by Hannah Gourgey
… I must confess that I am not afraid of the word, “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.
Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963
On Monday, we experienced the unique confluence of President Obama’s Inauguration on the holiday celebrating one of America’s most important figures in our social justice history. Also common to both men: they have engaged the political landscape at a time when domestic tensions are very high. Some shy away from these tensions, but maybe we shouldn’t.
Martin Luther King, Jr. penned the opening quote to the local clergy of Birmingham as he sat in jail for engaging in passive resistance in one of the most racially divided cities in America at the time. He wrote this letter as the leader of what became known as the Civil Rights Movement when the momentum from his non-violent approach was reaching its apex.
At E3 Alliance in Austin, TX, I’ve often debated with fellow staff and partners the question, “Are we undertaking a movement for education change?” Rather than answering this question with a simple, “yes” or “no,” we talk about the characteristics that our work shares with that of a “movement.” One key characteristic that we share is the need to recognize and embrace the “tensions” that exist in transforming systems and that help fuel the necessary growth within our community and within ourselves.
Over the last six years of data-driven, results-oriented collective impact (CI), E3 staff and our partners have noted a number of creative tensions that CI practitioners experience. Today I’m highlighting one that I’ve experienced often in this work: When to Partner versus Push. In navigating this tension, the backbone organizations must decide for themselves which is the appropriate approach based on the unique qualities of their communities and their given roles.
Partnering versus Pushing
CI requires that the backbone organization engage many stakeholders across the community, and at times, some stakeholders are not motivated to participate. If it is a critical stakeholder, a school district, college or community organization, how do we know when to “push” them and when not – particularly since backbone organizations rarely have institutional or structural authority? E3 takes a two-pronged approach:
1. Default to partnering whenever possible,
2. However, if a stakeholder remains reluctant to engage, our “decision tree” looks like this:

  • Are we engaging the right person in the organization to make decisions about partnership?

No:  Find the right one (hint:  may not be the leader)

  • If yes:  Do we understand the REASONS the person does not want to engage?

No:  Engage a mutually-trusted third party to help you find out.  What they tell you versus what  they tell others may be different.

  • If yes:  Can these reasons be accommodated within the partnership goal?

No:  Identify a short-term project that will initiate a more superficial connection, but can build trust and shared ownership.

  • If yes:  Make sure that these accommodations are understood and approved by the broader coalition.

If, however, these steps do not lead to stakeholder engagement, I’ve learned that they can be persuaded through peer pressure from within the stakeholder group. We have also enlisted the support of funding entities/or opportunities and respected business champions to encourage participation. Finally, when leadership remains tentative, we have met with long term success by engaging at the practitioner level for specific initiatives, and praised the heck out of the participants to influence reluctant leadership.
There are a couple of cautionary tales, too. E3 has learned not to publicly share organization-specific data to “strong arm” participation, unless there are alternative partners who can and are willing to do the work. We also found that we should be prudent when engaging local public officials such as school boards or city councils to help persuade, largely because of the partisan-tone often used and the perceived “power play” such engagement suggests.
Ultimately, the pay off in working with reluctant organizations comes from relentless persistence and abundant patience. There are those that say that such persistence can backfire, but as Dr. King notes in the very same letter from Birmingham, “The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation … that will inevitably open the door to negotiation.” The negotiation we seek must stem from shared commitments at its best when the partnership is among equals. Thank you, Dr. King.
About E3 Alliance: E3 Alliance is a regional, data-driven education collaborative based in Austin, Texas. We are building the strongest educational pipeline in the country to drive regional economic prosperity. Founded in 2006, E3 Alliance acts as a catalyst for change, working to break-down barriers and build better alignment across the education continuum. Our name tells our story: Education Equals Economics, we believe that only through greater education achievement for our current and future generations of children, can Central Texas realize economic prosperity and a high quality of life for our community. Such education achievement requires systemic change from cradle to career, and that is our commitment to our community. For more information, please visit our website at
This blog also appeared on the FSG website. Learn more about FSG’s approach to creating large-scale change.

Dr. Hannah Gourgey, oversees collaborative work around The Blueprint for                      Educational Change, Central Texas’ strategic plan to build the strongest educational pipeline in the country.