Program Development & Risk Governance Case: The Dearborn Sustainability Coalition

What can cross-sector sustainability look like in action?
How might a community take tangible ownership of a complex and ambiguous concept like “sustainability?”

The Dearborn Sustainability Coalition

“Dearborn achieved Gold status for exemplary action in a variety of categories, including the Sustainable Community Roundtable, which engages institutional, not-for-profit, corporate, academic, governmental, and community leaders in comprehensive sustainability efforts throughout the Dearborn area.”

Michigan Municipal League’s 2012 press release on the
“Michigan Green Communities Challenge”
Professor William Seacrest, Professor from Henry Ford Community College, representing his breakout group’s discussion at the interfaith Earth, Ethics & Religion Roundtable


This case examines how sustainability, a nuanced but ambiguous concept to the public in 2010, can be used as a unifying framework for collaborative emergent strategy across sectors and stakeholders through the Dearborn Sustainability Coalition.

Southeast Michigan hosts numerous non-profit organizations, academic institutions, municipalities, and private businesses in close proximity to one another. All frequently compete with one another for common resources like time, funding, and participation. Meanwhile, students, scholars, and residents remain eager to contribute efforts and expertise toward greater purposeful cause, but were often met with rudimentary and low-skill service opportunities, or operated in silos due to perceived ideological differences.

Sustainability is a “fuzzy concept” and “wicked problem.” It carries nuanced meaning among scholars and industry practitioners, has different meaning among the public, and differing but valid solutions to its challenges may arise depending on context. We used its comprehensive and aspirational characteristics as a unifying framework to inform and cohere community assets and develop common understanding within the community. The initiative demonstrated how principles of Risk Governance can be applied to navigate complex systems and wicked problems.

Intentionally framed collaboration and participatory dialogues between organizations and residents brought the public and multiple sectors to common understanding. Pairing educational, outdoor, and other engaging events with facilitated strategic dialogues cultivated a deeper sense of trust, community, and shared purpose that overcame potential differences in age, religion, political identity, and industry sector.

The Coalition’s strategic partnerships yielded the following outcomes:

  • Hailed as exemplary best practice exemplary best practice statewide for our Sustainability Round Table dialogues by the Michigan Municipal League
  • Assisted in securing Federal funding for city of Dearborn’s economic development, educational festivals, and raised funds for a municipal LED lamp replacement pilot project
  • Saved thousands of dollars in costs through shared facilities and volunteer efforts
  • Garnered over 12 media appearances within 2 years
  • Developed a mailing list of over 740 partners and community members
  • Contributed and advised numerous city, state, and federal master plans and public forums
  • Raised awareness for greenhouse gas reductions and Mayor of Dearborn agreed to sign the Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement

As a volunteer-led and driven organization created and staffed by individuals who had no formal entrepreneurial and business training, we challenges in scaling up or out and the need for at least one part or full-time staff member to sustain the organization’s administrative and operational needs.

When appropriately framed and facilitated, “fuzzy concepts” and “wicked problems” can be navigated with success using principles of Risk Governance and are applicable to creating other purpose-driven initiatives. The Dearborn Sustainability Coalition case further validate these concepts. Residents and local organizations would continue to inquire about our events several years after the coalition was de-activated.


How might we prevent entrenchment and petty advocacy in a community?
How might a community unify their understanding, consent, and voluntarily express will to address challenging issues like climate change?

Much like the rest of Southeast Michigan, the city of Dearborn needed to connect fragmented expertise with implementation, and coordinate disparate and diverse stakeholders for success toward common cause.


For-profit and not-for profit organizations, academics, governments, and residents across Southeast Michigan work out of step and often in unnecessary competition with one another. All compete for attention, funding, or volunteer time and due to common constraints (funding, time, understaffed, etc.), and entities consistently operated in silos across Southeast Michigan.

At universities, faculty, staff, and student organization initiatives could provide outstanding expertise and enthusiastic volunteers, but were often isolated from the public, rarely found an audience, or lacked the appropriate channels to amplify their interests and insight.

The municipal government in Dearborn, short on staff and often funding, needed assistance and provided system-level opportunities for change such as public hearings for its sustainability, climate action, recreation, and Transit-Oriented Development master plans.

Several non-profits and corporate volunteer programs had outstanding reach and volunteer capacity, but lacked credible or systemic insight to create effectual change.

Furthermore, climate change, community justice, industry sectors, and sustainability are prone to stigma and entrenchment, and often too complex to explore in reaction to upcoming policy decisions on state and local levels.
[Reference “tragedy of the commons”]

APPROACH: Facilitate collective strategy
Convene and educate all stakeholders with co-creative participatory dialogues to cultivate trust and collective awareness.

In 2010 I co-created a zero-budget initiative with several residents and community advocates via Cool Cities Dearborn (later co-founded as the Dearborn Sustainability Coalition) to bring leading luminaries, practitioners, on-the-ground community exemplars, and the general public together in Dearborn to share important insights and critical aspirations toward a collective, community-driven understanding of sustainability.

Every two months, we’d gather local government representatives, businesses, non-profit organizations, grassroots groups, academics, students and residents to proactively learn about a new issue in the community, and bring everyone to the same page on the latest initiatives underway in the area.  Each round table dialogue was framed with a topic pertinent to the sector (e.g. municipal, education, communities, etc.) which allowed stakeholder groups contribute their individual vision for sustainability, and simultaneously inform the broader collective vision on an iterative and emergent basis.

The longstanding objectives of the Cool Cities Dearborn Group events were to:

  • Increase sustainability awareness
  • Organize interest in sustainability
  • Foster informed coalition building and network development in the city
  • Cultivate a more vibrant and sustainable community in the Metro Detroit area
  • Reduce anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions city-wide through community participation

[ref: beating tragedy of the commons, McChrystal’s comms overhaul for US mil., Thich Nhit Han’s “Comms are the basics to peace…”, McHarg Land Planning, Adirondack Park Land Planning study, participation research.]


Through collaboration, we were able to:
  • Support the City of Dearborn in earning its Gold award for the Michigan Green Communities Challenge
  • Assist the City in accessing
  • Save thousands of dollars in costs for facility rental
  • Garner over 12 media appearances within 2 years
  • Develop a mailing list of over 740 partners and community members
  • Develop better informed programming, share larger audiences, and collaborate on shared causes using our shared aspirations to do good267299_10150240998649059_562954058_7164106_422057_nUniversity student organizations were able to provide facilities and volunteers for meetings and events, saving thousands of dollars in rental and staffing costs. Purpose-driven student organizations coalesced with grassroots and non-profit organizations, which allowed for sustained leadership and programming throughout off-seasons like summer semester and during major exams. Credible expertise through academia, keen insight and eager volunteers through its students helped inform public practice across sectors, cultures, ages, and faiths. Local non-profits, municipal government were able to help amplify or connect academia to the greater public and on-the-ground efforts. Several businesses were able to promote and direct their employee volunteers to events structured toward broader community-set goals in reducing regional carbon emissions.In addition to facilitating opportunities for careful dialogues, increasing awareness about community assets, and numerous community partnerships, we:
    • Were subsequently nominated to the Dearborn Mayor’s Environmental Commission
    • Informed and contributed to the city’s Sustainability Master Plan, Recreation Master Plan, Transit-by-Rail Oriented Development, and Climate Action Plans
    • Helped the city become a signatory to the Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement

    For a taste of what the meetings were like, The Mirror gave excellent coverage of our third sustainability round table here.  For additional examples of the events I designed and facilitated for Cool Cities Dearborn, see this page, and the Student Environmental Association’s media page.

    The DSC additionally implemented the following projects:

    Via the Student Environmental Association (read here for project overviews):

    • The Sustainability Round Tables
    • The Native Plant Seeds Project (2009)
    • The Bioswale Project
    • Campus Sustainability Festivals (2009-2011)
    • Science and Conservation Cafes

    Via the League of Women Voters & Cool Cities Sierra Club:

    • Science and Conservation Cafes
    • Dearborn Adopt-A-Watt program
    • Tap vs. Bottled Water outreach and education

    [demonstrate emergent properties via Fritjof Capra, *”synergy” research?]


    Show, don’t tell.
    Comprehensive sustainability–where society, economy, and environment mutually interrelate—becomes intuitive when people can engage compelling examples of the concept in action. A rain garden and community urban farm tour paired with strategic storytelling help demonstrate an abstract and complex concept with tangible results that people can engage and remember. 2 years after the Coalition was deactivated, a woman recognized me at the community urban farm and inquired when the next event would happen.

    [characterize, don’t define]
    [ref. experiential learning vs. other forms?, research on memory/education]

    Co-create, don’t dictate.
    We were able to validate research on allowing for deeper stakeholder participation for decision making and education.
    [again, cite e.g. Ian McHarg & Adirondack National Park cases, IHM Monroe Motherhouse; sociology: dialogical characterization rather than definitions for sustainability]

    Inclusive leadership and timing for new concepts and language
    In 2009, sustainability was a relatively new word for the public. The “triple bottom line” domains–society, economy, and environment–provided a clear, comprehensive, measureable and inclusive framework that allowed stakeholders to intuitively connect their efforts toward greater purpose. Our strategic partners and coalition members were organizations and individuals who exemplified each tenet of sustainability–their core operations and missions automatically ensured our shared vision would manifest.

    For example:
    The League of Women voters could speak to societal challenges and how they overlap with economic and environmental challenges. The Student Environmental Association connected environmental challenges with economic impacts, social justice and social sustainabiliity. The Going Green Foundation and EverGreen Team’s Revolving Microloan Fund helped demonstrate the financial and economic sustainability necessary for prudent action in the social and environmental domains.

    Now, in 2015, sustainability as a concept stabilized in the general public and is used more like a buzzword–removed from its depth of possible meaning–or used with very strict environmental or operational implications.

    This approach may also apply to creating new organizations when a clear, comprehensive strategic framework helps cohere individuals with existing visions.

    [cite fuzzy concepts, wicked problems, new psychology of leadership, dialogical, 3bl, Vth Discipline]

    Train participants to solve the “catch up” phenomenon
    The dialogues cultivated a deep sense of emotional and intellectual solidarity–for those who were able to attend an event in full or several events in the series.
    Extending trust and common understanding beyond rooms of 40-80 people to a city of 100,000 people requires the ability to empower participants with training to scale out the dialogues to seed and disperse the dialogue in more locations.

    Needing resources to scale up or out
    We lacked the necessary knowledge and resources to scale up and capacity to maintain a staff. The team (we were volunteer-led and run) parted ways as some of us had new work schedules, degrees to finish, or had to move far away to take care of family.


    Public health crisis beyond scope, still our responsibility
    Creating more just systems is sometimes insufficient when restoring justice exists as an equal requisite in the community. We were unprepared and ineffective at transforming urgent near-term needs into an item for positive and proactive engagement.

    In particular, mobilizing the community on public health crises with ongoing pollution sources and holding chronic offenders accountable becomes an equally valid re or retroactive need to address. Our team’s limitation

    Southeast Dearborn and Southwest Detroit communities suffer from unusually high cancer rates (highest in the state of Michigan [MI Radio/Detroit Free Press articles]) and rates for cardiovascular disease (33% higher than national average among youth). [Det. Asthma Alliance]

    The timelines and relationships to create lasting change were beyond our capacity as an early-stage initiative. Coupling an academic and grassroots insight with emergent stakeholder engagement helped us anticipate, prepare for, and willingly engage many challenges in the community. We were less prepared to engage urgent and persisting crises brought forward by the community aside from echoing those needs in certain public forums where policy and research often takes 3-5 years before implementation.

    I personally consider this a serious gap and a shortcoming of my own capacity as a leader: livelihoods and lifespans remain compromised, and any comprehensively viable solution on a shorter timeline seems almost non-viable unless major pollutors changed their behavior–either immediately paused or moved their operations away from the community.

(c) Ian D. Tran 2015 all rights reserved.