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Come Back Better

June 6


About This Episode

(Season 5, Episode 23)

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In this episode, hosts Jessica Beckendorf and Bob Bertsch delve into the heart of community recovery with their enlightening discussion on the “Come Back Better” approach.

Discover how you and your community can navigate the challenges of our rapidly changing world by harnessing the strengths and assets within your community. Gain valuable insights from their exploration of real-life stories and collective practices emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic response.

Learn how to:

  • Foster inclusive practices that prioritize equity and justice.
  • Adopt a growth mindset to navigate challenges and drive positive change.
  • Embrace persistence and iteration in crafting effective solutions.
  • Cultivate action networks to address pressing community issues collaboratively.


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Kalin Goble: Welcome to Practicing Connection, a podcast exploring the personal stories and collective practices that empower us to work together to improve our resilience and readiness in a rapidly changing world. Here to start the conversation are Jessica Beckendorf and Bob Bertsch.

Bob Bertsch: Hi, and welcome to the Practicing Connection podcast. I’m Bob Bertsch.

Jessica Beckendorf: I’m Jessica Beckendorf.

Bob: In this episode, we’ll be talking about Come Back Better, one of the eight ways of cultivating community resilience that we identified in our Connecting Communities in Asset-Based Community Recovery project. In 2021, we worked with our colleagues Bridget Scott and Sherrill Knezel to host interactive workshops with the purpose of providing a space to share our stories of community recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Participants in the workshops included military family service providers, extension educators, community developers, and others. Using the Asset-Based Community Recovery framework developed by Jonathan Massimi and Heather Keam for the Tamarack Institute, we worked together to identify the interdependencies, capacities, and assets that had emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic response. The stories participants shared during these workshops helped point us toward what communities really did well in their recovery and what they could do better.

Jessica: In Asset-Based Practices, we focus on the strengths we can build upon, but that doesn’t mean we ignore the places where we’re falling short. In fact, we’re looking for our strengths so that we can use them to make things better. The participants in the Asset-Based Community Recovery workshops identified a lot of positives that emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic, but they also found some things that we could be doing better. Participants discussed the enormous financial strain so many people in our communities are under. The pandemic exacerbated what was already an extremely serious problem. Participants thought we should be doing much more to support our families financially.

The cost of child care was a financial challenge for families that participants specifically called out. Child care expenses coupled with the pandemic meant that some families earned negative income. Some other issues during the pandemic, this disproportionately affected women. Participants thought we could be doing much better on child care and on other issues affecting women.

Bob: Yes, and in addition to the positives that have come with the increased use of technology and remote work, participants have identified some significant challenges there as well. They think we could be doing much better and providing more access to internet connectivity. They also think we could be doing better at finding time to focus on our lives as they get more hectic and at setting boundaries as remote work challenges the notion of work-life balance. Participants also talked about the need to build better networks. We need better social support networks for ourselves and for our communities. We also need better collaboration networks to spur the innovation and collective action that will drive community resilience.

Jessica: One of the things that came out of the workshops was how important it is to adopt a growth mindset. Shifting your focus toward learning more, and making incremental progress can help us stay resilient and begin to address the issues our communities are facing.

Bob: Yes, the term growth mindset comes from the research of Carol Dweck and her colleagues who found among other things, that students who believe, or are taught that intellectual abilities are qualities that can be developed as opposed to qualities that are fixed tend to show higher achievement across challenging school transitions and greater course completion rates as well. The growth mindset calls for us to view challenges as opportunities to learn rather than obstacles, which is in line with asset-based community development as well. If we’re going to address the problems in our communities, we need to believe our communities are capable of changing and of sustaining that change. That’s where the growth mindset can really be helpful.

Jessica: I think the growth mindset also calls for us to recognize, validate, and celebrate the progress along the way because we are capable of change. Change is hard for a lot of people or maybe even hard for at least a little bit for everyone. [chuckles] Some level of conflict is almost inevitable when multiple perspectives are contributing to the solution. To adopt a growth mindset, we need to recognize and call out the reasons to celebrate no matter how small the wins are. If you keep hitting a wall and you haven’t been able to make progress on the issue, you can even recognize and celebrate the effort that everyone is putting into it.

