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Watch for Opportunities to Think Big

April 4

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About This Episode

(Season 5, Episode 14)

In this episode , co-hosts Jessica Beckendorf and Bob Bertsch talk about watching for opportunities to think big – one of the eight ways of cultivating community resilience identified in the “Connecting Communities in Asset-based Community Recovery” project.

“Connecting Communities in Asset-based Community Recovery” is a collection of resources developed during the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic presented some really difficult challenges, but it also revealed some opportunities for building better systems and communities.


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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 watching for opportunities to think big. 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 Cheryl Kniesel 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 pandemic response. The stories participants shared during the workshops helped point us toward what communities did really well in their recovery and what they could do better.

Jessica: As we reflected on the incredible stories we heard in these workshops, eight themes for building individual and community resilience emerged for us. We’ve been discussing each of these themes in a podcast episode. So far, we’ve talked about six of the themes, and we have two more to go. You can find past episodes on our website at

In this episode, we’re going to discuss the theme Watch for Opportunities to Think Big. Participants in the Asset-Based Community Recovery workshops shared several stories about systems change. There are three major stages in the Asset-Based Community Recovery framework, crisis, discovery and resurgence. In the discovery stage, we start to see the limits of our systems and institutions and find the strengths that will help our community create a new way forward.

As Massimi and Keam put it, to discover is not simply to seek what is new, but it is to reveal what is hidden. Participants in the workshop said the pandemic led them to look at systems and consider how to make them better. They discussed the lack of equity in the systems designed to deliver services. They pointed out the lack of access to mental health services and how telemedicine was providing more access, at least temporarily. They talked about the disparities in broadband access and some of the ways schools and other institutions were trying to provide more access during the pandemic.

Bob: Participants were really seeing the systems and thinking about how to make them better. They shared several positive changes they had observed during the pandemic, changes that pointed to a better way forward. For example, a new mom shared how great it was to be able to work from home and spend more time with her baby. A participant talked about how the changes in voting during the pandemic led to increased voter turnout. Another participant discussed how youth were taking the lead on projects they might never have led before. Participants had plenty of reasons for hope.

They cited the development of the COVID vaccine as one of many examples of finding creative ways to get work done. They said they saw increases in human, political and social capital in their communities. However, according to Massimi and Keam, in order to move from this discovery stage to the resurgence stage, we need to use hope to inspire action. Resurgence, they write, is a conscious step forward, addressing and working with what has been revealed by recognizing gifts, fostering connections, telling stories and asking questions. The pandemic revealed systems and their shortfalls, but to build more resilient communities, we need to hold that image and take action together.

Jessica: Disasters or other stressors can put pressure on systems, making their flaws more visible. Let’s try to get more specific about some of the things we can do to see those flaws and to move toward resurgence.

Bob: One of the things that came out of the workshops was to pay attention to gaps. If we’re looking for the places where systems and institutions are falling short, then we can turn those into opportunities for that big positive change we’re seeking.

Jessica: I think there are some known gaps that we are already trying to address on a day-to-day basis and some gaps that stressors would reveal that we really haven’t thought of yet. I think it’s really important for us to think about both. Keep addressing the known gaps but learn more about the potential gaps that haven’t yet revealed themselves by asking ourselves, “What if X happens?” What if a pandemic happens again would be a good one to start with, right? How can we learn what we don’t know as well as we can?

Bob: Yes, I think that’s great advice for seeking those gaps. They’re not always going to be obvious to us, as you said, Jessica.

Jessica: We’re not going to be able to plan for everything, but I think we also know what some of those things are that could happen because of history. We know that pandemics can happen. We know all kinds of things. We can put our systems up to the test, I know there are all kinds of simulations that people run in emergency management, for example. I think we can even do that in the small groups of people who are getting together around a community issue.

Those folks could also say, “Hey, what if a pandemic happens again?” What if the local largest employer ends up that was just sold, to out of state? What if they close down? How will that affect us? How will that affect the people that we’re serving?

Bob: Yes. When we’re talking about serving people, I think there are some common types of gaps that we might look for. We might find, for example, an audience gap where a system’s just not designed to support an audience with a specific need. Community action might be able to extend service to that audience, something in the design creates that gap where we’re not reaching a particular audience, or we just never had that audience in mind, I think of extension programs in my state, that were never set up or designed to maybe address an audience of new Americans who are coming to our community, and there might be other barriers that they face and how do we fill that gap if we’re not reaching that particular audience.

Another gap is just an awareness gap. We might have great services and be ready to offer them to someone, but they’re just not aware that that support exists for whatever reason. Community action can sometimes fill that gap. I think of community action advocacy, who is educating veterans on federal programs that exist to address problems with homelessness, to help them if they’re late on rent or to give them additional aid to find a place to live.

