Turncoats to Teammates

Claudette Sutton - August 31, 2009

Not so long ago in American history, “collaboration” was a dirty word.

A collaborator was someone who aided the enemy: the Nazis during World War II, the communists in the Cold War. Perhaps more than just a linguistic anachronism, the word indicated defiance of American values of independence and individuality; to collaborate was inherently sinister, morally corrupt.

In a new millennium, as we chart new routes through jungles of economic stress, technological overload, job transience and schedules that isolate us from neighbors and extended family, the old rules might be changing.

Directors of nonprofit organizations now say that funding agencies routinely look for cooperation among organizations they support, to maximize results from their dollars, and minimize overhead and duplication of services.

Families, ours included, are pushing against old tendencies to do everything ourselves.  Asking for help with errands, carpooling, trips to the doctor, meals or childcare may start from practical need but we discover fringe benefits—camaraderie and friendship that might help us get through this economic downturn.

Of course, for public schools the phrase “economic downturn” has a bit of a quaint ring, as if schools ever lived high on the hog! Schools have long made do on scrappy budgets as stock markets rose and fell, as bubbles floated and burst.

But now, tight belts are being cinched even tighter. Money that schools and school-affiliated programs receive from federal and state government, and city gross receipts revenue, is dwindling. Parents have less to pull out of their own pockets for school supplies, raffle tickets, wrapping paper and special donations. Meanwhile, children come to school in more extreme need. As just one indicator, Adelante, a program helping homeless children in Santa Fe Public Schools and their families, served over 1000 kids this past year who meet federal criteria for homeless. Signs indicate even greater need this year.

It’s time to put a new spin on “collaboration.”

This issue of Tumbleweeds focuses on successful partnerships between schools and their neighborhoods and the greater community. We want to highlight a few (and there are many more) and encourage others. Some of these partnerships involve museums and nonprofit arts organizations that bring programs to the classroom or open their doors to visiting school groups. In others, counseling programs and faith organizations offer indispensable services for families. In another case, the collaborators are children from Acequia Madre Elementary School who take valentines to their neighbors and invite them to come and work in their school garden.

I have to admit, sometimes I wish there wasn’t quite so much necessity serving as the mother of invention, but we’re mighty lucky these partnerships do happen. In the short run, partnerships between our schools and community may help us weather this financial crisis. In the long run, they’ll build relationships we might not otherwise have had. Collaboration might not be such a menace after all.

Perhaps there’s no more crucial time for communities to reach out to one another than in a crisis. Early this summer our good friend Chris Ishee, music teacher at Santa Fe Prep (and one of my husband’s poker buddies) had a serious heart attack. His students and co-workers from Prep organized themselves to take dinner to his family every night for two months. Just a few weeks later four teens, Julian Martinez, Kate Klein, Rose Simmons and Alyssa Trouw, died and a fifth, Avree Koffman, was seriously injured when their car was hit by a drunk driver. Since then, schools, churches, synagogues, counseling centers, Gerard’s House and Warehouse 21 have opened their amazing arms to offer many kinds of support to the teens’ friends and families.

This is collaboration at its most poignant, affirmation that we are part of a whole at a time when we might feel most alone. Unlike the collaborators of old that tore communities apart, these groups and individuals bring a community together into a living, breathing entity of which each of us is a vital part.

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