Don’t just build bridges, occupy them
By: Amanda Kathryn Roman
It was a brisk but sunny December afternoon in Paris two years ago. I had just flown in from New York City and was strolling down the boulevard in Saint-Germain-Des-Pres as I thought about meeting a new colleague. We were to meet for the first time prior to the forum on Economics of Mutuality that we were attending at Sciences Po the following morning. As I approached the café, I felt as if I was stepping into the quintessential French painting – the tables on the sidewalk were full of stylish professionals taking a coffee break and greeting one another with a kiss on each cheek, the green awning cut down the glare from the sun as the door swung open, and the red booths paired with shiny chestnut-colored tables came into view. A waiter escorted me to one of the booths in the back where I could take in the whole scene. Little did I know that at the famed Les Deux Magots, a legend of literature and arts since 1884 -, my new colleague would meet me, hear my story, and within about thirteen minutes be able to reveal my purpose over a steaming hot espresso and a flaky croissant. A purpose which had been so difficult to distill for so long.
As far back as I can remember, I have been curious about things that are different. I have always been fascinated by people and systems and the way they interact. Over the past three decades, I have had the honor of scaling disruptive models and cultivating innovative organizational cultures rooted in care and focused on growth with groups of business leaders, academics, thought leaders, philanthropists, elected officials, and social changemakers around the world. With each organizational turnaround that I led, and every mindset shift that I made on my own leadership journey, there was a single thread that was ever-present through it all. That thread was the recognition and trust I allowed for the wisdom in diversity - the wisdom that emerged from diverse life experiences, perspectives, and skills that allowed us to co-create bold new solutions to tired old problems. As I told stories about the three regenerative organizations I co-founded to create spaces and structure for courageous leaders to take bold action, it elicited a reaction from my new friend at the Paris café. He simply said, “I get it. I get you. You are really effective at occupying bridges. You do your part to build bridges, invite others to contribute to the joint effort, and then once there are enough people engaged that their ideas for collective action are flowing back and forth, you move on to build the next bridge.”
That is exactly what I do. I build, and occupy, the bridges that support civil society.
With that in mind, let’s talk about infrastructure.
We all know that our country has an aging infrastructure system; the American Society of Civil Engineers have been warning us for years. There are ongoing debates on capitol hill and in state legislatures around the country about the need to invest trillions of dollars in public infrastructure, and the costs of materials and services are rapidly rising. Fittingly, I have a bit of insight into how bridges as physical infrastructure are built as well. During my time at Reason Foundation, I worked on public-private partnership (PPP) policy development, specifically related to transportation with the esteemed Bob Poole. I learned a great deal about the process for large scale infrastructure projects like roads, transit systems, and bridges.
In a full-scale PPP, various individuals with a wide variety of expertise and experiences come together to achieve a shared purpose such as building a bridge that will provide access and safe passage for vehicles and the people, goods, and ideas that they carry with them. The individuals involved in the PPP assess the environment, design the structure, procure the necessary resources from public and private institutions, build the bridge, operate, and maintain it. The process typically takes years and requires clear communication about the vision, shared expectations about the process and its various steps, and a common understanding of who is responsible for each aspect of the process. It is only when everyone works together that the bridge is built. Here’s the thing… while this is a short and simple overview, the process for building a bridge to support civil society is essentially the same.
The deep bridge-building work that I have done around the country in the political sphere as an advocate and facilitator and in communities as an organizer and convener has taught me that everyone has a valuable contribution to make, but many people cannot envision the role they can play which often leads to inaction or stalled attempts.
It’s time for us to reimagine what’s possible, unlock innovation, and transform the social sector to drive progress for individuals, for communities, and for our society.
How do we do that? Occupy the bridges that have already been built.
#1 As an individual at home and during your day-to-day routine look for ways to make an investment in human and social capital – your own and that of others around you. There is a spirit of yearning for purpose and personal fulfillment all around us. Give yourself permission to uncover what that means for you and create space for others to explore the same.
Seek opportunities to connect with people that think differently with you.
Approach conversations with curiosity and strive to listen more than share.
Treat others as you wish to be treated, with kindness and compassion.
Cultivate love and the capacity to hear beyond your fears.
For more structured processes and formal guidance, you might consider connecting with one of the organizations that I co-founded. Living Room Conversations is a nonprofit sharing an open-source conversation framework proven to build bridges across divides of politics, age, gender, race, and nationality. Bridge Alliance is a coalition of 100+ organizations dedicated to advancing the healthy self-governance movement in America through open-minded collaborations that embrace differences, honor the citizen voice, and focus on solutions. Institute for Corporate Transformation is a firm that equips intrapreneurs to transform their company by expanding the CEO’s definition of success, creating alignment with senior leaders and the board, engaging employees and other key stakeholders, and rewiring operational systems.
#2 Inside the organization where you work strive to make progress in a few key areas that will elevate individuals, strengthen our communities, and replenish our environments - natural and built.
Look for ways to build collaborative relationships with all of your stakeholders by creating long-term trusting partnerships through open communication and transparency.
Focus on helping people thrive by cultivating the talents and potential of your team and help them live their best life.
Leverage organizational practices to remove barriers to employment, and connect people from different backgrounds, identities, abilities, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Rewire financial goals to ensure everyone in the value chain achieves financial security and improves their quality of life.
Take steps to redesign business processes to identify innovative ways to conserve and restore natural resources in the creation and delivery of your products and services for the benefit of future generations.
Identify and hone an organizational purpose that is designed to meet the needs of the world profitably.
#3 Wherever you play in society help grow more bridge occupiers. I would like to formally invite you to join me in occupying a bridge or two. Bring a cup of tea, an espresso, or even a glass of wine, and don’t forget to invite your friends too! Trust me, it’s fun to be in the trenches with others who share in the love of humanity and the passion for progress.
As President Ronald Reagan reminded us: “freedom is a fragile thing and it's never more than one generation away from extinction.” In order for civil society to flourish and contribute to our ability to thrive, we need to exercise our freedom and responsibly meet the pressing and urgent societal needs we see before us.
We don’t just need to build more bridges; what we truly need is more people to commit to their operation and maintenance by occupying bridges. Just like the individuals engaged in a PPP, effective bridge occupiers understand it is a worthy process that takes time, clear communication, shared expectations, and common understandings. To be a bridge occupier, you need to authentically invite others to contribute. You need to hold space for curious conversations and open-hearted explorations. You need to create room and depth to honor life experiences and diverse perspectives. You need to shift your mindset and remember that we are all human, wired for synchronicity and consistency. Humanity is out of sync and longing for the sense of belonging. As a bridge occupier, you will know when enough people have joined you on a particular bridge when you consistently observe courageous demonstrations of trust, vulnerability, and empathy birth new ideas and innovations that flow back and forth freely. Then you will know… it is time to move on and occupy the next bridge on the horizon.