Since 2015, Leadership Akron has been pursuing a strategic priority to more proactively and directly connect the leaders we serve to community needs. As an effort related to this priority, Leadership Akron secured support from the Knight Foundation to develop the Civic Solutions Lab. This new experience is intense and extensive – similar in scope to Leadership Akron’s well-known Signature Program. The Civic Solutions Lab convenes a cross-section of community leaders to focus on a particular community need. Through the work of a design team of Akron’s thought leaders (and action leaders too, for that matter!), the issue of Early Childhood Education was selected as the Year 1 focus area for the Lab.
Over the course of the next nine months, The Devil Strip will follow this community leadership experience with perspectives from class participants as well as the program’s facilitator, Tina Ughrin, and findings from the class research. How will this cross-section of leaders look at this issue differently? What connections will be made? How will this impact Akron?
The first session, held in January, was a two-day retreat. The class consists of a cross-section of participants who represent a combination of seasoned eyes and fresh eyes on the challenge: to improve early childhood education/kindergarten readiness in the Akron area. As the class wrestles with this challenge in the year to come, they will make new discoveries and hone their practices as change leaders. The Opening Retreat gave the class an opportunity to set their frame of mind and build relationships that they will draw upon to work together in the months to come. There were three goals set for the retreat:
Goal One: Set Frame of Mind – introduce a collaborative leadership framework, explore models of change and their components, and tone civic problem-solving muscles.
Goal Two: Lay Groundwork – establish a foundation for Civic Solutions Lab, identify diversity of Civic Lab perspectives and assumptions, set growth goals, and brainstorm questions
Goal Three: Build Relationships – get to know one another, play together, agree on norms of interaction
Christine Mayer, President of GAR Foundation and Civic Solutions Lab Design Team leader, opened the retreat by walking through the process of identifying Early Childhood Education as the focus of the Civic Lab’s inaugural year. Two exercises completed the morning, not only promoting working in teams, but providing tactile experiences with concepts of collaboration and civic systems.
Chris Thompson, who has worked closely with Leadership Akron to develop a model of Collaborative Civic Leadership, facilitated a series of afternoon discussion and activities around this framework that will be an ongoing lens for the Civic Lab’s work.
Day two focused on exploring personal perspectives and assumptions (and those of others in the early childhood space) through role play. “The role-playing exercise was eye-opening. It brought to the surface relevant but not so obvious aspects of the topic,” shared one participant.
Over the course of the experience, there will be difficulty in consensus-building, but the class acknowledges the importance of this as well as honoring different perspectives. They must strike a balance of valuing input and making decisions as a group. Lab participants will continue to grapple with understanding the context of the system, asking compelling questions that help uncover potential opportunities, and building trust with one another and with potential partners. “I don’t think there was one thing we could have done without. The exercises were vital to trust building, and the information was key for understanding how the lab will work and starting to lay the foundation for our collective understanding of early childhood education and its importance.”
The next steps for the Lab involve a deep download of the local landscape, including data, stories, and analysis that will heighten their grasp on our local community’s early childhood landscape. From there, they will benchmark to other communities and consider ideas and strategies that may translate well to Akron.