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How to build a solid foundation for doing good: Jean speaks with Angela Blanchard (#61)

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Jean Latting
June 20, 2024
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Angela Blanchard built a solid foundation for BakerRipley by not just doing food but building platforms that make it possible to do good.

Highlights from this week’s interview

This week Jean interviews Angela Blanchard. 

Download Transcript

Jean  0:07

Hello, everybody. You're about to meet Angela Blanchard, currently a Senior Fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. She is also President Emerita at Neighborhood Centers, now BakerRipley.

As you will hear, BakerRipley experienced phenomenal growth under her leadership. Angela wrote a wonderful book about the foundations of that growth entitled Appreciative Community Building, a Practical Story of Transformative Community Change, published by BakerRipley Community Developers.

Two of her values stand out.  First, she has a deep and abiding respect for the capacity of people to grow and flourish with the right kind of support.

Second, she understands systems and how everything is interconnected. She doesn't just want to do good. She builds platforms to make it possible to do good.

Jean: How did you learn leadership?

Angela 7:53

I’m the oldest of eight in a Cajun family. When my parents went off to work, they left me in charge. I had all the responsibility and none of the power, so learning how to get people to do things they don’t want to do became a very important skill. It was a great training ground for the responsibilities of leadership. Cajuns also have a mistrust and lack of reverence for anything official; you can’t tell me something can’t be done.

Jean: what inspired you to join what was then known as Neighborhood Centers? 

Angela 16:17

I identified with people who were in some form of economic social struggle. And then I met Felix Fraga.

Jean: tell us about Felix.

Angela 17:32

Felix embodied everything about community engagement, everything about community development, he was the embodiment of service to community, his belief, his intense belief that you cultivate all these healthy things in neighborhoods that people thought were troubled.

Jean: what was the role of Neighborhood Centers, now BakerRipley?

Angela 36:35

BakerRipley came out of the settlement house movement, where people provided a welcoming place for their neighbors. Social workers played a huge part in this movement.

Jean: what does it take to understand a neighborhood?

Angela 38:23

The way to understand a neighborhood is to talk to the people in it. Each neighborhood we were in was different, with different needs. How the outside world views neighborhoods is based on income level, education, race and ethnicity, other factors that have nothing to do with how well these function. Neighborhoods may be seen as places of dysfunction, of crime. I was raised with an inherent respect for people and was not comfortable seeing them from the viewpoint of problems that needed fixing. I saw case studies in social work texts that described my childhood experiences in terms of brokenness. These places were not broken.

Jean: what were you able to do about it?

Angela 45:10

My job was to find funding sources that didn’t see these neighborhoods through the lens of problems that needed solving. When I couldn’t take it any more, I spoke with Tim Skaggs, who shared the concept of “appreciative inquiry.” This was the basis for the growth of BakerRipley. It allowed us to see the strength of people and to honor them. We began to apply this to the community, and to the people who applied for jobs. What would they bring to the table?

Angela 55:25

The academic community is geared toward criticism as a way to understand things. Students want to talk about the flaws. I was inspired by Nelson Mandela, who was released from prison after 27 years and said, how shall me come together and move forward as a country?

Jean: So appreciative inquiry seeks out the resources in the community, and how to build on them.

Angela 59:04  

Yes, so we can work toward wholeness and healing.

Angela 1:02:42

Let’s look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. There’s common sense in recognizing that we need to meet people’s basic needs before we can work with them.

Jean: You see this with funding sources, they just want to do the basics, like feed the hungry children. But then they don’t support the people who are feeding the children. All the money is supposed to go to services.

Angela 1:06:58

People get so indignant when money is spent on computers, or office furniture, claiming it’s a misuse of money meant for services. We need the infrastructure to provide those services. Once we have that, we can look at the process. Are the resources being used most effectively?

Angela 1:12:34

Then you look for creativity and innovation. It’s not so simple as claimed, where you go into your garage, tinker for a while, and come up with a brilliant invention all by yourself.

Jean: People here who are working for racial and social justice have to deal with managers and funders who don’t get their vision. They’re trying for equity, but are not supported.

Angela 1:17:36

Funders are beginning to realize that they can’t just support the major nonprofits, but the smaller ones with creative ideas. And even then there’s resistance among the visionaries, who can’t comprehend spending precious funding on infrastructure. I see the same thing with the push for equity and justice. It’s seen as a cotton candy type thing. It isn’t just within one department. It has to be central.

Jean: Let’s talk about disaster relief.

Angela 1:47:31

I focus on teaching about strategies to help people who have to rebuild their lives. I've always been really riveted by the capacity that people have to recreate lives out of their imagination, this sort of amazing human capacity. It’s good for us to understand people who’ve found their way through the unthinkable.

Jean 1:10:42

Two foundational values for doing good in the community

Hello again. Hearing Angela talk about her work never fails to inspire me. When I introduced her, I referred to two of her values that I thought were particularly key to BakerRipley's phenomenal growth. I want to emphasize them again here.  

The first is her deep and abiding respect for the capacity of people to grow and flourish. In the early days of BakerRipley, the funders were only concerned with diagnosing and fixing a problem. After getting sick and tired of focusing on what was wrong, she and her staff decided to adopt “appreciative inquiry” as the philosophy for BakerRipley’s community work.

They didn’t shut down discussion about what was broken and flawed. Instead, by using appreciative inquiry, they focused on – and I'm quoting her here – “What do we have to work with in the way of strengths and resources, power, etc., that can be activated and arranged in a way that allows us to free ourselves from the things that are not working?”

I just love that.

The second value is understanding how everything is connected. She gets systems! Operationally, this means that she and the staff worked hard to build an infrastructure at BakerRipley to support the services they wanted to provide to the community.

She didn't say it here, but her mantra is that the business of delivering services and the services themselves are intertwined.

This is important for those who are committed to leadership in the racial and social justice arena. It is not just about the good we do. It's about having the platform and organization with which to do good. 

Angela Blanchard headshot

Angela Blanchard

Senior Fellow, Watson Institute, Taubman Center Affiliate - Brown University

Board Member, Business Innovation Factory Advisory Board Member, Amegy Bank; Advisory Board Member, Civica Partners; and President Emerita, BakerRipley.

Angela is a globally recognized expert practitioner in community development. From long-term disaster recovery to effective integration of immigrants and refugees, Blanchard’s evolutionary strategies have helped to successfully revitalize neighborhoods while providing a powerful roadmap for cities around the world.

She is the brainpower behind Appreciative Community Building A practical story of transformative community change, published by BakerRipley Community Developers, and authored most of it.

Connect with Angela:


The views and opinions expressed in this or other blog posts at www.leadingconsciously.com are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Leading Consciously. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion, and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, organization, company, individual, or anyone or anything.

Questions to ask yourself

  1. Think of an organization, either one you’re working with or have worked with in the past. What were some of the services they provided? How might you reframe some of the service needs to reflect the strengths of the population you were serving?
  2. How has your childhood – and its possible hardships – prepared you for serving racial and social justice?

Leading Consciously concepts and skills
covered in this post:

  • Conscious use of self
    • Focus on the other person’s strengths
    • Adopt a learning orientation
  • Initiate workplace change
    • Emphasize changing systems, not just individuals
    • Gain support for the change one person or small group at a time
    • Set a direction, not fixed outcomes
    • Persevere through the time lag of change; recognize small wins along the way
    • Keep in mind revolutionary patience

#MakingADifference   #OrganizationalChange #RevolutionaryPatience  #AppreciativeInquiry

Please explain your answers in the comments.
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