Time, Trust, Context & Positive Social Change

Earlier today, I was sitting at a lunch and learn session hosted by The Lab @DC, featuring American University Professor, Derek Hyra talking about his recent book, Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City.  While the talk and his ethnographic research are both really interesting, it was something else, something I suspect that the other attendees probably paid no mind to, which stood out to me.

Hyra made a point of talking about his methodology and sharing two slides:

 Two slides from Derek Hyra's presentation at The Lunch hosted by The Lab @DC

Two slides from Derek Hyra's presentation at The Lunch hosted by The Lab @DC

The slide on the left describes Hyra’s what he did.  And he also chose to include the slide on the right, about a critical component of how he did it.  During the talk, Hyra, whose early work had been in Chicago and New York, approached OneDC in hopes of working with them.  OneDC is a grassroots organization which works to create and preserve racial and economic equity in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, DC.

Shaw is a historically African-American neighborhood that has experienced an extensive period of gentrification over the last two decades. The leadership of OneDC is largely African-American as well.  So, when Hyra, a white academic, approached the organization about working together, a member of its leadership told him that he needed to learn DC’s history first, and advised that he head to the library and study up.  So Hyra did, and over several months he earned the opportunity to meet other staff and leadership team members at OneDC, and eventually was offered an intern position at the organization. It took him three months to get his foot in the door. 

 Hyra’s story illustrates one of my favorite frameworks so well, The Trust Equation which says:

 Source: The Trusted Advisor

Source: The Trusted Advisor

My trustworthiness in you is a sum of your knowledge and credentials (credibility), if you do what you say you will do (responsibility), how safe and secure and connected I feel with you (intimacy), divided by how much you seem to be in our work together just to advance your own beliefs, needs, or wants (self-orientation).  If you view Hyra's anecdote through the lens of the trust equation, it makes sense that he earned OneDC's trust.

In my past work, now in working with clients, and in my interactions with others trying to shape a more positive world, too often I observe a laser-like focus on making change happen quickly, even as it relates to developing solutions to social problems that have taken decades if not centuries or millennia to create.  Sometimes funders or political contexts drive this urgency, but often an organization’s leadership is behind it.  When timelines feel short, too often, taking the time to develop trust and understand context fall by the wayside.  The result is that the “solutions” which are developed  very often aren’t sufficient because the problem isn’t well understood or because the necessary commitment among collaborators does not exist. Read more about this dynamic in the context of cross-sector collaborations.

Which is why I deeply appreciate that Derek Hyra highlights this story as part of his methodology.  Building trust and understanding context too often are skipped over or avoided, assumed to exist when they don’t, unfunded or rushed.  And the time it takes to learn how today’s reality came to be, and to build trust with collaborators is critical to developing powerful solutions. So much so, that it will likely make efforts that take the time to do this work more successful and more efficient in creating positive impact than those which do not. 

If you are interested in learning more about Derek Hyra's work and his recent book, check out the The Podcast @ DC's recent interview with him.


Does your organization or cross-sector collaboration need help in building trust or understanding context of a social problem which you're trying to solve?  Optimistic Anthropology can help!  Email Alison to schedule a time to discuss your needs and learn how we can help or reach out to us via social media: