Jim Kent:

"Human change initiatives must work at social, economic, and ecological levels if they are to succeed."

Archive for the ‘Stories of Heart and Soul’ Category

Intermountain West Funders Network

Posted by Jim on October 13, 2010

Jim Kent attended the Intermountain West Funder Network meeting in Aspen, Colorado from September 22 to the 24, 2010. There were over 20 foundations that attended. The focus of the gathering was to build relationships among funders in the Intermountain West to explore models for funder networking and collaboration on civic engagement, land use, and the role of philanthropy in both.  Jim was teamed with a Program Officer from the Hewlett Foundation to discuss the role of funders in advancing renewable energy sources in the Intermountain West.  It was held at the Aspen Institute and hosted by the Aspen Foundation. William Roper, Executive Director, of the Orton Family Foundation which is concerned with the heart and soul issues of rural communities was one of the organizers of the meeting.

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Heart and Soul Stories

Posted by Jim on May 12, 2010

I collect stories that reflect on a communities heart and soul. This is a story from Tom Baker about a heart and soul moment when he was Director of the Aspen-Pitkin Affordable Housing Office.

Tom: I am pleased to be copied on the Heart and Soul emails and thought that I would give you my impression of how Jim and I translated Aspen’s and Basalt’s H&S into the more formal structures of various governments.

In terms of discovering, understanding and making conscious H&S, my experience is that a concerted effort needs to be made to connect with the “informal” networks and the “formal” structure of government-in that order. This intersection can be termed governance; however, not all governance makes this connection. In the early 1990’s, when I was Director of Affordable Housing for Aspen and Pitkin County it was an especially turbulent time. Development was out of control and causing ever increasing land prices, which in turn created more and more pressure for affordable housing (AH) (at that time Aspen and Pitkin County had over 2,000 AH units today we have over 3,000). The community’s confidence in the AH program was at a low point. Jim and I spoke about how to enter my job at that time and Jim suggested that I spend the first month “hanging out” in the local gathering places to attempt to understand how the informal networks felt about the Housing Office and AH. Ten years later, when I was appointed Town Manager of Basalt Jim had the same advice for me.

What the hanging out did for me was connect me to the community without any filters. I listened to the language that community members used, which was very different than the language used by the newspapers, developers, planners and elected officials. This language was crucial for me to understand what people wanted and what they would be willing to support and why they would support it – in terms of AH in Aspen and Pitkin Co or general development and/or community building in Basalt. I also began to understand where the important gathering places were for different segments of the community, who were the important caretakers and communicators, which proved invaluable when I wanted grassroots interaction with a policy proposal, and how people survived, in some cases they worked around government policies that did not serve them. Also of critical importance was the question of what policy adjustments would serve people the best.

By hanging out (Kent calls this Management by Hanging Out) I gained critical insights into how the community viewed various public policy concerns and what they found important about an issue. Having this information I could influence the policy discussion at the formal level in a community friendly direction, which was the goal of most elected officials. However without a connection to the community’s networks they were captured by a special interest group, which influenced their thinking and decisions and often prevented community interaction.

So, once someone is connected to the informal networks of a community how does this knowledge get translated into the formal structure? As you may expect there are two ways: informally, by honoring the language and ideas of the informal networks in policy discussions and by encouraging others in government to “hang out”; and formally, through documents and procedures, which fit the formal structures data and information system but honor the knowledge and wisdom within the informal networks. For example, in Basalt the Master Plan has a chapter titled, Civic Engagement and Social Capital. This chapter formalized the importance of understanding networks and their place in governance. Later, using the Basalt Master Plan’s Civic Engagement and Social Capital concept, citizens were given the resources and responsibility to develop a River Master Plan. This effort engaged over 40 community members directly (l00s indirectly through the multiplier of informal networks), took 16 months to develop, and because ofthe support that had been build throughout the community it was adopted in two-weeks of formal hearings, unheard of in most governmental processes. (While this is a story that deserves its own paper, one discovery that we made was that community members are far more effective at dealing with developers than the typical elected official in terms of adhering to community goals and policy objectives. In Social Capital terms citizens would meet with developers to work out issue resolution at the informal level long before they got to the formal system)

