BTOP Projects at Work: Building Successful Intercultural Partnerships

Last week I shared some ideas about how to identify partners likely to help your organization and community development BTOP project succeed. Our efforts to build partnerships with entrepreneurial community development organizations have been fairly straightforward: Encuentro and La Comunidad Habla share many of our organization’s communication norms and practices.  Creating effective partnerships with public libraries has, however, not been as easy to do.

Fast Forward New Mexico delivers free trainings to cultural entrepreneurs and individuals eager to increase their digital literacy skills. Trainings are held in 17 public libraries across the state which has meant that our public libraries have received a lot of positive press and accolades for the important work they are doing.  But, it has also meant that the libraries have needed to use new technologies, respond to hundreds of inquiries, and engage in marketing and sales with community business leaders and politicos. Furthermore, they have been partnered with our entrepreneurial, fast-paced organization, Global Center for Cultural Entrepreneurship, and together we have worked to overcome differences in communication styles and program expectations.

I expected our orientation meeting with our first site’s public library staff to be straightforward. I planned an agenda for an hour and a half meeting, printed out a few documents, brought our business cards. I travelled with our marketing coordinator out to the library’s town (a four hour drive) and stayed the night at a hotel. The next morning we met and, fully ready to plow through our program information, went into a dead stall when we spent 40 minutes touring the library and appreciating the WPA art collection. After we got back on track we spent 2.5 hours going through our program information.  We tried to answer the staff’s questions but in truth we didn’t have lots of answers--this first library was our test pilot.  The staff was obviously disquieted.  We did our best to reassure them that we would be able to handle the expected registration--we hoped we would have some response from the community--of maybe 50 people! 

The meeting was warm and engaging, we have both done rural development work and enjoy working in rural communities.  And, while the pace was slow we were both comfortable switching gears and slowing down a bit.  So, convinced that we had done a solid job of getting this staff prepped for program launch, we headed back to Santa Fe.

The following week when the library staff asked questions about topics we had thoroughly covered, we thought, geez, didn’t we talk about that?!  Not only that, but the staff asked the questions to State Library personnel--they didn’t contact us directly.  We needed to get the staff on solid footing or we wouldn’t be able to launch with a modicum of competence.  And, we couldn’t just drive back out there--the expense and time were too demanding.

It began to dawn on me that the one-shot-meeting approach was not going to work. It wasn’t the way library personnel--in that library at least--were accustomed to preparing for events and programs. 

There were three keys issues that came up that took us all by surprise:

  1. The library directors feel a lot of pressure to maintain the public face of the library and they protect it mightily;
  2. New Mexico’s rural library staff are not often as well-versed in tech tools as we thought they would be. This caused challenges in implementing our program and solving broader digital divide issues;
  3. Rural communities are still far more accustomed to face-to-face communication and rural library staff do not take easily to communicating through email or other tools with folks they have just met.

We have continued to develop our practices around Library Orientation and now use a powerpoint to help guide the conversation and make sure we cover all the issues.  We also plan for a minimum of three visits before we launch in a site, and we make sure we plan time to tour the library, meet all the staff, and admire the art collection or other unique assets of a site. And here’s why: the more we fall in love with a library, the more they love our program, and we can’t be successful unless they love our program. In our first site the Library Director fell in love with our program and we surpassed our goal of registering 50 people. We registered 614.

By being persistent through initial communication challenges, we were able to meld our organization’s culture with the library’s culture enough to launch and implement a program that surpasses everyone’s hopes.

Alice Loy

Co-Founder, GCCE ~ fostering economic prosperity and cultural wealth ~

Santa Fe, NM