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Breaking the silos

How organizations are removing barriers to better serve communities

“Stay in your lane.” This is a phrase often applied to people to encourage them to stick to what they know. For a lot of organizations and government agencies, specialization in a specific sector can help them to provide in-depth services. But sometimes when organizations become siloed – when they become used to staying in their respective lanes – they can miss out on opportunities to reach more people and innovate with new ideas. From right here in Adams County to the other side of the globe, we took a look at some of the ways in which organizations are working to break down inter-agency barriers to help streamline service in their communities.

Partnering to build community

When you ask 6-year-old Jackson Wright to point out which sprouting green stalks will eventually become sunflowers, he jumps at the chance to show off the different plants and vegetables in his garden. Even though he’s only 6, he joins his mother Rachael D’Antonio in the Anythink Wright Farms community gardens almost every day – weeding, watering and learning from other gardeners. These gardens – which are currently located at three of Anythink’s locations throughout Adams County – are designed to not just be a place for people to grow vegetables, but also to create community. To make that happen, Anythink looked to the pros. Denver Urban Gardens, a network of more than 170 community gardens throughout the Denver metro area, helped to create and run these gardens in partnership with Anythink.

Knowing that providing a wide range of opportunities for community building and youth education – projects that go beyond the early literacy programs already associated with libraries – requires outside expertise, Anythink is now putting strategic partnerships like that with Denver Urban Gardens into practice. Whether it's by bringing in artists in residence to lead filmmaking workshops or local entrepreneurs to host networking opportunities, the library promotes partnerships as a means of enhancing learning opportunities in the community.

“As we gathered information from community members last year, we heard that people want to feel connected with their neighbors in a more meaningful way, and they want more connections between the organizations and agencies who serve them. They look to the library as a place that can be that connector, and strategic partnerships are a critical way we do that,” says Stacie Ledden, Anythink’s director of innovations and brand strategy. “Partnerships with organizations and experts allow us to provide more learning opportunities and experiences for everyone, which in turn builds a stronger community.”

The library as startup incubator

When someone thinks of startups, Silicon Valley might be the first place that comes to mind. But on the other side of the world, Tel Aviv, the second largest city in Israel, is home to more startups per capita than any other city. So when Tel Aviv's public library system began to notice a sharp decline in use at one of its libraries in the city's main business district, they decided to make some changes. In 2011, library staff decided to change its downtown branch in a way that could benefit Tel Aviv's thriving entrepreneurial community in a meaningful way – turning it into a startup incubator.

The Library Tel Aviv’s new redesigned space includes two new features that cater specifically to local startups: an area dedicated for freelancers of any kind to work and connect with one another, and an incubator space, where selected early-stage startups can use the library as their primary headquarters. Those selected incubator startups have access not only to amenities like meeting rooms and dedicated employee space, they’re also provided with a variety of tools to help them launch into a successful venture. This includes everything from pitch workshops to high-profile meetups, where famous tech entrepreneurs from around the world visit and share their experiences and recommendations.

“When established, the notion of converting half of the public library into an entrepreneurship space for young visionaries was unique in itself,” says Guy Margalit, director at The Library Tel Aviv. “It was one of the first co-working spaces in Israel, not to mention the fact that it was funded by a local government and hence subsidized for the benefit of the entrepreneurs.”

But as the years passed by, dozens of co-working spaces emerged around town – including one located in the same building as The Library Tel Aviv – and the library felt as though its newly reimagined value was beginning to fade. To embark on something more innovative – and to help the city break down barriers in addressing its own needs – the library made another shift in early 2018. Working with the Tel Aviv-Yafo municipality, The Library Tel Aviv now fosters entrepreneurs who can help identify urban problems and develop solutions to help make life better for the city’s residents. In exchange, startups will get access to the city to help answer questions for their projects or provide data for real use-case testing. The exchange is mutually beneficial and breaks down the silos of government institutions in order to provide innovative support and solutions for the city’s residents.

“The idea of the municipality is to create a flow for those startups, which begins at the library and continues on with a city lab for smart cities with later-stage tech ventures,” says Margalit. “This flow is important in Tel Aviv’s strategic goal of becoming a global leader in developing innovative urban technologies.”

What does this look like in practice? Some current projects from participating startups include an app that helps students in city schools to learn to read and write music and a smart chatbot that helps reduce the need for government forms and paperwork. Whether it’s a new approach to the city’s public spaces or a way to streamline efficiency of services, the library wants to hear the community’s ideas – and work with them directly to make them a reality and break the stereotype of outdated or change-resistant bureaucracy.

“The bottom line is focusing solely on early-stage technologies which tackle urban innovation,” says Margalit. “As Tel Aviv is the entrepreneurial capital of Israel, these startups are using tech to improve the city-life and reduce costs of living in various aspects.”

Using technology to help close the opportunity gap

What has been often referred to as the “summer slide” is a growing concern in many communities: without opportunities for enrichment through quality programs and activities, kids can fall behind academically and socially. And just a few months can make a big impact; research from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Saguaro Seminar Project shows that a lack of participation in summer enrichment programs contributes to a widening of a lifelong achievement gap that disproportionately impacts low-income and minority students.

A group of more than 400 Dallas-based organizations, non-profits, government agencies and community organizers decided to tackle that issue by working together with one goal: closing the summer learning gap. But how can that many community partners in a city of 1.3 million people come together to provide real-world impact? Inspired by similar initiatives in Chicago, Big Thought – a Dallas non-profit focused on closing opportunity gaps – partnered with the City of Dallas to implement Dallas City of Learning. The Dallas City of Learning project uses a digital platform to connect organizations, services, learning and students in one place – and prepare students for their future careers.

“Dallas City of Learning got its start four summers ago with the intent of providing a way for students participating in out-of-school-time learning experiences to receive digital credentials to recognize that work,” says Dallas City of Learning Director Kirstina Dove. “In the same breath, students had the chance to engage in online learning experiences curated by local and global partners.”

At dallascityoflearning.org, participating organizations upload their summer learning events with a variety of filters for students and parents to find something that best fits their needs, whether that’s proximity, subject, age-range or a variety of other factors. For students, the site serves as a digital backpack, where kids can keep track of their interests, find nearby activities, and take part in online learning activities. As students complete these activities, they can earn badges that not only help motivate learning, but might also serve as an alternative credentialing system for schools or future employers – a kind of electronic résumé. When a potential teacher or employer views the badge online, they’re able to see just what type of skill sets were learned – coding, designing, storytelling, or zoology, just to name a few.

Dallas City of Learning from SparkFarm on Vimeo.

The project also looked at ways in which the city might establish more community hubs, where the Dallas City of Learning team could find creative uses for spaces in specific communities to help facilitate hands-on learning. One example is the Red Bird Mall project, where empty shops in a mall were converted into a youth learning lab. With the Red Bird Mall project, students in the neighborhood were able to access arts, culture and STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) workshops; the organizations providing those services were given free space in which to host those workshops; and the owners of the mall were able to draw more traffic in the door while giving back to their local community.

As Dallas City of Learning continues to grow – in 2017, they were able to serve more than 38,000 students – they’re updating their digital platform to increase its use and reach. However, Dove notes, it’s about more than just having the right technology to help bridge gaps.

“The technology platform is merely a tool, and what is really making the difference is the collaboration of cross-sector partners, connecting students to opportunities inside and outside of their zip codes and being proximate and intentional about the way we’re serving the community,” says Dove. “This is about [the idea that] we’re better together.” ■

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