In the Aspen/Pitkin Housing Office we set-up procedures for staffers to go to gathering places and network as a way to establish trust and build support in the community for affordable housing on a project by project basis. Staffers also vetted AH plans at gathering places to ensure that new projects were both understood and addressed the desires of the community. I still remember the point when the Housing Board became re-empowered for their mission to build affordable housing and build community after several years of battering by special interest groups. Jim and I had made a concerted effort to engage the community in gathering places and networking over the first three months of my tenure as Housing Director. During that time we learned what people wanted and how we could enlist them to help build affordable housing. At the time the Housing Board was developing plans for a downtown housing development. As was typical during that period of time, the Housing Board’s meetings were crowded with people telling them that they were supporters of AH but not at this location and/or the development’s density was too great and should be significantly reduced. This particular meeting was crucial for this particular downtown development – a go or no go point. The special interests were very empowered and many times sent their attorneys and real estate people to do the dirty work at the Housing Board’s meetings.

Jim and I had a number of community members at this meeting and it was a real eye opener for them to see how the Housing Board was treated. At one point a real estate person that had property management duties for an adjacent townhouse development said, “we don’t want to see laundry hanging off the balconies and we don’t want riff-raff in our neighborhood”. This language now sounds ridiculous, but at the time it was typical of comments at the Housing Board meetings and the Housing Board just sat there and took it. Immediately after the comment was made one of the community members stood up, turned to look at the real estate person and said in a very calm and caring way, “Mickey, I’m going to live there.” At that moment everything changed. It’s hard for me to communicate what happened, but I could see the air go out of the opposition and you could feel the Housing Board become more assertive – they even sat up straighter. The Housing Board approved the development at the recommended density at that meeting by a unanimous vote. The room quietly emptied out. It was a new era.

The community member who spoke was Jennifer Rice. At that time Jennifer was a striking 30 year old professional that radiated gentleness, good will and selflessness. In a way, I feel that Jennifer symbolized everything that was good about community, Aspen’s character and what we stood to lose or gain regarding Aspen’s future – and affordable housing was the policy vehicle that could take us there. She was its Heart & Soul at that moment and into the future. The situation was totally unscripted – it just happened, but then again when you engage the community to assist with issues of public policy things seem to “just happen”. I’m never disappointed and always amazed at how wise the collective community is regarding public policy.

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Stories of Heart and Soul in Community

Posted by Jim on September 17, 2009


The Use of Informal Networks and Gathering Places, Essential Elements of Heart and Soul, Allows Denver International Airport to be Built

The newspaper Denver Post read: “The Colorado General Assembly brokered a deal in 1985 to annex a 40 + acre plot of land in Adams County into the city of Denver, and use that land to build a new airport. Adams County voters approved the plan in a referendum in 1989.”

 The back story of this announcement, the hidden action that produced the vote by the citizens of Adams County to approve this annexation, is one of risk taking by Roy  Romer, then Governor of Colorado and James Kent Associates (JKA) leaders in the understanding of gathering places as communication centers and informal network decision making. 


In Colorado there is a state law that does not allow annexation by one jurisdiction from another with out the approval of the voters of the jurisdiction from which the land is to be annexed i.e. Denver needed 40 + acres of Adam’s County land in order to have the right land base to build its then new Denver International Airport.  The Governor took charge of the campaign to persuade Adams County citizens and businesses to support the annexation effort.  The campaign to make this happen had spent approximately $1.2 million in media ads, slick brochures “selling” the benefits of a new airport and the usual newspaper interviews and ads extolling the virtues of  this new airport for citizens of Adams County.


