Community Brokering

The blog this week was written by George Martin, President of The Arcadia Institute. This is the last article in a series of three of my reflections on the work of the Institute since its founding in 1994. The first covered the period prior to our current contract with Kalamazoo Community Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (KCMHSAS. In the second article I discussed the background and beginning of a program that we have called the Community Participation Initiative. In this last piece I will be looking back on the Initiative and the development of our Community Brokering work. I will conclude with some thoughts on future directions.

With the Initiative we developed a multi-level strategy that included working directly with the individual, assisting the community agency that the individual chose to be part of, and the third level of attempting to move the whole community to become a natural support system for people with disabilities. In taking this approach we affirmed to importance that agencies that only serve people with disabilities are in peoples’ lives. We acknowledged their good and necessary work but chose to focus our efforts on the agencies and organizations that serve everyone.

Our primary method for our work at this third level was an organization made up of people from agencies with whom we had developed through our work with individuals. Our work at this level has a long history that goes all the way back to the 1970’s when I was involved in organizing interagency groups. A key development was the convening of what we called the ‘Community Village’, a group that Dawn Robarge, then on my Community Advocates staff, and Michele Miller, at that time the Executive Director for Parent to Parent of Southwest Michigan. The concept of the Community Village was that we needed to invoke the whole village to support children with disabilities. Most of the agency people invited were from agencies that served everyone. The core of the leadership of our current group, Connect Kalamazoo, comes from the Community Village group.

The concept of community brokering came out of the work of Connect Kalamazoo. During one of our annual Forums a small work group that I sat in on decided to continue to meet and work on the idea of developing what the Mental Health system called a system of ‘natural supports’, that is people involved in the lives of their clients who are not paid to do so, including family, friends, neighbors and others not part of a typical service plan.

For some time prior to the convening of this work group, I had been trying to figure out how use a methodology called Person Centered Planning in our Initiative. Even though the Mental Health Code requires that each client have such a plan, the deas and techniques used were rather pro forma, rather than the highly individualized approach contained in the original concept that I had learned in the 1980’s from Beth Mount, John and Connie O’Brien, and people from Canada. I had been looking for ways to go back to the original concept that began with an in-depth sharing of ideas, hopes and dreams about a person’s future that were drawn out of a broadly representative group of people who were convened to develop a plan for an individual. My thought was that our staff could facilitate that kind of planning.

One of the short-comings of our Initiative was that we only worked with most people for a short period of time, assisting them to gain access and become included in community activities. After that we may or may not have ongoing contact with them, usually depending upon whether they contacted us. Even with the addition of facilitating an authentic Person Centered Plan we would still not be able to have an ongoing relationship. The work group, composed of Karen Longanecker, a Self Determination staff person and Kathy Lentz, a program manager, both with KCMHSAS and Sheldon Schwitec, who had worked in Canada using person centered methodologies drew a program concept out of the Medicaid Manual called Supports Brokering, which we changed to Community Brokering to make it clear that we only work with the broader community and not disability specific services.

The central idea is that a broker negotiates on behalf of someone, such as a potential homeowner and someone desiring to sell a home, or someone seeking to invest money and a financial expert who guides the investment process. We became brokers on behalf of the person with a disability and the community, and the aim of the brokering was participation as a full and equal partner in the community, rather that transfer of a home our making money

The work group spent almost a year developing the plan for brokering, and once we started, we spent several more months defining the program. What emerged was a well thought out and intentional effort to go into great depth to prepare the person and the community for a relationship that is mutually beneficial. We are constantly meeting, analyzing, and reflecting on our efforts, seeking ways to help people get jobs through their natural support system, a place to live, and as always meaningful community participation in activities of choice.

As the Institute looks to the future beyond my tenure, which ends on March 31st, I hope that the staff and Board build on our history, our tradition of action and reflection as the approach to decision making and execution, deepening the understanding of the power of the natural community and the strengths of relationships as the heart of participation, drawing upon the work prior to the KCMHSAS contract to make future decisions about the work of the Institute, believing in the possibility of new beginnings for each person, for organizations and the community as a whole, and drawing deeply upon the dreams and the ability to lead and create of each person on staff, in other agencies, each person who gains from our support. I believe that the work of the Institute has exemplified what I call Community Leadership. That is we have acted directly to address the needs and best dreams of people with disabilities, but we have also embraced the responsibility of doing what is best for our whole community.