July 14, 2018
DEFINITION: Working together towards shared goals.
Collaboration is word that some people would say is overused these days. Teamwork was that word in recent decades. Revolution was, perhaps, that word in many countries – including our own – centuries ago. In all cases, individuals with common interests who purposefully come together to take action have a lot of power. There are many projects in St. Joseph, Mo., that prove it doesn’t matter if the word describing the effort of coming together is overused or not. The difference made is more important.
St. Joseph has a lot of collaboration going on. Much of it is the type found in most communities across America and around the globe – formal and informal. We have many neighborhood associations, parent and teacher organizations, youth organizations, civic organizations, social service organizations and more that work on projects to make life a little better for themselves and others. The United Way of Greater St. Joseph, in particular, does an outstanding job of giving people an opportunity to come together and get things done.
There are also some collaborative efforts for the common good that are not found in many communities. The “Made With Uncommon Character” community branding campaign, for one, is not all that common. Creative and communications professionals do not typically work on joint projects. Yet, that is exactly what took place to launch the brand and campaign over the course of a two-year period.
Another uncommon group extends beyond St. Joseph’s geo-political borders to its broader economic and social community throughout Northwest Missouri. The steering committee of Great Northwest Day at the Capitol and the approximately 300 people from this regional community of 19 counties meets in Jefferson City in early February each year. They communicate many of the positive things happening, as well as the challenges shared, across the region with statewide elected officials, staff members and department administrators. Participating counties agree to several priorities ahead of time and white papers are written and presented in the Capitol to ensure a clear message is delivered. Although the people in this large group have not always been the same who started the annual gathering in 2002, this collaborative movement has helped spark positive chain reactions and accomplishments.
Steve Johnston, director of the Community Alliance of Saint Joseph said, “In St. Joseph, we’ve grown from from 12 to 85 people participating in Great Northwest Day since it began. I have no doubt there is strength in numbers and a focused agenda.”
Steering committee member and 2019 chairman-elect Brandt Shields said, “Great Northwest Day has been so effective over the years, other regions of the state are now following our lead and organizing similar events. As the largest community in the ‘Great Northwest,’ St. Joseph plays an important role in raising awareness of assets and challenges.”
Traveling further than the State Capitol is another collaborative group of people who embark upon our nation’s capitol together each year. The Washington, D.C., Fly-In reached a milestone in 2018 celebrating 20 years of advocating and networking on behalf of St. Joseph and the broader rural region.
Led by the St. Joseph Chamber of Commerce and the Community Alliance, the group visits with those on the Hill about many topics like transportation needs, trade and economic development. The group has advocated heavily in recent years in support of the 139th Airlift Wing of the Missouri Air National Guard, which is headquartered at Rosecrans Memorial Airport. Military units are not allowed to advocate on behalf of themselves so, Johnston shared, it is important for local communities to advocate on their behalf. In St. Joseph’s case, he said, the group has made sure that elected officials making military and defense budget decisions understand how important the 139th is to the economy, quality of life and overall social fabric of St. Joseph and the surrounding region. The 139th is one of our largest employers and also plays an important strategic role in the nation’s military.
Rosecrans, and the physical assets of the 139th, sits on a large flat open piece of land on the west side of the Missouri River across from downtown. It is an ideal location that also happens to be a floodplain threatened by rising river levels and a levee system defined by the U.S. Corps of Engineers as suffering from a design deficiency. Johnston said, “We were never on a priority list to have the levees upgraded and we knew it was important for many reasons.”
To shore up the Missouri River’s banks and show support for the 139th, as well as many other businesses and organizations in Missouri “Show Me State” style, St. Joseph stakeholders put together a cost-benefit analysis and secured funding for the $72 million project. Sixty five percent is being covered by a federal grant while 35 percent is matched with a combination of Missouri General Assembly, City of St. Joseph, Buchanan County and voter funding. A quarter-cent sales tax was approved by a 77 percent public vote for the project. Work on an upgraded levee gatewell structure for the west and east banks of the Missouri River is underway.
“This project is truly an example of collaboration at its finest. Protecting over 6,000 quality jobs from multiple businesses protected by the levee in addition to the 139th Airlift Wing of the Missouri Air National Guard provides stable and economic growth for our future. We are appreciative to all of our stakeholders on the national, state and local levels,” Johnston said in an article on the topic in the February 2018 Heartland Engineer publication.
An uncommon amount of collaboration has been key to advancing many projects big and small throughout the homes of many organizations and businesses in the community. Sixth graders in the St. Joseph School District and many students in area private schools have been learning about collaboration and civic empowerment over the past decade through emPowerU, a unique program and facility of Heartland Foundation in downtown St. Joseph. Young people and adults alike have gathered at emPowerU to address all types of possibilities for the future. It will be interesting to see what positive impacts the seeds of collaborative thinking … and even more important, collaborative actions, will have on the betterment of our community in the near and distant future.
Real change in almost any environment happens from the inside out. And no one knows just how to create the kind of contagious change a community needs like the community members themselves. In St. Joseph, and many communities like it, a revolution is happening around this kind of grassroots-based leadership – and it’s only just begun.
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