Changemaking with a "Team of Teams"

March 17, 2017 / By: Amy Gage, Neighborhood Relations, University of St. Thomas
A group from the intergenerational scavenger hunt
Senior Ben Kachian leads a group of children, adults, and seniors on a scavenger hunt around campus.

We came together, the four of us, barely knowing one another and with only a vague notion of what it meant to be part of a ChangeX initiative to “build a movement for community wellbeing.”

Three staff members and one undergraduate student at the University of St. Thomas, we were drawn — along with dozens of others — to an introductory meeting last November hosted by the Social Innovation Collaboratory on campus. We self-selected to a breakout table focused on increasing the “independence and quality of life for older people in [our] community.”

What we ultimately have pursued is both different from and related to that goal, and that is the point. Because each of the four of us brought her or his perspective — creating what Collaboratory assistant director Cynthia Sarver calls a “team of teams” — we have brought to life an aphorism coined by management expert Kenneth Blanchard: “None of us is as smart as all of us.”

Our team includes:

  • Susan Anderson-Benson, program manager at Selim Center for Lifelong Learning;
  • Nichole Boehmke, a facilities supervisor in charge of recycling at St. Thomas;
  • Benedikt Kachian, a senior who is pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in global health and who works with BrightSide Produce and the Stewardship Garden on campus.
  • And me, Amy Gage, neighborhood liaison at St. Thomas and a neighbor of the St. Paul campus who is determined to build relationships among permanent residents and our students.


Exercise for the Body and the Mind

Our first event was on Friday, February 10, an unseasonably warm evening that we hoped would draw neighbors out and away from the comforts of home. Susan and I liked the notion of introducing them to campus — in her case, to promote the bountiful programs of the Selim Center and for me, to help neighbors recognize the advantages of living near our university.

At Ben’s suggestion, the four of us devised a sort of scavenger hunt on campus, highlighting the Post Office, the bookstore, the “Harry Potter room” in O’Shaughnessy-Frey library, the Asmat Art Gallery in Anderson Student Center, the prayer garden south of the chapel and other resources free and open to the public.

We got people walking, being mindful that exercise was a goal of the original ChangeX challenge. Ben led one group, taking half of the 11 adults and three children who showed up; Joan Wieland, a first-year student majoring in Catholic Studies and English, led the other.

Having student-led tours was an intentional, and essential, part of the design — allowing our project, “Exercise for the Body and the Mind,” to integrate with the Selim Center’s mission. “Vital aging is intergenerational. That’s how you stay young,” says Susan. “People were getting to work directly with undergraduates that night. We could place our Selim students in undergraduate classes, but that’s one person having an interaction.”

Thanks to another collaborator, head volleyball coach Thanh Pham, neighbors and Selim Center clients also got a tour of Anderson Athletics and Recreation Complex, where community members may purchase a limited membership. Perhaps most important, our student tour guides developed their leadership capacities and served as equal voices in the planning of this experience.


Lessons learned

Susan, Ben, Nichole and I fit the Social Innovation Collaboratory’s definition of a “team of teams”: We are working “across disciplines, brick and mortar boundaries, and other obstacles that characterize the traditional university.” None of us works together daily. Our paths otherwise would rarely cross.

No one assigned us this work or is advocating for its importance, but no one is stopping us from it, either. That is where the innovation and creativity come in:

  • Our second “Exercise for the Body and the Mind” will be on Sunday, May 7, with a focus on St. Thomas’ south campus. Susan found a treasure trove of information about the sculptures near Cretin and Grace residence halls, east of the green space. Ben can provide firsthand knowledge of the Stewardship Garden and its benefits to the community, and a new team member — Biology Department greenhouse manager Catherine Grant — will be offering greenhouse tours and a preview of the Biology Department’s plant sale the following week (“just in time for Mother’s Day,” she says).
  • Our third offering — after a possible summer repeat of the February scavenger hunt — will tap Nichole’s considerable expertise in recycling. We’d like to showcase sustainability at St. Thomas and the many ways our faculty, students and grounds crew, among others, are working to “galvanize change” (to quote the Collaboratory’s purpose) and lighten our environmental footprint.

As a Baby Boomer born into privilege, and raised in a class and culture that valued individual exceptionalism, I am learning relatively late in life to work in teams. I am humbled, at times, by my resistance to new ideas. I am heartened by the relaxation — and the relief — of not having to push myself to be in charge.

“A team is not a team unless everyone is an initiatory player, and in this world, you cannot afford to have anyone on your team who is not a changemaker,” the Ashoka website says.

Together, on our evolving team, we are learning three lessons:

  1. Five heads will produce more creative energy than one.
  2. Collaborative, organic changemaking allows people without hierarchical authority to make a demonstrable difference.
  3. Shared engagement results in shared responsibility.

I feel more invested in the Selim Center’s mission. I am impressed with and interested in Nichole and Catherine’s work. I want to learn more from Ben about the food deserts in our community.
Likewise, my teammates recognize and feel more deeply the challenges our campus neighbors face. “Our project is helping them to see our students as well as our campus in a different light,” says Susan. “Our campus has so much to offer to the community. It’s a different level of engagement that can only be a win-win.”

For our neighbors, yes, and for ourselves.

amy gageAmy Gage is neighborhood liaison at the University of St. Thomas and a multimodal advocate who walks to work. A former journalist, she writes a blog about women at midlife:



Changemaking for the common good University of St. Thomas