FENCES OR BRIDGES?

SET-UP — Here in South Louisiana we have a lot of water. Many houses have ditches, 2 to 4 feet deep that run along beside the street and sometimes in between yards. If it weren’t for the ditches, everyone would have water in their living rooms.

I was returning from an early morning run a couple of days ago when I came upon a crew of bored-looking workers in our neighborhood standing around a trailer stacked full of beautiful cedar boards and beams. Not being one to miss an opportunity to chit-chat, I yelled out, “Y’all building a bridge?”

One of the fellows yelled back, “Nope. A fence.”

It was a short conversation, but it got me thinking … Fences or bridges? What do we need most? I concluded right away that we need more bridges and not so many fences, and I recalled a story about a fellow named Bob.

I worked for about 25 years in several states in the field of affordable homeownership, so I spent a lot of time raising money. Everywhere I worked I dealt with cities, states and the federal government, as well as foundations, to attract the grants and loans needed to make the deals work.

When I started working in a state not to be named, I heard through the grapevine that Bob, the government official I’d be working with for grants, was unfriendly, uncooperative, and generally a pain to work with. This was discouraging to hear, because Bob was the gatekeeper for grants, and I had no other choice but to work with him. Building quality, affordable housing is a tough job to start with. To be successful it takes a lot of hard work, a good deal of luck, and an unreasonable expectation of success. What I heard about Bob added to the weight of the task ahead. So I did what I often do when faced with a big hurdle, I slept on it.

Sure enough the next morning, I popped awake with one thought in my head … Bob’s going to be my next best buddy. I had no idea how I’d try to make Bob my next best buddy, but I had a clear goal and that’s always a good place to start. That day I called around to three or four other folks who, like me, worked with Bob for grants, and I asked them what he was like. I heard a lot of groans and complaints, and then someone mentioned that Bob loved basketball.

I made my first appointment to meet Bob and showed up at his office. I left my project plans on a chair in the waiting room on purpose. I introduced myself and asked Bob about his history and it didn’t take long before we were talking basketball. We must have talked about basketball for 20 minutes before he asked me why I was there. So I retrieved my plans from the waiting room, rolled out the blueprints and introduced my project.

For the next eight years I worked with Bob on one project after another and secured a good number of grants. He was tough on project feasibility, but that was his job. He had only so much grant money to award and he wanted to fund projects that had a high probability of success.

Basketball was the bridge between us. It was a lesson I carried forward to my next state and the others that followed. I discovered that there were people like Bob everywhere I worked, so I looked for the bridge … the human connection that makes all things possible.  

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