Sixteen weeks stood between an informal coffee shop meetup and a collaborative event for professionals of color in the MSP region. The collaborating partners, the Make it. MSP. initiative and Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), joined together due to mutual interest. At the time of the initial meeting, Make It. MSP. was in the midst of advancing its work with professionals of color, looking at how the region can attract and retain diverse talent. MPR’s interest lay in broadening the world of sources and subjects that appear on its air and building trust with Minnesotans who might not be listeners.

The event took the name Northern Vibes: Sharing Your Stories to Shape Our Future, and it was held on December 7, 2016 at MPR’s UBS Forum. Make it. MSP.’s work with professionals of color informed the structure of the event. In September 2016, Make it. MSP. heard from over 1,000 professionals of color through a region-wide survey. We pulled major themes from the survey results and created spaces for small groups to interpret those themes, especially as they pertained to personal experience. The purpose was to draw from relational storytelling to add a human dimension to the research.

Early responses from participants suggest that the event was a success. But it was only successful because we were able to collaborate effectively, from brainstorming to cleanup. Here are five significant lessons we learned along the way.

Lesson 1: Make sure organizational missions align

The first question to ask is, does it make sense for us to work together? If the broad missions of the two organizations don’t align, then it will be difficult to determine common goals for any collaborative work.

Make it. MSP.’s mission is to improve the long-term vitality and competitiveness of the MSP region by attracting professionals to come here, retaining the ones that are already here, and nurturing an environment where everyone can thrive. Part of MPR’s mission is to “be an indispensable resource for our audiences and an essential public service for our communities.”

Both Make it. MSP. and MPR are invested in public service and strengthening local communities. This overlap pushed us into a partnership because we were both able to visualize how a collaboration could result in mutual success—and we were able to do that before we even conceptualized the event.

Lesson 2: Make sure that the small-scale mission aligns, too

It’s necessary for organizational missions to overlap, and it’s just as necessary for the small-scale aims to fit together. This has to be figured out once the brainstorming has begun. Perhaps the most important question we asked in the lead up to December 7 was: “Why are we doing this event and why are we doing it together?”

“Storytelling” was the event’s anchor, and the focus emerged from two places. First, storytelling is what MPR does best. Even though it was participants and not the organization that would be telling the stories at the event, it was important to hold activities in a space closely associated with trustworthy narratives. Second, Make it. MSP.’s work with professionals of color revealed that a desire exists to share stories as a way to spur positive change in the region.

Our collaborative effort assisted in Make it. MSP.’s work, it highlighted MPR’s strengths, and it planted the seeds of trust between MPR and everyone who attended. The missions overlapped, and the event was designed in such a way that would advance both of them.

Lesson 3: Be open to all possibilities

While our missions and goals aligned, we still needed to figure out how two partners with distinct perspectives and characteristics could develop an event together. It wasn’t a given that our goals would result in a shared vision. When we began brainstorming, each partner brought an open mind and a willingness to consider each and every idea, question and concern. This led to a foundation of mutual trust and respect.

Collaborations can be time-consuming and complicated. Sometimes, it may just be easier and more efficient for a single organization to take the lead in planning. But then what would you lose? By being open to all possibilities, we were able to realize each partner’s strengths and resources. Make It. MSP. possessed an enormous amount of data regarding professionals of color but was in need of assistance with interpreting a complex set of themes. With MPR’s expertise in storytelling, we were able to integrate pointed questions in the event that would allow us to further understand and illustrate the data, thereby making it more powerful.

Lesson 4: Know your audience

Every successful venture begins with listening. Knowing our audience and what was important to them allowed us to create an event that more effectively accomplished our goals. With the goal of creating a space for professionals of color to share stories and experiences and given the sensitive nature of these issues and topics, we knew we needed to think carefully about how to structure this event.

We were fortunate to have a set of insights from Make It. MSP.’s research that revealed what professionals of color were seeking in an event. The guiding vision was to create a safe, intimate and authentic space. This vision informed important elements such as creating a laid-back, cabin-like atmosphere with a lounge setting, hot chocolate and even a Yule Log. Moreover, MPR and Make It. MSP. took intentional steps to ensure a safe space with an emphasis on confidentiality and encouraging everyone to avoid using their phones. We gave careful attention to every detail.

Lesson 5: Think forward

From the beginning, we knew we didn’t want this to be a one-off collaboration, but something that could be the start of a mutually beneficial partnership. While we were planning a specific event, we hoped that it would provide a model for what a partnership could look like in the months ahead.

Establishing a long-term partnership was an overarching thought that informed every step along the way. It resulted in us taking more time to consider how we were working together, how our goals aligned, and how to build trust and relationships. We gained a better sense of each partner’s vision, assets, and personalities, thereby laying a strong foundation for future collaboration.

An effective collaboration requires common goals, direction, and openness to all possibilities. Make it. MSP. and MPR learned from each other, and we were able to give the other partner the space to explore. By doing so, each partner’s strengths were able to contribute to the vision and the outcomes of Northern Vibes. Now, the goal is to use this foundation for what comes next.

What’s next is soon. On February 1st, the University of St. Thomas, will host a forum to share out the professionals of color insights with a broad audience of cross-sector employers and community leaders. Make It. MSP and MPR are looking forward to taking the stories shared at Northern Vibes and incorporating them to into a powerful presentation of the data to an influential audience.

Tiffany Orth
is the Make It. MSP. Coordinator at GREATER MSP, and avid runner and animal lover.

Eric Garcia McKinley is a Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow at American Public Media (APM), the parent company of Minnesota Public Radio (MPR). He’s also an experienced blogger, digital media editor, and writing consultant.

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