What is a City Catalyst: Interview with Jake Norris

Now that we have 3 City Shapers cohorts fully underway, we’re getting a clearer, first-hand view of what makes an effective City Shapers cohort. You can probably guess a few of them: strong partnerships, a clear geographic focus, flexibility. Relationships and collaboration are key, too. What may surprise you (it’s surprised us a bit), is […]

Now that we have 3 City Shapers cohorts fully underway, we’re getting a clearer, first-hand view of what makes an effective City Shapers cohort. You can probably guess a few of them: strong partnerships, a clear geographic focus, flexibility. Relationships and collaboration are key, too.

What may surprise you (it’s surprised us a bit), is the absolutely vital role of the City Catalyst. Today, we want to share with you more in-depth about the City Catalyst role and offer you the experience of Jake Norris, the City Catalyst of the Holland, Michigan cohort.

What is a City Catalyst

The City Catalyst is often the person who approaches us about bringing City Shapers to the neighborhood. They are a person who is deeply rooted in the community where they want to see transformation. Sometimes, a City Catalyst is a resident of the community where they want City Shapers to come. Other times, they are a person who has relocated to the neighborhood and works for an organization that closely partners with neighbors.

Ideally, this means that the City Catalyst has spent (at least) several years getting to know the neighborhood where they want to see transformation. They have worked there. They know the people. They have partnerships with other organizations, faith communities, and civic groups. They have a sense of the systemic challenges that a community faces and how the neighborhood would like to change to better support residents.

Equipped with these experiences, relationships, and insights, the City Catalyst is the person who invites other key players in the neighborhood to do City Shapers.

What a City Catalyst does

Jake Norris is a City Catalyst and the Executive Director of 3sixty, the organization spearheading the Holland City Shapers cohort. He explains that a lot of the City Catalyst’s work begins long before they become an official City Shapers host city.

“It’s a lot of work just to get to the starting line. I had to go to people I knew in the neighborhood, pitch them the idea of City Shapers, and talk with them until they had buy-in and wanted to commit,” he says. He approached over a dozen close contacts he had, noting that you need that many in order to find enough people who will have the capacity and interest to get involved. Thanks to his strong ties in the neighborhood, he was able to get 6 people on board to serve as leaders in the City Shapers cohort.

He laughs when he talks about the next challenge, which was “just struggling with people’s schedules to get the first symposium on the calendar.” After a bit of wrangling, it happened.

As the City Shapers program has settled in, Jake says that a large part of his role is offering relational connectivity, support, and encouragement. “I am a manager, a coach, an intermediary with the Lupton Center – it’s many roles at once. I’ve realized a big part of it is that I need to cheer people on and be the lead enthusiast for this process.”

What Makes an Effective City Catalyst

The first piece of an effective City Catalyst is a structural one: defining the neighborhood.

“First off, I think for any City Catalyst or cohort to be successful there needs to be a very specific and clearly defined geographic area. Right now in Holland, we’re focusing on 1 neighborhood comprising 700 households. It’s small. It’s narrow. I think that’s the only way to have a deep impact,” says Jake.

That deep impact starts with deep relationships. Jake notes that it takes “high relational capital” to get the City Shapers cohort and to sustain it. “The people I had the strongest ties with are the ones who are stepping up and offering to be leaders in the process,” he says.

This is especially important in the beginning of the City Shapers process, when it’s difficult to pitch exactly what transformation will occur in the neighborhood. Since neighbors direct the change in the neighborhood, City Catalysts aren’t able to go to someone and say directly what issues or projects will happen as part of the cohort.

Jake shares, “One of my neighbors, a leader and an entrepreneur in the neighborhood, looked at me and said ‘I don’t get it.’ when I tried to explain City Shapers. “But she was willing to participate in and invite others to our listening sessions anyway, because she trusts me and knows that I have the neighborhood’s best interest at heart.”

When asked what 3 attributes a good City Catalyst needs, Jake says they need to be:

  1. Hopeful – they need to have the optimism that change is possible, and be ready to encourage others when the vision of transformation is still emerging.
  2. Collaborative – willing to incorporate the voices and ideas of others. High value for relationships of trust and prioritizing a slower pace where all stakeholders can be heard.
  3. Willing to take ownership – even though it’s a collaborative process, the City Catalyst needs to be ready to contribute energy and momentum to keep things going. They are the one ready to receive feedback about the process and address it in collaboration with others.

Of course, there are many other qualities that can help a City Catalyst succeed. If you feel like you have those, click here to learn more about being a city catalyst.

How You can Become a City Catalyst

Just like transformation doesn’t happen overnight, becoming a great City Catalyst doesn’t happen overnight, either. Cultivating the relationships, the perspective, and the vision to get a City Shapers cohort going takes time.

If you want to see transformation happen in your neighborhood, you can take a few steps today to start getting ready to be a City Catalyst.

  • First and foremost, get to know your neighborhood. Start showing up as a regular to local businesses. Attend local events. Join a civic organization. The strength of your relationships in the community and the trust you have will directly correlate with the cohesion and effectiveness of your future city shapers cohort.
  • Start pitching the vision of holistic neighborhood development to stakeholders in your organization. This means neighbors and local partners, but also people who make your organization run on a day-to-day basis like your staff, your donors, and your volunteers. If you haven’t yet, support people in shifting from a program and poverty-alleviation paradigm to a holistic, place-based development mindset. Yes, it can take months or years to do this!
  • Keep learning, and learn with us! We have a bevy of opportunities to journey with people like you who want to see deep transformation happen. We know it’s a long journey, which is why we offer on-ramps to people in various parts of the process. If you’re early to the idea of place-based development, be sure to check out our courses here. If you’re familiar with our work and want to go deeper, check out our other opportunities like Leaders Lab and the Flourishing Neighborhood Index. Both of these will prepare you well for becoming a City Catalyst and lay the groundwork for a successful cohort later on.

And of course, if you’re totally lost, we’re always here to talk to you. You can book a discovery call with us to get a personal conversation. Ultimately, we want to see you succeed and your neighborhood flourish. Let’s get you on the path to catalyzing lasting transformation.