Straight up interview with Moira Deslandes

Moira Deslandes has strategic and operational experience in the not-for-profit sector and in government at state, regional, national and international levels. Until recently, Moira has been working as lead facilitator, or backbone leader, for Together in the South, one of the partner communities in the Opportunity Child initiative.

In this Q&A, Moira reflects on what motivates her, what she finds rewarding and challenging and where she has seen the seeds of change being sown.

What drew you to this work as a backbone leader or facilitator in collective impact work?

It began with an invitation from Kate Simpson who at the time was acting CEO of Together SA.  She knew of my work as a facilitator, policy analyst and mobiliser and invited me to collaborate with her in the initiative. We had worked together on a very small project for a short time in another role. I am mentioning this because this reveals some important variables about collective impact as a movement and not a project.

Firstly, invitation is vital it demonstrates openness, willingness to learn from others, a humility and an understanding that it is a shared practice and not resting in one or two leaders, but needs to feed a movement for change. Secondly, it demonstrates that a range of skills, knowledge and networks are required and these too rest in more than one person or, indeed, one system. Collective impact mobilises systems and ideas as well as people. I am well known for my systems work and this was able to be leveraged as well as my skills in a range of platforms. We all know that feeling of satisfaction when our skills are noticed, valued and put to use for the greater good.

Thirdly it is the blend of expertise across the disciplines and political landscapes of the not-for-profit sector, government and business that was recognised and able to be deployed. Collective impact work is the most important work I think I have ever done. It is truly an honour to be able to deploy intellect, energy and creativity to the most challenging of social problems with the most potential to shift systems. Since becoming a grandmother in June 2015, I am even more attracted to this work and the work in early childhood. I want the little one in my life to be growing up in a more equitable world and so his life and the future of all children continues to drive and inspire me.

What has a typical day looked like for you?

I was working in Together in South for two years and typically this was for about 10 hours a week, so not full-time. My other responsibilities at Together SA fused together to bring communications, strategy, advocacy and training to support both Together in the South and the broader Together SA agenda.

The strategy was for Together in the South to be a prototype or a test bed for many of the other features and elements of collective impact being explored by Together SA as the intermediary, or what we called ‘the backbone of backbones”. Together SA was also supporting four other collective impact initiatives. Typically, my time was spent:

  • Supporting members of the Together in the South leadership group; this was mainly coaching and mentoring between leadership meetings, brokering learning opportunities (e.g. in results based accountability training, ‘collective impact 101’ training, access to leading international leaders in the collective impact movement);
  • Attracting and supporting human resources including students, interns, seconded staff and volunteers to undertake research, create baseline (and update baseline report), supporting with documentation of meetings and reporting back;
  • Communications via Facebook, website and email internally to local community leaders and externally to wider community and partners;
  • Identifying opportunities for funding and supporting writing submissions for same;
  • Facilitating local leadership team meetings and supporting them in their decision-making and actions coming from meetings;
  • Paying attention to political dynamics and providing strategic advice to mirror public policy changes (e.g. in child protection, reforming democracy and innovation);
  • Supporting and coaching peers within Together SA; and
  • Co-creating tools for leaders to use for decision-making around indicator selection and providing advice to support the decision-making process.

What have you found most rewarding and challenging about your work in the Together in the South collective impact community initiative?

I got goosebumps when one of the local residents stood up to read the pledge for Together in the South and introduced herself and the pledge and then invited us all to join her in reading it together. The commitment was no longer an intellectual exercise, we were putting ourselves on the line and holding ourselves accountable to one another.

We started a number of meetings and workshops by asking people to write the names of children they know in the age group on a large piece of paper on the floor – this certainly kept it real for me and for everyone. There was a great sense of reward (and relief) when Together in the South was recognised by Opportunity Child and invited into the Opportunity Child initiative. Being present at the Opportunity Child community gathering [in Sydney in April 2016] with one of the local leaders was very special – to feel part of a national movement helped us all grow in confidence that we were on the right track.

The challenging parts are always very present. Speaking only for myself, I have been challenged by the enormity of the changes required some days. While the flick of a pen can change a policy, hearts and minds and entrenched practices need careful, thoughtful and compassionate attention. The work in collective impact always brings you to crossroads – where you are birthing new beginnings at the same time offering palliation for some things to die. In my own case, I am more of a midwife than a palliative care nurse, so my challenge is always to be patient where I don’t think patience is what is needed. While we wait for others to catch up, another generation is missing out.

This came home very strongly to me when the last AEDC results came out when the areas Together in the South are responsible for went backwards in most domains! While we have been talking things are going backwards – we can’t wait any longer. The two-year-old today will be the five-year-old the next time the AEDC is taken and it will be too late for them if we don’t get on with this enterprise. There is no time to waste.

How did you build bridges in your community – connecting people to a larger common system?

