Imagine you go to visit a town full of thriving, interesting shops and busy parks. You wander past a bustling new elementary school. Eventually, your walk brings you to the edge of town, where you notice something incongruous – a huge, straight, ugly wall. It is a very tall wall, and it stretches as far as you can see in either direction. It isn’t easy to determine the materials used to make the wall, but it is dirty and grey, completely shear, and very strong. There are no doors in the wall, and no obvious ways to climb it.
You walk back through the downtown square with renewed interest, seeing things you hadn’t noticed before. Homes and businesses in the shadow of the huge wall are a bit run down. People rarely look towards the wall as they make their way back and forth. You notice, suddenly, what makes the design of the new school so unusual. Roger Waters Elementary School does not have a single identifiable “wall.”
Puzzled, you enter a coffee shop near the wall. The young waiter, happy for the distraction, tells you that it has been there as long as anyone can remember. He tells you it is the tallest wall in the world, at 150 feet high (although you think to yourself that it didn’t look quite that tall to you). You ask him what is on the other side of the wall, and he tells you that nobody knows for sure. Some people think there is good farmland while others believe there might be a forest for lumber. You ask the obvious question – why doesn’t anybody knock down the wall, or at least try to find a way over it or through it? The waiter smiles and rolls his eyes. “People from out of town always ask that question!”
An older woman at the next table overhears your conversation and chimes in. Articulate, poised, and polite, she tells you that the wall is a huge obstacle to tourism, and that it hurts property values. She shares statistics about the lack of good farmland near the town, and points out that wall bisects the local landscape, leaving the town with 50% fewer trading partners than other towns of similar size. She tells you she’s been running a campaign to raise awareness about Wall Issues for years. The committee has achieved a lot. The “sun bus” now takes kids from Shady Acres across town twice a week, for example. Although she counts the mayor and the owners of several local businesses among her committee members, attendance at her events has been dwindling.
You order a second delicious pastry. Over the next hour, you chat with a number of people as they enter and exit the coffee shop. Some shrug and say that the wall is just part of life in the town. Others acknowledge that the wall is probably a bad thing, but tell you they are “just sick of all the negativity.” You do chat with a few folks that are more engaged. You meet an artist who is working with children to paint murals on portions of the wall. With sweeping gestures, he speaks about deconstructing the “wall in our minds” and tells you that he envisions a day when the entire wall is transformed into a massive art project. However, he admits that there are challenges. He has found that some portions of the wall have a crumbly surface. After the artist leaves, you chat with a group of talkative, intense college students. Nursing their espressos, they tell you that they have organized teams to run at the wall with a huge battering ram that they have made out of a tree trunk. They tell you that their project is the only one locally that is focusing on the “real wall problem.” However, it doesn’t appear that they have damaged the wall very much through their efforts. Their project seems flush with young, energetic volunteers, but short on planning. They tell you they would like to raise funds to buy a professional battering ram like those used by firefighters, perhaps through a “rock the wall” live music festival.
Nibbling thoughtfully on the crumbs of your second pastry, you reflect that your new friends all have different theories about the history of the wall and the materials used to make it. None of these theories strikes you as very well informed. Each group that is working on the issue is vaguely aware of the efforts of others, but they clearly travel in different social circles. It has never occurred to the artist to tell the college students what he knows about the weak sections of the wall. The students, who have a lot of energy and many friends, don’t actually live in Shady Acres and have never attended any of the Wall Issues workshops. The enigmatic waiter probably knows more than anyone about the wall and about how people in the town interact with it. He works all day within sight of the wall, hears all the stories and serves coffee to the people involved in each scheme, but he doesn’t seem the sort of person to synthesize what he’s learned or share his reflections. Conspiratorially, he tells you that the owners of the coffee shop are planning to move their business into the Sunnyside Mall. Despite the considerable time and energy that the residents of this town spend discussing the wall and interacting with the wall, it strikes you that none of them really believe that the wall will ever come down.
This parable was inspired by the conversations we’ve been having recently with communities across the country about simple ways to advance a collective impact approach. Special thanks to Kris Cummings from United Way of Cambridge and North Dumfries, Sandra Albertson from United Way of Thunder Bay, Melissa Riewald from United Way of Kitchener Waterloo and Area and Liz Weaver from Tamarack for their feedback on an earlier draft.