This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
You may have heard some version of the H.L. Mencken quote, “There is always a well-known solution to every human problem - neat, plausible and wrong.” You may also have felt a little depressed after reading it.
Research supports Mencken’s claim, which may have caused you to ask what then, if anything, can solve the big problems we face?
The answer, according to experts, is simple: listen.
“We decided the best thing we could do was listen and keep listening,” said Jennifer Mayer-Glenn, executive director of University Neighborhood Partners (UNP), a special office of the University of Utah serving the west side.
Sometimes that listening may take time, but the fruits of UNP’s work are impressive. The conversations they’ve convened have helped create organizations that deal with everything from healthcare to youth coding camps that serve the west side’s diverse population. Most importantly, these solutions are homegrown, led by west side residents who identified a need in their community and chose to do something about it.
Listening may sound simple, but listening is more than “sound” according to Daniel Perlin, creator of Make_Good, an experience design firm that counts Google and Spotify among its clients.
“Deep listening is a skill, and it should not be underestimated, the steps are simple, but necessary,” said Perlin.
How to listen
First, listening takes time.
It was in 2001 that University of Utah President Bernie Machen (1998-2004) recognized and took ownership for the fact that, as an institution, the U was little involved on the west side. Determined to change that, he turned to Irene Fisher, then-director of the Bennion Center, to change the University’s role from absentee to west side community partner.
Fisher spent a year - yes, an entire year - just interviewing west side community leaders and organizations about what they wanted from the University. And the finding from all that listening?
“They wanted to be listened to more,” said Mayer-Glenn. West side leaders also said they were, “tired of being studied and then the U would just disappear - doing research with no real impact or usefulness to the community.”
In short, west side residents didn’t want to be rescued, they wanted a partner who would seek to understand them. That meant listening, and staying to listen. So, second, listening is about an ongoing conversation.
Mayer-Glenn explains that, out of conversations, key issues emerged. “We don’t bring solutions, we find leaders and then we help them develop their own capacity to realize the change they want to see in their community.”
That usually starts with a leadership “pipeline” where a cohort of community members take a low-cost, team-based leadership course. “Sometimes sparks happen,” said Mayer-Glenn, “and an idea and a plan emerges.”
As a project takes on shape and substance, the next step in the pipeline is UNP’s startup incubator that provides additional capacity-building support. From the incubator a number of (primarily) nonprofit startups have emerged that serve the west side community.
“It is because of organizations like UNP that we have been able to grow and increase the connections and opportunities and access we need,” said Javier Alegre, executive director of Latino Behavioral Health Services, one of the first organizations to emerge through UNP’s leader pipeline.
Latino Behavioral Health Services serves west side residents, but is increasingly extending its reach to offer options for Spanish-language mental health services around the state.
Mayer-Glenn said Latino Behavioral Health Services is a great example of a group of west side civic entrepreneurs identifying a need in their own community and addressing it. She notes that a recent survey found that of 109 mental health service providers in the Salt Lake Valley, 22 claimed they provided Spanish language services. Of those 22, only 7 were located where the Latino community is concentrated.
“A Spanish speaker contacted those seven,” said Mayer-Glenn, “and of those, only two were actually able to be responsive in that moment.”
Providing access to key services and opportunities that otherwise are not found on the west side or available in languages other than English is a common theme among the organizations born from UNP’s leadership pipeline.
Thinking upside down
The third lesson of listening is to do it in the right order if you want to solve big problems.
“We think about data and answers, backwards,” said Daniel Perlin, “We assume when we’re trying to solve a problem that we have to go to the biggest level of data - surveys, and big spreadsheets of data.”
Data, Perlin said, is just, “A form of listening. Listening at a big scale. Listening to many. That’s not where you start listening. You start listening at the level of a single human being.”
Perlin believes that the UNP approach is the right way to get at solutions.
“You’re doing it right when you start out just trying to hear how someone else thinks, how they listen, and checking your own biases at the door.”
That resonates with Mayer-Glenn’s view of UNP. “We don’t think of ourselves as solving the problems. We’re just getting the right conversations started. The leaders are already here on the west side, we just look to help them along.”
The Innovation Lab at the Salt Lake Tribune is starting its own effort at deep listening on the west side. Today we launch a project focused on listening deeply, learning from those already finding solutions in their west side communities, and, ultimately, telling those stories. If you live on the west side and want to talk with us, please contact Saige Miller, email@example.com.