if you’re not giving them what they need or want. Only in this way can their work be truly community-centered, and the same is true of any work that aims to transform and improve the citizen experience in a genuinely human and user-centered way. The point could even be taken to considering our own BIF CXL clients — you can’t help a public service transform if its leaders aren’t open to trying a more human-centered approach. You can’t force innovation onto someone unless they’re already open to it.
By being rooted in the community experience, open to trying a variety of new and different models, and committed to community transformation that works for community members, BakerRipley is an example for what government social services could be. With a holistic, un-siloed approach to integrated services based upon what the communities in the neighborhoods where they work really want and need, BakerRipley delivers tremendous value to hundreds of thousands of people — succeeding at great scale. The work of the organization that Angela leads is rooted in the assets and aspirations of community members, which has proven extraordinarily effective. And its agile and bold ability to test, try, fail, and try again makes for ample learning and quicker success. The work of BakerRipley is truly a model for effective, human-centered transformation, and the organization has hundreds of thousands of success stories to share to back that up.