Across the Great Divide: Clark Anderson of Community Builders

An interview on building civic capacity and trust through engagement.

The Great Divide

For this post we have a special treat from you.

You have may have seen Clark Anderson’s name last December in the bright lights of the New York Times and MSNBC. He is the Executive Director of Community Builders, a Colorodo-based non-profit that works with inter-mountain West towns on community planning and development.

In Divided by Politics, a Colorado Town Mends Its Broken Bones, the NYT’s highlighted Anderson’s work in Silverton, Colorodo. It’s a wonderful story: a rural town divided by the winds of national politics and local change, and a community visioning process that helped heal it’s divisions.

I love this story because it exemplifies many of the concepts discussed in The Answer in Community. Primarily, how to leverage community engagement to bridge identity groups and cultivate place-based community connections. They didn’t know it, but Community Builder’s success was due to how it employed the social psychological mechanisms of Optimal Contact. I tell ya, this stuff works!

So I reached out to Clark to dig deeper into the Silverton story and learn more about Community Builders’ approach. It was a fantastic conversation, full of great stories and thoughtful insights.

I thought you would enjoy Clarke’s insights too, so below is an abbreviated transcript of our conversation. Clark and I talk about building social trust, de-platforming divisive social media, creating shared identifies, fostering civic capacity, and drinking beers with firefighters. Enjoy!

The Answer is Community (TAIC): Tell me about Silverton. The New York Times article paints a story of a town divided by the winds of national politics, a Pledge of Allegiance controversy, and local angst over unplanned growth and newcomers. Was that accurate? You were hired for a planning process, so what did you sense when you started working there?

Clark: Yes, the division and tension were strong. You could feel it. And a lot of people were anxious or skeptical in the early phases of the project. The goal was to bring the community together to form a common vision for the future, but they really questioned whether that was possible. So, there was division and that fueled skepticism and mistrust about the project – who was really behind it, what was the ulterior motive, whether the project teams and structures were favoring one “side” more than another – and so on. So, these were things we had to work through early on.

In terms of what the division was all about, it was a lot of the same things that many communities struggle with: how to navigate growth and change. It’s a small community that’s been changing from a mining town into a seasonal tourist driven economy; it’s growing and getting more expensive and harder for locals to make it. Classic mountain town challenges. These are controversial issues and they were struggling with how to strike the right balances and move forward. Disagreement on these issues makes sense – this stuff really matters – but the way they were disagreeing wasn’t moving things forward and was pulling the community apart.

So I think those issues were at the root of things. National politics animated things – I think it gives people permission to act less civilly because our national leaders do it – but there was very little Trump versus Biden. Yes, the pledge of allegiance controversy is what made national news. But in terms of the issues that we were dealing with, it wasn’t that. 

Also, one clarification from the NYT article. We were not actually hired. Community Builders is a nonprofit and the way we do this work is to work with communities, not for them. So, Silverton requested our assistance and engaged in a partnership wherein both sides brought funding to the table. So, not a traditional consulting relationship. It’s important to mention, because that approach is what lets us work with communities in the way that we do, which emphasizes engagement and capacity building. So, it was a great story and I think [New York Time’s journalist] Jonathan did a great job, but that was one piece it didn’t get quite right.

TAIC: So how did you decide where to start? It looks like you began with dozens of small group conversations. I’m guessing you understood that things were so divisive you couldn’t just come in and start hosting big workshops and public meetings.

Clark: Well, we weren’t riding totally blind. We have an engagement framework we’ve built from a mix of different models.

Yes, we used lots of small group discussions, which were really nice when dealing with a lot of division. For example, when you’re sitting in a room with five or six people from your community and you’re asked, “Why do you love living here?” or “What are your fears for the future” people are in tears pretty quick. Folks that came in thinking they totally disagree with one another, by the end were saying, ‘God, I freaking love you guys!’”

Folks that came in thinking they totally disagree with one another, by the end were saying, ‘God, I freaking love you guys!’

