By Anthony Scott
Over the past eight months, I participated in the Opportunity Collaborative Fellows Program, which brought together 33 local leaders to respond to a plan developed for the Baltimore metropolitan region. The collaboration was initiated in order to 1) ensure the plan reflected the needs of the region, and 2) foster local leaders’ ability to think regionally to solve the region’s disparities.
The Baltimore Metropolitan Council (BMC), and the Opportunity Collaborative (the Collaborative)— a consortium of local governments, Maryland state agencies, universities and nonprofit organizations—worked for three years to develop the Regional Plan for Sustainable Development (RPSD) for the Baltimore metropolitan region. The RPSD provides a way forward for Baltimore City and surrounding counties to coordinate investments in housing, transportation and workforce development, and to reduce disparities recently highlighted by police violence and the resulting unrest amongst residents. The Collaborative, funded by a Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD), was the only grantee across the country to create a fellowship program.
Together with the other Fellows, I helped prepare a white paper entitled Community Leaders for a Sustainable Region, both a response to the plan and development of next steps for its successful implementation. There were many lessons learned from the Fellowship:
1. Start the Fellowship at the beginning and empower it. The Baltimore Fellows believe local leaders should have substantive, determinative input into regional plans that affects their communities. For that to be done well, a fellowship must begin when the planning process begins, not after major parts are already drafted. Failure to include Fellows in the process from the beginning can not only damage the credibility of the final plan, but also cripple Fellows’ sense of ownership and their ability to organize community support for implementation.
2. Be representative of the region. Though Baltimore City contains less than 25% of the metropolitan area’s population, over half the Fellows were from Baltimore City, and no one represented two of the six counties in the region. While there were political reasons for lack of governmental participation in certain counties, future efforts at building regional fellowships must be sure to advertise and encourage participation of local leaders in all target counties, at governmental, non-governmental, and community levels.
3. Ensure good group facilitation. The professional facilitators fostered a sense of group ownership by allowing Fellows to tailor the program. While each session was based around various topics that tied back to the RPSD, Fellows were able to provide feedback after each session that was used to modify the next session. Fellows changed everything from meeting content to the food ordered (local sourcing). Ultimately, the Fellows changed the nature of the fellowship to incorporate a stronger community voice, by jointly writing the white paper.
4. Have a clear theory of change and plan for implementation upfront. Now that the plan is created, the remaining challenge is to begin planning for implementation and to seek funding to make it happen. Grantees must have a plan for post-plan implementation (and financing), and an idea of how to leverage a fellowship to improve implementation.
Anthony Scott is a Mayoral Fellow in Baltimore City’s Finance Department, and a student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He’s a Baltimore native, and spent the past year as a citizen representative for Baltimore’s first Regional Plan for Sustainable Development. You can find him on his blog Development Without Displacement or on Twitter @nodisplacement.