If the veterans don’t know about that program, then we can use community action to help close that awareness gap. Then there can also be just access gaps when a system offers services but not in a way that everyone who needs them can access them. This is a little bit related to what I said about new Americans, if we have hours when the services or programs are offered that don’t work for everybody, if they’re offered in a language that not everybody in a location can access that way or just the location itself where transportation challenges or time challenges, cause people to not be able to access the services and programs that they need.

When you’re thinking about these gaps, that’s one place to start is like, “Do we have an audience gap? Do we have an awareness gap? Do we have an access gap?” Maybe other gaps will reveal themselves as you think through that.

Jessica: Something I hear all the time from people is, especially in rural areas where we have an access gap. To me, the leadership gap they’re talking about is a huge part of that as an access gap, because we’re holding meetings at 10 AM in the morning on a Tuesday. People can’t get on that leadership bench if they have to work at 10 AM on a Tuesday. Once we identify the opportunities for change, it’s important that we get creative with our solutions. The old frameworks and ways of thinking may not work in fast-moving, uncertain situations. Give yourself permission to be creative and to let solutions emerge.

Bob: I think to get truly creative and create something new, we need to start by getting into conversation. No one person, no one organization can address a lot of these issues alone. It wouldn’t be community action if we were doing it alone, because we wouldn’t be in community. To get into conversation, we need to pass through what Jerry Nagel and Kathy Jourdain have called the veil of self-sufficiency, the idea that we can do it alone or that people should do it alone or other people should do it alone and actually get in conversation with people to figure out how to do this together.

Once in conversation, I think we need to let our curiosity overcome our judgment. Our idea isn’t the best idea, somebody’s input on this, maybe even saying, “Hey, I don’t see this gap, I don’t think that it’s a problem,” that’s a statement not to be judged but to be curious about and explore together. As our conversations start to lead to a more organized community, we might need to move away from some of the processes that were used to create and support the system that we’re trying to change or to fill a gap in.

In most cases in US systems, we’ve not done a good job of including diverse opinions or the voices of those people who the system impacts the most. Paying attention to those things and developing solutions is a way of being creative and transformational and not maybe recreating a part of the system that has the same problems that the overall system does.

Jessica: Yes, I really appreciate that. I was just teaching a class on collaboration and how to listen to each other and how to really pull in all the perspectives. One of the things I remember saying is that note that I didn’t say that you listen to what everyone says, and then you tally up the answer that had the most people say that thing and then decide to go in that direction that actually being in conversation, like you were saying, is really about saying, “Okay, here we have all these different perspectives and thoughts and ideas. What can we create from these perspectives and thoughts and ideas,” rather than, “Okay, which idea had the most people say they liked it, or it was the thing they were most interested in?”

I think that that’s one way that we can continue doing the same thing over and over without really ever seeing very much change because I think we often rush in, and that’s actually the thing I wanted to bring up because I see this over and over, and it contributes to perpetuating status quo and just doing what we’ve always done is when a group of people like that that care about an issue get together to address it, and that’s a beautiful and wonderful thing.

Then we often are proceeding to rush into action steps without the benefit of establishing the conversation, without the benefit of establishing and building relationships and asking, “What’s the higher order need that we hope to address together, and what might we create together from all of the different perspectives and ideas at the table?” I know we’re all really busy, and many of us need early successes in order to feel like we’re making a difference.

I understand why we do this, but creative solutions need multiple perspectives. They need at least a little time to emerge when possible. Obviously emergency situations, you need to come up with solutions very, very quickly. When we rush to create a to-do list of tasks, we’re really just engaging in coordination of duties versus developing a collaborative creative solution. I’m going to reiterate the importance of giving ourselves permission to be creative and let solutions emerge.

Bob: I think another important point in this process is to stay open to the opportunities an overloaded system creates. It might not just be gaps. It might actually be the fact that, “Hey, we can’t serve everybody.” Along with the negative impacts of system failure, there are opportunities to supplement that with community-based solutions. Keeping your eyes and mind open to that opportunity is important as well, I think.

Jessica: Yes, you know I love to think about the opportunities. When systems are overloaded, what I have appreciated from my time here on earth when I’ve seen this is that motivation can shift toward an understanding of our interconnectedness, almost this intuitive understanding of our interconnectedness. Things like volunteer programs can help fill gaps, and people are often very willing to volunteer, especially during times of crisis. People might check in on or support in other ways, some more vulnerable members of their neighborhood. New programs, products and technologies are developed to address needs.