We did just a shit-ton of those small group meetings. The reason that matters is because you need both depth and breadth in your engagement. Yes, you need to use your classic workshop techniques and open houses and surveys to give you breadth. But the depth is so critical for pinning down what a community’s values really are. Lighter-scale engagement (surveys, larger workshops) can help confirm and refine what you learn, but they can’t go as deep.

Also, the nature of more in-depth engagement allows for something beyond just the input people provide. It lets people talk to and learn from each other. It helps strengthen connections and relationships and that’s important, even though it’s rarely given value in public engagement these days. 

TAIC: Did you intentionally tailor those small group discussions to have people on different sides of the debate? How did you organize those?

Clarke: No, for the most part we just made it wide open. The only ones we strategically set up were to make it more accessible for some of the Latino community.

And then there were cases like the fire department. Those guys weren’t going to come to those discussions, so I had to go to them. It took a bit for them to warm up to the project – I had to drink quite a few beers with them one evening – but they eventually started talking and we listened and we kept coming back and they really appreciated that. They felt respected, which was something they didn’t always feel from the town and its leadership prior to the project.

Again, this becomes about building relationships. It’s not just about pulling “input data” from people, but helping strengthen relationships and understanding people’s stories. After that, the firemen became really helpful for the project and started hosting events. But that first night where we spent time just talking was key. It took more Modellos than I would normally drink on a Thursday night, but it was worth it and actually very fun. Luckily, you can walk home in that town.

TAIC: You talked about how people started to bond in these small group conversations. Was that an essential step for holding public workshops? Do you feel you were building to that?

Clarke: Yes, but trust building was ongoing work throughout the project.

It began in the early groundwork phase when we set up project teams to figure out what we are doing. We try not to use the classic “Technical Advisory Committee” group that’s going to be the “deciders.” Instead, we have a team — in this case we called it the Community Leadership Team — whose job is to help with public outreach and be conduits out into the community. We purposely populated that group with lots of divergent opinions and influential people. But we also include opinionated people who we knew were rabble rousers.

And we worked with them to figure out how we were going to measure success from an engagement perspective.  And even though they didn’t necessarily agree on the solutions, they agreed that as a community they all need to listen to each other and better understand the issues.

Even though they didn’t necessarily agree on the solutions, they agreed that as a community they all need to listen to each other and better understand the issues.

Where it gets interesting is that sometimes I had to just go and meet with people one-on-one who didn’t trust the process or didn’t trust me or didn’t trust other people. They were very tribal.

For example, the mayor didn’t trust the project, or me, for a long time. And I understand why he felt this way because he was under a lot of pressure. I had to spend a lot of time on the phone with him. And I also had to be really frank with him and say things like “I think the way you’re seeing this is wrong” and we had a healthy back and forth like that.

That’s one of the reasons why we use the nonprofit model we do. If a paid consultant did that, they would be fired at the next council meeting, you know? 

It was the same thing with some of the old time miners and guys from the fire department. Those guys didn’t trust me. The night I first met with them, one guy said he had been referring to me as the “pencil head.” What does that even mean? It sounds like early 90’s slang.

Anyway, when it starts, I’m trying to explain the project and it’s a little rough. They are all looking at me skeptically and kind of ribbing me, and I realize they are all drinking beer so I ask, “hey, are you guys gonna offer me a beer or what?” After that, we just started talking about the community, the old days, what they hope to see in the future, and the tension faded away. And I was fully into it myself – I wasn’t playing a part or trying to win them over – I was engaged in a conversation with them. So, we were all creating trust through that.

So yes, in trust building work you have to have a full-on grassroots engagement process. But you also have power players who are extremely influential and lead their groups. And you’ve got to figure out who those people are and then talk with them in an authentic, transparent, open, honest way. You got to say, “You’re a leader in the community. People follow you. You have to give this a try. We need you to come around.” And that’s what happened with the mayor and at the fire department.

TAIC: So there’s trust between you (the consultant) and certain stakeholders, but there’s also a horizontal trust across the community, right? Different groups and factions and different power centers? The New York Times focused on the national politics of those groups and the bridge-building that happened across those divisions. Did that happen?

