We’re letting go of our Connected Kitchens collaboration: here’s why
How do you know when to pivot an ambitious idea to something more realistic? How do you let go of an idea that inspires you? LEDlab Program Manager Kiri Bird explores lessons learned from our Connected Kitchens project with Carnegie Community Centre and shares audio clips from a recorded project debrief.
In September 2015, LEDlab launched with four graduate students matched to community partners seeking to accelerate community-driven social enterprise projects that would put money in the pockets of DTES residents. One of these projects, Connected Kitchens — in collaboration with Carnegie Community Centre –was framed as an ‘inquiry-based project’ which would test the assumption that there is untapped potential for food startups in the DTES, specifically in the community kitchens programs of SRO (single room occupancy) hotels.
Carnegie and LEDlab planned to spend one semester (four months) in this inquiry phase and then decide if there was enough traction or uptake to continue the work into in the new year. Three months into Connected Kitchens, all the partners were disappointed with what had been accomplished.
We hadn’t been able to pin down a core team of DTES residents that would help lead the project, and we hadn’t started using community kitchens to produce food to sell. When we couldn’t find traction or community buy-in, we trusted ourselves enough to take a step back and reexamine our commitments and priorities. After careful discussion, the Carnegie team and LEDlab decided not to continue with the Connected Kitchens project for a second semester.
Andrea Jung, Outreach Manager at Carnegie Community Centre; Chris Puzio, the LEDlab graduate student assigned to this project; and myself got together in late December to debrief our work and capture what was learned. This blog is intended to share the perspectives of each of the stakeholders about the challenges of the project, and celebrate the personal growth achieved through the work. The two main reasons the project closed are highlighted below.
Our hope is to provide some lessons learned about how to do community-led work in partnership with students and universities, and to model transparency and collaborative reflection as a learning tool for groups trying, and sometimes failing, innovative social change projects.
As they say, hindsight is 20/20
Deciding to end the Connected Kitchens project was hard- we were in love with the idea, and at the outset, it didn’t seem impossible. However, upon recording our exit interview, it seemed clear to us all that the scope of the original project was perhaps too large or unrealistic. Specifically, the assumption that the project might be self-sustaining after eight months was overly optimistic; in reality, the cooking collective might need to be supported (through coordination, supervision, etc.) for years.
The Carnegie team now has a better understanding of what would be required of them to support this initiative on an ongoing basis, and in December felt that they don’t currently have the right staff in place to do the work. However, Carnegie may try to lay more of a foundation for this project in the future.
Committing to Bottom-Up + Community-Led
In order for economic development to be truly ground-up, projects or enterprises must be community-designed and driven. We know this both theoretically and intuitively; yet, we got ahead of ourselves in this project. What we learned by working with four social enterprise projects simultaneously is that both the project and the student will be more effective if the project is at a later stage of its development: the community partner and its members should be making decisions that drive the work of the student, there should be buy-in and commitment from membership, and the collective should continue to meet and exist even if the student weren’t there – as we have seen with LEDlab’s other three community projects.
Unfortunately, the foundational work to prepare for this project was not yet at this stage before LEDlab student Chris Puzio started work in September 2015, and so too much of the decision-making power and ideas generated were residing with the student, instead of residing in the community.
Closing this project has given LEDlab a lot of feedback on our program model, what type of projects we are best suited to support, and what needs to be in place for students to find success.
We’ve also learned a great deal about how to negotiate closing a multi-stakeholder project while observing ethics and care. Once that we realized Carnegie didn’t have the resources to keep the project going beyond LEDlab’s involvement and that the project wouldn’t be self-sustaining, we knew that to continue engaging community members would be setting unrealistic expectations.
My greatest takeaway was that I have a responsibility to spend time in the scoping and feasibility stage of recruiting new projects to LEDlab – and not to rush into exciting but potentially overambitious projects. It’s part of my role to help our partners understand the time commitment involved in supervising a graduate student intern and supporting project development.
Last but not least, recording ourselves to identify assumptions, lessons, and emotions was a transformative experience for everyone in the room. Expertly facilitated by Brielle Morgan of Storywise, we felt noticeably lighter exiting the room than when we entered.
Thank you to Andrea Jung of Carnegie Community Centre and former LEDlab student Chris Puzio for their willingness to share their experiences and learnings. We invite further reflections from community members, partners, and other readers – you can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.