Five weeks before the vote in November of 1989 Jim Kent’s phone rang and on the line was Judy Harrington from Governor Romers office.  Shee explained that the formal campaign was not going well, that if the vote were “taken today” Denver would lose by 5 points and the airport would not be built.  The Governor wanted to know what could be done to turn this election around i.e. “can JKA’s  informal networking abilities turn this election”.  No small order when there was only 5 weeks left to get into the field.  The Governor was asked for two days so a quick check on what was going on with Adams County people who would vote on this referendum could be done.  Dropping into several gathering places the JKA team found what turned out to be the fatal flaw that was bringing the campaign for annexation approval down to defeat. 


The people of Adams County from the brief gathering place descriptions had what is termed an imbedded issue.  In the gathering place talk was the belief that “there would be no jobs or business opportunities at DIA for Adams County people.”  This was not true but it had the characteristics of an imbedded issue–one that is re-enforced daily through trusted word-of-mouth communication.  What was known was that the formal campaign could not penetrate to persuade the people that this “no jobs, no business opportunities” was “just not true”. With the information in hand the Governor was called with the following message:


“In order to turn this election around in 5 weeks, here’s what we have to do and how we are going to do it.”  The Governor was told  that in the next 5 weeks he would be needed every morning from 6:30am to 8:00am to visit every coffee shop in Adams County.  He was to bring no paper to write on or handouts and was not allowed to use “sell” talk.  He had to “listen” to the people and if he needed to draw something “draw on a napkin”.  The team needed to find the issues that the people had and respond to those issues to get underneath the “theme of non-access to jobs and businesses at DIA”.  In addition every Saturday he would work the “flea markets” to visit the booths to talk to the vendors about their issues and observations.  Finally the Governor’s Mansion with Governor Romer present will be available every Sunday between 2 pm and 4 pm for all of the Barbers, Beauticians and Bartenders (The 3 Bs) to come in and talk over their concerns and issues.  From the gathering places to the Mansion all of the people i.e. waitresses, vendors, and the 3 Bs were natural communicators in their respective networks and they moved information informally throughout Adams County.


As the issue got clarified in these word-of-mouth networks the new knowledge enhanced by the Governor about the fact that indeed there were “jobs and business opportunities” replaced the “myths and rumors” that the formal (and expensive) campaign could not penetrate.  In five short weeks this informal network and gathering place campaign contributed to turning the election from a sure 5 point defeat into a 4 point win.


To this day the process is  known as the “Oat Meal” circuit.  The Oat Meal circuit is designed to assist local citizens to empower themselves through participating in finding the truth and facts and not be disempowered by rumors and half-truths. The finding of truth and facts is a part of a community finding its heart and soul.  The community found on their own, through information and knowledge development, that there were opportunities that they were being deprived from taking advantage of them.  Outsiders who had a corporate agenda that needed to produce a vote against the annexation for their own gain were the ones who planted the “rumors and half truths”.  Had they prevailed in their narrow interests they would have deprived the citizens of Adams County from this great social and economic opportunity.




A side story of how the Governor worked to win the heart and soul of people at the gathering places takes place at a Café in northern Adams County where planes from one of the runways at DIA would come close to overflying some of the land in northern Adams County.  The Governor was in a booth with several people in the booth and several standing around.   Kent was standing with a waitress by the counter.  The Governor had been listening intently to Mildred a chicken and egg farmer in the area who was concerned about the planes flying overhead head and making noises.  Here’s the dialogue:


Mildred:  “Governor I don’t want that airport because the planes using the new runway will make so much noise that my chickens will stop laying eggs.” 


Governor without pausing and in the blink of an eye said:  “Tell you what Mildred, if you will consider the benefits of a new airport I will talk to our College of Agriculture to see if they can breed some chickens that are deaf.”  Every one relaxed and had a good laugh and the Governor had several more supporters.


Kent to Waitress:  “I didn’t know noise affected the ability of hens to lay eggs?”


Waitress to Kent:  “I don’t know about that, but I do know that Mildred’s chicken never did lay eggs very well, noise or no noise!”

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