ClarkYes and no. At the end of the day, the people that were conservative coming into the project were still conservative coming out. The people who were liberal coming in were still liberal coming out. Their fundamental Individual values didn’t change.

But what they didn’t have before was a common vision and a direction.  They could say “we disagree on a lot of stuff, but we can agree on this.” And I think that was the biggest thing in terms of bridge building. It was a bridge built of shared understanding of the problems. 

Once we distilled down the community values, it opened up the conversation. They could agree on wanting Silverton to be a place where their families were secure, or a place where they can have a connection with nature. They may not agree 100% on the solution, but they know that everybody’s got the same values and right intentions.

TAIC:  Would it be accurate to say that there was a new sense of a shared identity?  That although they may be different, they all live in the same town and are all Silvertonians?

Clark: For sure. And those small group meetings really revealed that too. Silverton is not an easy place to live, and people’s stories about why they live there were amazing.  Again, people were in tears, unable to get through it. And then their friends, or their enemies, are all listening to it. And it created this shared identity.

They found that they’re really a community that backs each other up and nobody there is wimpy. It’s a freaking hard place to live. They found that they had a shared identity of “we’re all kind of bad asses” in which they could see themselves.

They found that they’re really a community that backs each other up and nobody there is wimpy … They found that they had a shared identity of “we’re all kind of bad asses” in which they could see themselves.

TAIC: Did you see specific examples of people who were enemies become friends? Do you feel like bridges were built that way? Or is that too much of an exaggeration?

Clark: Yes, and no.

I don’t know if you have brothers or sisters or kids, but sometimes you need to explain to one of your kids why the other one is being mean to them and where they’re coming from. There was a lot of that. So people’s didn’t necessarily become friends. But I think the way people viewed each other changed.

And some of the tribalism just simply faded away.

In particular, some of the people that were real rabble rousers just lost their platform altogether.  There became a point where once the community started learning enough about each other, they began to realize that they’re not that different. The muckracking Facebook forums and stuff just kinda lost their edge. People stopped engaging in them because they were having these other amazing in-person conversations, and it seemed out of sync.

There was one guy who in the New York Times article said “I was being an idiot and just started sending stuff to Fox News.” It turns out he changed a lot. He said to himself, “This isn’t the dude I want to be. I like being a small-town community member and now I see myself as hurting that, not helping.” It affected his identity.

Another thing is that once some of the real bitterness faded away, other community leaders became more comfortable stepping in. People with ideas who had previously stayed quiet. One woman who was involved in the project got inspired and ran for council and now she’s really focused on being a bridge builder.

National politics is layering into the local level in ways that, in my career, are suddenly starting to feel a lot worse. National politics comes in when you’re pissed at people and you’ve gone tribal.

I used to say that at the end of the day, once I start working at the local level, that national stuff usually fades away. But in the last six or eight years, that’s not been the case. The national stuff has very much become part of the community structure.

It’s unfortunately made this work more difficult and more important.

But what Silverton shows is that most people don’t care about that national stuff nearly as much as we think they do.  Really what people care about is traffic and housing and the economy and growth and jobs. But the only thing they can attach their angst and frustration to is this national dialogue.

What Silverton shows is that most people don’t care about that national stuff nearly as much as we think they do … but the only thing they can attach their angst and frustration to is this national dialogue.

That’s because at the local level we generally don’t do a great job of creating platforms for discussion. And when there are platforms for it, they’re mostly bad because it’s Facebook or it’s very poorly designed community engagement processes with not enough resources.

So I think we can help communities build the civic capacity for better dialogue.

It doesn’t necessarily need to be around a project where people need to fight for what they want. Instead, we can have dialogue around things that are happening to all of us together and better understand each other’s perspectives.

And then when we do need to plan, like with a housing strategy or a downtown vision, we have an elevated capacity for dialogue, both in terms of understanding and willingness to listen and learn and how to talk to each other.  And my hope is that this will also potentially permeate at some level up to the national scale.