A story of cross-cultural partnerships

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      Interview with Nelson Mayer, Executive Director      Alberta Native Friendship Centre Association (ANFCA)       http://anfca.com

Interview with Nelson Mayer, Executive Director

Alberta Native Friendship Centre Association (ANFCA) 


Multiple partnerships across organizations with common and/or connected goals in communities, has been fundamental to achieving impact for the ANFCA. Executive Director, Nelson Mayer believes in the power of partnerships to catalyze positive change at many levels. One outstanding examples is the Grande Prairie Regional College and the Grande Prairie Friendship Centre who partnered to open the only on campus Friendship Centre in Canada. This centre provides effective supports to Aboriginal students from all over the north who come to study at GPRC. It is an accessible, culturally appropriate, safe space, tailored to students who are far from home and in a totally new environment.  Initial positive impact was clear as students reported an enhanced experience at the college which translated into increased retention; more aboriginal students successfully graduated from college programs. But over time, the extent of the impact has been much more than expected.


How are they achieving this kind of impact?

Commitment To Making Time: At the individual level, invest the time to meet face to face and to stay engaged through the process required to be ready to truly partner. At the organizational level, work with Boards to gain understanding so that they will approve dedicating time to partnership building; their ongoing support is critical and so they need to understand and agree with the long-term benefits.

Focus On Relationships: System entrepreneurs hold a deep focus on relationship—between people, organizations, ideas and resources in the system. They bring a strategic yet genuine sense of empathy, honesty, patience and determination to their work. In Nelson’s experience, it pays to be ‘brutally honest’ about your intentions and your understanding of both the opportunities but also the challenges. Change takes clarity and patience: “Hold on to your vision for what’s possible, keep a focus on relationships, wait until the right time presents itself; don’t give up!”

Tune Into Positive Patterns: “An Elder once taught me a lesson about choosing to be positive. He gave the example of daily weather reports and how the emphasis is usually on bad weather, as in: There’s a 25% chance of rain today. Well, he said, that also means that there’s a 75% chance of sunshine—don’t forget that!” We tend to focus on what doesn’t work, what needs fixing. But we need to focus more on recognizing what’s working well; figure out how to replicate that.

Incentives For Partnering: The national Friendship Centres network has created awards of excellence where the criteria highlights what they’ve learned about what makes the most effective centres; one of the number one things proven to support excellence, is a diverse range of partnerships in their communities.

What are the key challenges to this type of work?

Time, Honesty And Empathy To Heal Long-Standing Divides: According to Nelson, when establishing a partnership, time must be invested in building genuine relationships. The long-term benefits need to be ‘sold’ and the danger of operating in isolation need to be revealed.  Time is needed to truly understand each other, to be comfortable enough to be honest with each other, to feel safe enough to address trust issues and the suspicion that lies under the surface. On all sides, previous negative experiences exist that get in the way; these must be acknowledged and plans co-created to avoid similar negative outcomes. 

More on creating conditions for system change

Pay Attention to Emergence: Surprisingly, 37% of students engaging in the activities of the Friendship Centre at the College are non-aboriginal. This is significantly enhancing the relationships between non-aboriginal and aboriginal students. It is now acting as an educational and awareness resource that is supporting integration and relationship building across cultures through, for example, the annual Spirit Seekers Conference.  New understandings are developing.

Scaling Out (replication): The ANFCA recognizes an important opportunity when a new, grassroots idea demonstrates its worth; it needs to be studied, documented and shared with other communities as quickly and effectively as they can. Nelson says, “We (aboriginals AND non profit sector) have been so often studied and given recommendations by external “experts”; while this can be helpful sometimes, we need to own our creativity and expertise and when we find something that works we need to discover why and how and have processes in place to harvest that learning, share with others, and support effective scaling to other contexts and for bigger goals.”  The organization works hard to pay attention to what’s working and supports and replicates, adapting to each unique community.

Scaling Up (changing the system): In this and other ANFCA partnerships, the first motivations are often focused on the grassroots scale, the day-to-day, technical aspects of how to do their basic work as effectively as they can. But they also keep their eye on the bigger picture; for them, these partnerships lay the foundation for important coalitions that may be able to work at broader scales, including working for positive change on some of the following:

  • Cross-cultural awareness and relationships, as in the college example (changing belief systems);
  • Information sharing, as in gathering statistics on Metis participation on behalf of the Metis Nations of Alberta (changing knowledge resource flows);
  • Coalition building in support of policy advocacy (changing authority flows);
  • Advocacy at the provincial government level for enhancing the collective resource base (changing financial resource flows).