By Stacie Smith, associate managing director and senior mediator at the Consensus Building Institute. First published in the Asbury Park Press on June 17, 2019.
As part of Lakewood Neighbors’ commitment to address the social and civic challenges facing Lakewood, my colleagues and I came to Lakewood in February with a goal of understanding as much as we could about how people perceived the opportunities and challenges of life in this diverse and growing region.
We learned that peoples’ perceptions of the problems are as varied as their experiences, backgrounds and cultures.
For some, biased assumptions and beliefs — and even hatred — held by others about them and their culture were the primary problems that needed to be solved. Others were mainly concerned about the undesirable impacts of growth and cultural change on their lives and neighborhoods.
Some felt most troubled by media’s inaccurate or exaggerated negative portrayal of their hometown, rather than the vibrant, economically strong town — with some problems, yes, but no more so than other places, and unworthy of the level of denigration it received.
Then there are those living in surrounding towns seeking to preserve what they see as an endangered way of life, and newcomers seeking an opportunity to enjoy that same lifestyle.
There is much to say about these various viewpoints. However, after spending three days talking with more than 90 people from a diverse cross-section of the town and region, what we found were not just differences, but also some significant commonalities.
What the people of Lakewood and the surrounding region have most in common — whether they know it or not — is a shared need to work together to achieve their goals.
All residents of the area have much to gain from improved relationships, reduced tensions and hostilities, and greater cooperation around sharing neighborhoods and civic space.
Whether you wish to minimize misunderstandings and hatred, address substantive impacts of growth, improve your reputation or preserve what you value for the future, it cannot be accomplished unilaterally. The only way to make meaningful and sustainable progress is through collaborative engagement and problem-solving with others.
While we at the Consensus Building Institute have been working for decades on collaborative partnerships, dispute resolution and consensus building, situations like the one in the Lakewood region have been spurring us to think more about what it takes to forward progress in situations where:
• Dealing with the challenge is going to require committed long-term cooperation,
• Trust among the range of participants is variable and, in some cases, very low,
• There’s no shared vision of either the solution or a process to get there,
• There’s no safe space to convene the parties or begin the conversations.
• Collaboration is essential, yet it seems impossible to get started, let alone work together constructively over the long haul.
In cases like these, we see the need for what we call breakthrough collaboration — a model that combines trust building to lay the foundation for healing and empathy, creativity to move from a stuck place to one where they can work together, negotiation over challenging issues, and problem solving using a range of tools to support decision-making.
In Lakewood and surrounding towns, we need a way to help stakeholders build understanding and trust in each other and their joint potential for progress. We need to imagine and explore possibilities for a shared vision of the future and agree to meet core interests while laying the foundation for ongoing work together.
Finally, we need to solve problems by addressing disputed facts, identifying policies that can support their vision, and generating resources to expand the set of actions taken together.
The core components of breakthrough collaboration — trust-building, creativity, negotiation and problem-solving — are central to the processes we recommended in our assessment report. These include:
• Build an institutional home for leadership, ongoing collaboration and conflict management.
• Create activities that bring people together to break down stereotypes, work on projects together and learn about each other.
• Negotiate a set of guiding principles and community agreements to outline expectations, behaviors and interactions among residents, and promote understanding and unity among neighbors with diverse backgrounds and lifestyles.
• Engage in collaborative growth management planning in the townships surrounding Lakewood, to envision land use policies such as zoning, density, housing, aesthetics, infrastructure and code enforcement that would be culturally sensitive and responsive to the religious needs of Orthodox residents while also being protective of the existing neighborhood and community character.
We have helped set in motion similar collaborative approaches in a wide range of contexts addressing a broad set of issues — from wastewater management to reimagining education to rebuilding after natural disasters — many of which started similarly divided, and ending with new, sustainable partnerships and real progress on meeting their goals.
If the people of Lakewood and the neighboring towns can focus on their similarities — and their interdependence — they can start to solve each of their unique problems, while building a sustainable relationships and resilience for addressing the new challenges as growth and change continue in the region.