Bob: Yes, I think that’s great advice and we’re going to talk a little bit about persistence next, but that’s another way of being persistent. Just having that mindset that we can do this and that, and as you say, incremental progress is progress and we should celebrate that.

Jessica: If it doesn’t work, we’re going to keep trying, which is what we’re going to talk about next.

Bob: Yes, let’s talk about that next. Many of the stories that participants shared with us in the workshops included instances of persistence and iteration. Communities were determined to address certain issues and they were willing to tweak their solutions and try again and keep trying. As we look forward, that same commitment, consistency, and openness to iteration will go a long way toward coming back better and building lasting change.

Jessica: Yes, this idea of commitment and a willingness to iterate is really important when you have gathered as many perspectives as possible. Basically anyone affected by the issue to figure out how to address it together. Not only do we need to be committed to addressing the issue, we need to be committed to each other. This reminds me of that cartoon illustration that shows a group of blindfolded scientists all feeling a different part of an elephant. One is declaring that the leg must mean it’s a tree trunk because it’s so huge. Another at the trunk is declaring that it must be a snake because it’s moving around and it’s smaller. Another scientist at the ear claims that it obviously must be a fan because they’re being fanned by the ear moving.

The scientists all represent different perspectives in the room like we were talking about, and the elephant is a big issue that they’re trying to identify, or solve together. When we’re working together, I need to trust that you will navigate your way to help me figure out my part of the issue. Likewise, you need to trust that I’m committed enough to the issue and to you that I’ll navigate my way to your perspective and work with you on addressing the issue there. We need to be committed to working together, to hearing and learning about our lived experiences related to the issue and committed to design inclusive ways to address the issue.

Bob: That’s really on point, Jessica. I agree completely. I think that is a lot of where that persistence comes in.

Jessica: Yes.

Bob: Because that’s a harder– I won’t say a harder road. It’s just a different road and it’s a road that we’re not used to. Sometimes it takes a little more time than we would like it to take to do that sense making together. Yes, I think that’s a great perspective. I think it’s also about– and your analogy of the elephant I think alludes to this too, it’s about accepting that we work in complex environments. There is no one solution that can be formulated and implemented to address an issue. As we formulate and especially when we implement a potential solution, new capacities are just going to emerge.

For example, the ideas that are generated or the skills that are added when we invite someone new into a group, that adds new capacities and it might change what we think is possible and potentially because us to redesign the solution. When we start to implement a potential solution, our persistence and commitment to iteration is going to really need to be strong because the solution is going to receive criticism. Sometimes the urge is to give up. We shouldn’t give up because we take criticism to mean that the community doesn’t like this solution or doesn’t like us or isn’t ready for this potential solution.

We need to see that criticism as one of those emerging new capacities. Because despite all our efforts to gather information in advance, we can’t get the robust contextual information that we’re going to get when this solution is implemented in the real world. I think of just our own program planning. We have all these great ideas about what we can show people and teach people and we try and get feedback and we maybe do surveys, maybe we do needs assessments and all these other things, but that is never going to be as robust as when we actually go out and deliver the program and we get real world feedback and see how people are receiving it and if they’re finding it useful and if it’s changing their behavior and those kinds of things.

Criticism is part of that robust feedback and seeing that criticism for the gift that it is. Then, as we have mentioned, being willing to iterate in response to it to make changes, that might be more important than all of the work that we did in the design process before we even started implementing.

Jessica: Yes, this is really interesting to me because I see this over and over again, where there’s some criticism that’s received and then instead a group will just say, well, they’ll just repeat the same information that they’ve been sharing for the last month trying to bring people along rather than taking that criticism and thinking about it and saying, okay, well, what can we create with this? What will help our effort? Knowing what we know now, what will help the effort? I think that’s a really important point to make. Something else we learned in the community recovery workshops was how committed participants were to creating lasting change that works for all. They wanted the solutions that emerged in response to the challenges of the pandemic to contribute to a more just and equitable future.