Community members might be more motivated to engage in activism or civic engagement around topic areas of interest to them or to raise awareness of the issues caused by the overloads for particular populations or for different segments of the system. Better crisis planning, sustainability and policy members can also emerge to bring about systemic changes. These are just a few examples, but depending on the overload, depending on the system and depending on what’s happening, there’s really almost unlimited opportunities. We tend to be a little bit more creative when we’re forced to be more creative. [chuckles]

Bob: Yes. Really that’s like, this is the whole idea behind the asset-based community recovery framework and why we’re talking about this now. When systems got overloaded during the pandemic, it was very obvious to us all. We saw everybody leap into action. We see this repeatedly with different disasters or different extreme challenges that a whole community might face where, “Oh, our systems are overloaded. Let’s jump in and do our part and support it.” The reason we’re talking about the asset-based community recovery framework and talking to you today is that those things tend not to continue.

We tend not to do that. We’re not in sort of that emergency situation or disaster situation. It’s not obvious to everybody that the system is overloaded. Hopefully, that’s what we’re doing, is just giving everyone, including ourselves, some reminders to maybe bring some of those practices or seek to bring some of those practices and that awareness to times when we’re not in disaster or a pandemic. Because I think you and I agree, Jessica, and definitely Heather and John agree, that doing that builds more resilient and sustainable communities so that we don’t have such extreme impacts to the next challenge.

Jessica: Yes. Resilience isn’t bouncing back to what it was before. I think that that’s a common misconception about resilience. Honestly, it feels good to get back to the comfortable thing that we know, which was how things were before. We will literally be more resilient if we can move through and be different at the other end.

Bob: Let’s talk about some action steps that can help us get started to watch for these opportunities to think big. One thing that we can do is just notice the impact your actions are having on your family system or your local environment. Because this is a way of becoming familiar with systems and being able to notice them. Noticing and thinking about your place in a small-scale system, like a family or your office or as a small part of a much larger system like the food system. It’s just a good practice for being able to see systems at work. We need to see the systems before we can think about trying to fill gaps or fixing them.

Jessica: Yes. Another thing you can do is become curious about everything but choose a simple, a simple function and investigate the systems that made it possible. For example, if you’re eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you can look at that sandwich while you’re eating it and chewing into the deliciousness of a peanut butter and jelly. You can think about, “How is bread made? Where did the flour come from? How was it milled? Who harvested it right down to the very, very details of every single piece of that sandwich, the peanut butter, the jelly, the bread, the packaging that each thing came in?”

Really the answer is going to be the whole system. This exercise can help you notice systems in everything. You can notice the interactions between the systems and the role that they play in your life as well.

Bob: Yes. What I really like about what I’ve heard you say before, Jessica, is getting down to the people in the system as well, because that really who grew the peanuts, who harvested them. I think that really helps us feel a part of that system and feel connection to that system. It’s not just a machine that we can’t control.

Jessica: Yes. I even like to get to who grew them and who harvested them? Where do they live? What are their families like? Are they treated well at their job? I like to get really nitty gritty with those. I recommend everyone does. At least get down to the people, if nothing else, even if you don’t want to know what their families were like. [laughs]

Bob: Yes, exactly. Yes, and another thing that we can do is just identify a system gap that could be filled by community action. Just think for a while. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to do anything about it but just look around you. This is the core of community resurgence and resilience. Before we can take any action, and before we do take any action, if you do identify a gap, you should open a conversation with others. That’ll help you learn if there’s already an effort you could join to address that gap.

If there is no effort underway, you can work with others to convene conversations that include those most affected by the gap in the system and let those collaborative conversations determine what action the group can take together, even if that leads in a different direction than the one you envisioned. Together, and this is how we do it, this is how we do community resilience and recovery and sustainability, is together, we can take hopeful action that leads to a new and different way forward.


Jessica: That’s it for this episode. You can learn more about how you can 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 at practicingconnection/ Thanks for joining us today. You can keep up with Practicing Connection by subscribing to the podcast in your favorite podcast app and by joining the Practicing Connection community on LinkedIn. Visit to subscribe and join.

Bob: Thanks to our co-producer Coral Owen, our announcer Kalin Goble, Maggie Lucas and Terry Meisenbach for their help with marketing and Nathan Grimm who composed and performed all of the music that you hear on the podcast. We hope you’ll join us next week for a PractiCast on holding space for difference. 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, U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Office of Military Family Readiness Policy, U.S. Department of Defense under award numbers 2019-48770-30366 and 2023-48770-41333.

[00:23:09] [END OF AUDIO]


April 4
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