Institutional Change Through Quilting

By | September 27, 2013 | 0 Comments
Coalitions working for Institutional change have to hold a metaphoric quilting bee

Coalitions working for Institutional change have to hold a metaphoric quilting bee

I absolutely LOVE quilts.  I love them for their physical beauty as well as for everything they symbolize.  I love the idea of re-purposing fabric, bringing disparate pieces together and, creating a functional and aesthetic item that should last for generations.  Lately, I have been thinking about how coalitions can be like quilts. 


Over the past week I have worked with school reformers from local education advocacy groups when we gathered at Los Angeles Education Partnership offices to see and learn about their excellent work. I am also meeting with community members, educators and cultural resource professionals in North Carolina where I am giving a presentation on Coalitions working to change Institutions.

flag quilt


I am lucky to have a depth of experience in coalition work through my years working on environmental justice issues where I published, Righting the Wrong   which is about local government’s role in partnering with community stakeholders to address environmental justice issues. I have also worked in Dayton Ohio and Washington DC on a range of community issues.  Most recently, I am working with a coalition of education advocacy groups that are improving education outcomes in their communities.  Their roles can be difficult because they are both critics and defenders of public education in this period when there are so many paths called reform. 


Like my education partners, I believe in the power and purpose of institutions but also believe that they, like all of us, need to evolve over time.  Below are some of my thoughts about working with coalitions to effect institutional change.  These are based on a presentation that I gave at: NC Folklife Institute’s 2013 Statewide Folklife Summit, a gathering of cultural resource and community partners. 


Coalition work to effect institutional change, is like quilting in that you have elements that you need to bring together for a lasting outcome. The cover itself, the most visual aspect of the quilt, is comprised of disparate parts and pieces, woven from different fabrics, that have to be pieced together to create a whole.  Often times, the fabrics alone would not complement or align, however, when pieced from a community of fabrics, the diversity of colors and textures enriches the outcome. While the cover is the most visual aspect, the quality, function and durability of a quilt depend on piecing, quilting and binding the components together.  This metaphor is apt for successful coalition building where you have to assemble stakeholder interests into a shared picture and then use the tools and resources available to successfully join the disparate parts for a functional, durable outcome that reflects the culture from which it came.



Institutions are old, monolithic, bureaucracies – and they are hard to change and really excellent and creating road blocks – but it is fun as hell to take them on.  Aside from the fun, there are some concrete reasons my institutional change can lead to the best outcomes for a community.

1.      Institutions set laws and policies to formalize the change you want to see.  These create the legal and institutional framework for your vision. To change a law is an early step to transform a process.  Yes, you can advocate to change a single program element, but that change may only last as long as you are watching it.  monolith

2.      Prioritize resources:  Institutions are central aggregating bodies of resources:  human, financial, historic, cultural, technical, etc . . . if you change a perspective of an institution, you can change your access to resources.  If there is a law or policy created by an institution, the next obligation of the institution is to support its implementation and assign resources to that. 

3.      Institutions have many intersections – which you can affect.  Like I said, institutions are bureaucracies, which can drive you crazy.  But if you get a toe hold in the institutional door, you have access to a range of agencies and program areas.  This means you can understand the environment and help to ensure that the policy has programmatic backing.

4.      Institutions have authority over a spectrum of actions from creating and enforcing policies, to ensuring program implementation and staffing alignment to program evaluation and success measures.  So, to understand and impact an institution is to impact all of these aspects.



Gathering the Tools –things to keep in mind

1.      Everything is political.  It is, always; don’t think its not. tools

2.      Own the problem:  don’t be a finger pointer, but be a part of the community that owns the problem, this makes you a part of the process to solve the problem.  You believe in and are invested in the institution and the good things that come out of it.  Please repeat.

3.      Embrace the voices of the rational middle.  Institutions are designed to serve the whole population across many functions.  Seek a middle ground.  At least start with a small change, celebrate a victory and keep moving forward. 

4.      Know the difference between an advocate and an implementer.  The person who is increasing community awareness may not be the same person who sits across from the mayor to discuss solutions.

5.      Don’t expect to make friends – expect to get criticized from all sides and then you know you are coming up with a workable solution


Tactics for Successful Coalitioning

Designing the Quilt — Logical

1.      Define what you want:  show the solution and map out the steps to achieve it.  Once you get some grease you have to stop being a squeaky wheel and start rolling. design

2.      Facts and data: you should have data and evaluation ongoing.  Yes, you feel strongly.  Yes people are motivated by emotion – but decisions are made based on facts.

3.      Make sure your coalition has a unified voice.  Coalition members are aligned and focused on a priority.  This means compromise, longer-term investment and some members step up, others step back.  Even if a member is not aligned with an issue, it cannot go rogue if it is a member of a coalition.

4.      Multi-stakeholder: when bring everyone to the table . . . everyone will want to be at the table.   Corollary: you will not like everyone in the Coalition.  This means you have everyone at the table.

I could not stand that group, they are so difficult to work with – but they are so important in the role they played.


Piecing the patches together – creating an emotional buy in


1.      Glass half full.  Sell people on the better future, not the existing problem. Help people see themselves as a part of change. Change minds – envision the future. “the youth that met with you were so impressed and inspired by your ideas.”  This person now sees herself as an inspiration to youth and will strive to be so.  Check out:

2.      Hold up the positives:  Document and promote all good achievements along the way. 

3.      Learn from others’ mistakes – and your own. 

4.      Own the failures of the institutions.  Stand with the institution to express disappointment when bad things happen.  Demonstrate your support and investment in the institution when it needs you most.


Quilting and Binding – Ensure Longevity

1.      Tie your work to others enlightened self interests – help your institutional partners understand why this issue is a win for them (see everything is political). quilting

2.      Use institutional tools and language – use the tools of the institution to change the institution – this means testifying at hearings, meeting with people, reading the city code and understanding it, understanding the different roles / ambitions of elected and appointed officials.

3.      Know your currency  What do you know or have access to that institutions care about?  Do you know inner workings of departments through your informal relationships?  Does your coalition represent a unified voice over a critical issue?  Do you represent a voting block, etc?  Assess and know your power.  If you need to strengthen it, do so.


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