Bob: I think this is so important. Sometimes we’re so focused on finding a solution to a particular issue that we lose sight of the fact that our work is part of an ongoing human effort toward a better world. It’s what we’re presumably all working towards. I often see this happen when we talk about technological solutions. Like right now we’re embroiled in this conversation about how artificial intelligence, or AI could help us, but also how it could hurt us, or put us at risk. AI could be instrumental in addressing food insecurity, and finding treatments for chronic diseases, and potentially solving other issues. We also know that it exacerbates racism. It may increase income inequality and have, other negative impacts as well.

I think the tendency might be for some of us just to shrug our shoulders and think, well, hey, everything has tradeoffs and just go forward, and hope for the best. What good are solutions to these social issues if for every improvement they contribute to the world that’s cancelled out by some unintended negative impact? Beyond making a difference in the issue in front of us, the one that we’re trying to address, we should also be trying to move the needle on making the world more just and equitable by doing everything we can to make sure that our solution that we’re trying to implement, our program, our project doesn’t add to the injustice and inequity in the world.

Jessica: This reminds me of the saying, “Only fools do the same things over and over and expect different results.” We’re really good at being fools, I think. We’ve proven that we’re also really good at innovation as well. Doing things like making sure you have representation in the room, or on your committee by those most affected by the issue really goes way beyond simple representation. Moving the needle will, or may also require a shift in how we approach even the small things like how we meet. The kinds of things we cover on our agenda, what shows up on the agenda and the big things like being open to solutions that haven’t been tried before, that come from a different perspective than we’re used to hearing. We need to be willing to spend time building the trustful relationships it will take to truly work across perspectives and commit to address the issue together.

I have very often seen a well-meaning small group get together to address an issue. They’re interested in creating a more just and equitable future, but they want to get to action steps right away. My advice is always to begin with relationships before they begin to design the solutions.

Bob: That’s an awesome point, because I think, that’s part of integrating justice and equity into our actual work. If we’re talking about representation, if we just bring people to the table who are affected by the issue and we don’t embrace the rationale of humility to actually listen and not just say, well, we brought everyone together, and embrace the desire and to build those relationships and actually have meaningful connections with the people that we’re bringing into the process, or into the project, then we’re not holding justice and equity at that micro level.

I guess that’s what I’m trying to get at in a very roundabout way, is that in order to get to this big picture, justice and equity at a global human level, we have to start by making sure those things are baked into even our smallest interactions of convening a meeting.

Jessica: I’ve worked in a lot of rural communities, and I think representation was an easy thing for people to understand. A lot of times I see groups not really knowing how to go beyond representation and to really be inclusive.

Bob: Let’s get to some action steps that can help us start to come back better. We’ll start with identifying a sense of purpose for yourself and the groups that you work with. Understanding your own purpose is going to help you set and reach goals to affect change in your community. In group settings, a shared purpose is necessary to cultivate a sense of co-responsibility and recognition of interdependence which is really the key to any change effort.

Jessica: Be aware of how what’s happening might affect people from all walks of life. Understanding the real ways an event, or circumstance affects people differently, or disproportionately can prepare us to come back better by bringing an issue to the forefront. Identify liberatory practices and goals to implement with and alongside the people for whom they were intended to help.

Bob: The final action step we have is join and cultivate action networks to take on big problems. We have to do the work. What do you think about what you care about so much that you would join with others in working on it or addressing it? Go do that. Meet other people who are also interested in addressing that issue and co-create solutions together.


Jessica: That’s it for this episode. You can learn more about how you can help connect communities to build their resilience from our free booklet, Eight Ways to Cultivate Community in Times of Change, which is full of practical ways you can boost your community building and deepen relationships. To receive a digital version of the booklet, just email us @[email protected]. If you enjoyed this episode, click the share button in your podcast app to share it with a friend.

Bob: Thanks to our co-producer, Coral Owen, our announcer, Caitlin Goebel, Maggie Lucas and Terry Meisenbach for their help with marketing and Nathan Grimm who composed and performed all the music you hear on the podcast. We hope you’ll join us next week for Practice Cast on Finding Purpose as a Group. In the meantime, keep practicing.

Kalin: The Practicing Connection Podcast is a production of OneOp and is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, US Department of Agriculture and the Office of Military Family Readiness Policy, US Department of Defense under award numbers 2019-48770-30366, and 2023-48770-41333.

[00:18:30] [END OF AUDIO]


June 6
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