Putting time into relationships is gold. One of the principles Together in the South adopted was to invite people we know, looking to the links we had in our sphere of influence. Katrine Hildyard MP, who was the original Director of Together SA and is a key member of the leadership team of Together in the South, is the champion of this approach. She offered training and helped all members of the leadership team and everyone she came in contact with in Together in the South to build those links. Her ambassadorship of Together in the South and extensive community links were followed up with initiations.

We invited others in through personal and professional networks, through our connections with family and friends and in the neighbourhood through door-knocking and mapping the assets there. We also offered opportunities to learn about Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) and a number of people in the leadership team participated in ABCD workshops.

In addition, all students on placement with Together in the South were exposed to community development principles and its relationship to social planning and social policy, which added another dimension. We held regular report backs to the community. The local councillors representing the area were also on the leadership group, so they had deep links into community and could speak to the work of Together in the South when they were out and about. Linking with community is a shared responsibility for all of us.

How did you influence and focus others on long-term interests in your community – and what new cultural norms were being established, or starting to be established, as a result?

I wouldn’t say I influenced others, more fostered a culture of inclusion and leadership. I see myself as mentoring and coaching local residents and staff in organisations to take up their leadership, step up and step forward in the place where they find themselves. A few examples of how this transpired at Together in the South are:

  • One of the residents was actively seeking selection in the 2017 Governor’s Leadership Program which specialises in adaptive leadership;
  • One of the members of the leadership group who was a young practitioner in a mid-size non-government organisation was influencing her manager and CEO about collective impact and being given more time to participate;
  • A government employee was exploring the potential to be either seconded to Together in the South, or have some of her time dedicated to contribute to research in the early years for evaluation to link to the indicators; and
  • A resident member was able to be hosted as a volunteer with one of the partners to do his volunteering as part of his Centrelink requirements so he could pursue activating his community.

Where have you seen early impact – new things happening, fostering real economic and social transactions that create system change in the long term?

It is very early days and a bit hard to see some of these new transactions taking shape, but the seeds have been sown. The injection of investment in funds from Opportunity Child and from the State Government will help accelerate the activity and there should be some real runs on the board in the next 12 months if this momentum can be maintained.

Together in the South is at the point of transition from start up to scale up. It has been influenced by the stages of development as articulated by Promise Neighbourhoods and this guide is really useful reference as well as a guide for action and reflection.

For more information, see Promise Neighbourhoods Institute: A Developmental Pathway for Achieving Promise Neighbourhoods Results.

How did local governance and organisational structure evolve in your time as facilitator or backbone leader?

This was indeed evolutionary and continuing to evolve [when I finished up as facilitator]. Together in the South is hosted by Together SA that is an incorporated association with members. The local leadership in Together in the South was on the cusp of its third wave of leaders. The first wave were the early adopters, the second wave the startup team and [when I stopped working as backbone leader] the scale up group was about to emerge and consolidate.

There was also more work on governance to be done. Contracted paid staff were governed by Together SA and accountable to the CEO of Together SA.

How has your partnership with Opportunity Child supported your work – what is the value for Together in the South of your partnership with a national initiative?

This was the best! Being a part of a national movement gives strength, access and accountability. As new members of the Opportunity Child initiative it was still early, but the early benefits were already being felt. Having Opportunity Child make a five-year funding commitment enables Together SA to leverage and seek other opportunities to build a sustainable base for the work.

Having access to national data and accountability systems with a shared understanding of what it means to shift the systems on early childhood development is irreplaceable. It will inform work across South Australia and Together SA as well. To say nothing of the quality of the staff and personal and professional support on offer. Together in the South really appreciated (Opportunity Child Executive Director) Michelle Lucas spending two days with leaders earlier this year to get to know them, understand the landscape of the work and listen in to the discernment and decision-making processes.

Where have you found inspiration and strength in your day to day work – what have you learned?

Nothing beats being with people, listening to their dreams and aspirations for their families, community and for themselves. It is always an honour and a privilege to be in solidarity and be a part of the equity movement.

Every day I learned how to be creative with the levers I know how to use and found new levers to pull to build connections and enhance the strengths inherent in the community. Cormac Russell has a saying: “Work on what’s strong, not wrong.” That helps me learn as well as stay inspired in all my work.

The work and collegiality of international leaders like Dr Michael McAfee and Liz Weaver have really helped and their organisations PolicyLink and the Tamarack Institute are ‘go to’ places for me most days.  I have also learnt a lot from FSG. Their templates and community of practice are great to tap into from time to time. I don’t want to waste time reinventing the wheel if someone has done it before.

I get recharged from poetry, music, family, friends and having a good laugh.

Through your work, what is your ultimate vision of success?

My vision of success is a generation of happy, healthy, ready to learn, engaged young Australians supported and loved by generations of adults.

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