What a time to step into the role of Managing Director! The unprecedented global pandemic, the ensuing economic crisis and uncertainty, followed by more painful reminders of the racial violence that has persisted through our history, and, hopefully, a growing awareness of the deep need for justice and social transformation. While the timing of my leadership transition has corresponded with rapid change and upheaval in the world, it also illustrates a long arc of growth in the field and underscores what brought me to assume co-leadership at CBI.
I began working at CBI more than two decades ago, serving as co-director of CBI’s Workable Peace project, which employs critical historical events to teach multi-party negotiation and consensus building skills to high school students and educators. In this role, I applied my background in history and civics, innovative student-centered curriculum, and democratic education to the challenges of teaching young people the skills to engage in resolving tough societal and policy disputes. As I moved from Workable Peace into the broader realm of CBI’s work, with help and guidance from mentors like David and Pat, it felt like a natural progression – allowing me to act in a deeper and more expansive way on my commitment to helping citizens constructively engage in decisions that affect them.
The frameworks, methodologies, and lexicon of the field at that time – the Mutual Gains Approach, situation assessments, joint fact finding, process design, public facilitation and mediation – and the opportunities they offered for resolution of thorny public disputes, were still working their way into the consciousness of public leaders and their stakeholders. Clients in a limited but growing set of fields – such as land use, natural resources, and international development – were beginning to call upon neutrals to help manage their complex challenges. It was an exciting time of rapid evolution and experimentation in the field, and I was thrilled to be of part of the CBI team that was helping to demonstrate the impact our practice could have on addressing public disputes.
As time has passed, I have seen the demands for our work extend to include a wider range of societal issues. Disputes and collaboration needs in cultural resources, education policy, cross-jurisdictional planning, and philanthropic coordination augmented our portfolios. It became clear that expertise in process skills alone was not sufficient; the complexity of situations and competition in the field called for a much greater level of substantive experience in specific areas of practice. And, the types of processes we used also began to expand, as collaboration increased across silos of practice and consensus building practitioners began connecting more directly with our colleagues in peace-building, dialogue, and public engagement.
In these years, I built expertise in cultural resource management, land use and planning disputes, and water resources and contentious energy siting, and I developed a deep understanding of structures and networks in federal agencies and in regional environments, like Cape Cod. I also learned to integrate a broader set of engagement and dialogue tools and discovered my affinity for a certain set of dynamics: high-conflict, high-complexity situations with challenging technical issues and intertwined identities, values, and interests. These kinds of engagements remain a passion of mine and are at the heart of the work that I do at CBI.
As my expertise and practice developed over the years, so did CBI as an organization – we grew from a staff of 6 in one Cambridge office to more than 30 spread across eight offices in the U.S., Canada, and Chile. With this expansion, we’ve developed more structures for tracking time and projects, nurturing and advancing staff, sharing with each other and our networks, and building and embedding in our areas of work.
Now, as I enter my third decade in the field and step into leadership within CBI, I see signs of how the next generation of practice is evolving. In the field, it has never been clearer that the impacts of public decisions go far beyond the silos in which they were sometimes considered. Protecting public health affects the economy. Criminal justice policy impacts social welfare. Land use, climate, and allocations of natural resources can’t be separated from issues of racism, cultural fragmentation, and distribution of power. Meanwhile, while the country and the world have become more polarized and entrenched in “us vs. them” identities, the range of crises affecting us are exposing the fundamental interdependence of our interests. Short-run battles for “zero-sum” gains at others’ expense are overwhelmed by the long-run consequences of unjust and unsustainable outcomes. In these moments of tragedy, I also see opportunity and hope.
To meet the needs of the coming decade, our tools and approaches must evolve. We must do more than find mutually acceptable solutions to public problems – we must help parties build trust, rehumanize each other, and address deep-rooted power imbalances. Consensus building has the power to illustrate how meeting my interests and upholding my values is ultimately dependent on you meeting and upholding yours. To succeed at this, we need to draw on creative and inclusive methods that can help engage the “heart” and “soul,” not just the mind.
At CBI, this also requires proactive attention to supporting our practitioners. Younger staff especially bring new perspectives on how to evolve our ways of working. The experience of COVID lockdowns has hastened our reliance on technology and highlighted the need for balance between work and family. As society evolves and the demands on our practice shift, we will work together to continue cultivating an organization that embodies our values of collaboration and collegiality, fosters learning and creativity, and contributes to social progress.
Who we are must also change – promoting the active and equal voices of all citizens cannot be accomplished until the field includes many more practitioners of color and others who have experienced marginalization and discrimination. The problems in our world demand that we and our tools become more diverse, and, until we get there, we must partner with others who have the perspectives, skill sets, and expertise that this new era asks of us.
My CBI co-workers have always been the highlight of my job. From the newest to the most seasoned, they bring such skill, insight, commitment, and inspiration – not to mention humor, empathy, and friendship. So many brilliant colleagues have been on this journey with me, and I count on them to guide as much as they might count on me to steer. I am so grateful to Pat Field and David Fairman for all they have done to shape and position CBI as the fabulous organization that it is, and to nurture, support, and mentor me as I have developed as a practitioner and as a leader. I know that Pat will continue to provide advice and mentorship, for the CBI management team and for staff as a whole.
The challenges to collaboration may feel daunting, but the need and opportunity feel clear. As a partner with David in the third generation of leadership at CBI, I am excited to help guide and support CBI for the next generation, building a culture of collaboration and effective stakeholder voice across the intersection of social, cultural, physical, and environmental challenges of our time.