Submitted by The Athena Group

The Athena Group is a for-purpose management consulting firm that partners with individuals, organizations and communities to navigate system change at the intersection of inner leadership, organizational culture, and community resilience.  When the City of Durango and La Plata County engaged The Athena Group for its consulting services on a community driven strategic planning process on homelessness, they embraced the opportunity to make a lasting impact. Despite it being a highly sensitive and contentious issue and working with a tight budget, The Athena Group was committed to taking on this project and making it successful. 

The Westminster office of The Athena Group won a 2020 Best for Colorado Commit to Action Award for their work with individuals and organizations in the greater Durango area to create a community-driven strategic planning process focused on homelessness. This annual award honors inspirational Best for Colorado companies that are driving transformational change in regards to the wellbeing and resilience of our communities, environment and society. Direct outcomes of the project included a clean-up event and an allowable camping area for unhoused community members as an important step in the continuum of needs and services for addressing homelessness. When COVID-19 struck, the community enhanced that camp to provide water, food, showers and coronavirus testing. By fostering effective collaboration as a key part of the planning process, The Athena Group helped the greater Durango community become more resilient and able to respond to emerging issues, as shown in their response to COVID-19 challenges.

We spoke with founder, Faith Trimble, and project lead, Meagan Picard, to learn more about The Athena Group’s dedication to the unhoused community of the greater Durango area.

Best for Colorado: How did The Athena Group get involved in the greater Durango area’s  community-driven strategic planning process on homelessness?

Meagan Picard: Prior to this project, the number of unhoused community members was growing, deaths and serious injuries were occurring, and other community impacts (trash, fire potential, etc.) were raising local concerns. People in the Durango area were divided about what to do, and the American Civil Liberties Union had notified the city that their recent camping ban was unconstitutional given lack of adequate shelter options. The city and county determined they needed a strategic plan and selected The Athena Group through a competitive process to lead planning in our unique way. 

Our two major goals in working with them included: establish a plan to best meet community needs in ways that would be  mutually satisfying across perspectives and leave the community with a plan that could be implemented immediately.

BFCO: What challenges did you face in leading this project? 

MP/FT: Taking this approach in the management consulting field is not easy, especially in cases that are riddled with conflict as in this case with Durango. In fact, many consulting firms steer clear of such projects for understandable reasons – it can be really messy, and available funding is not usually sufficient to get the work done well. 

As project leaders in this kind of work, we can be subject to community anger in the early project stages, and we put our reputation on the line in conditions that are not always in our control. At Athena, we understand this anger is born of fear, and we accept the challenge of helping a community move through it in order to get to a place where positive change can occur. 

Ultimately, we are committed to taking on projects like this and making them successful because we see it as a critical part of enabling hope and change that supports a healthier, more sustainable future for all to thrive. We hope recognition of our efforts will encourage governments, nonprofits, foundations, and socially minded businesses to invest more into community based, inclusive community processes.  There is so much more that can be done for even greater results in the Durango area – and in others that want to take on homelessness in such a deeply democratic way – and we can only stretch our own donations of time, funds and supplies so far.

B4CO What were the impacts and outcomes of the project? 

MP: This is the best part in projects like this! We always look for early wins to instill hope, and in this project, there were two. First, an area was officially designated as allowable for camping, which was critical for health, safety and community-building needs. Secondly, they held a community clean-up event in areas where camping was not allowed, which helped to build relationships and to care for the community’s beauty that everyone loves. 

Most importantly, this collaborative project helped to strengthen the network of people who live, shelter and work in the community. This includes strengthening leadership among people who are unhoused. Those that participated in the process now have leadership roles with the Neighbors in Need Alliance, a growing yet still informal community organization that is active in implementing the plan. Additionally, the people in the community who care deeply about the health of the community overall are better connected. They have organized an interim working group to begin developing their on-going, formal coordination structure, as we recommended, and they are able to collaborate and act nimbly as new challenges emerge.

B4CO How did the community react to the early stage of the pandemic? 

MP: COVID-19 did delay some progress, but the community was still quick to collaborate and develop solutions for emerging needs. The temporary camp was supported immediately by the broader community–they set up water, food, showers, and had COVID testing onsite. The community was also successful in approving motel rooms and case management for unhoused individuals in the local emergency COVID plan. In short, the community collaboration and relationship building that took place in creating the plan made the community’s response to this emergency much stronger and more effective. We can already see that this process has enacted long-term benefits, and we will continue to check back with them to help them continue moving forward when needed.

BFCO: What does resilience mean to you? 

Consulting firms are often known for their “solutions.”  Single solutions in complex environments can be harmful, because they are fixed, rigid and not resilient to the changing needs of a community’s problems.  

The Athena Group approaches resilience more from an asset-based lens with an emergent strategy focus.  Recognizing that everything is connected and everything changes, all resources are considered in continuously assessing, co-creating, implementing and evaluating multiple strategies that may not work at all, only work once in a particular community, or take on a life of their own.  

Resilience is the ability to look a challenge in the eye and ask it to go dancing with you!  It’s not particularly easy, but it can be fun, rewarding and almost always a learning journey.  Individuals, organizations and communities that embrace resilience will be the wisest navigators of change as the future evolves.   

Best for Colorado is a program of The Alliance Center. This program allows Colorado companies to measure and improve their social and environmental impact, regardless of where they are on their corporate social responsibility journey. Best for Colorado offers programming and tools for all Colorado companies, including B Corps, to improve their practices and connect participating companies with local resources, education and support.

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