In the past two weeks, I have spent hours in a mad dash to obtain signatures. I’m not running for office or gathering signatures on a petition. I have been working to gather signatures from the heads of organizations who agreed to work with the Centre County Women’s Resource Center on projects that we hope will be funded by the federal government.
Over the years of working on projects with organizations in the community and with the university, I have discovered that getting the signatures all on one page is the most difficult part of the process — much more difficult than actually getting the agreements from partners to collaborate. The reason for that, it seems to me, is that for most of these projects, the collaboration actually took place months or even years before the signatures were needed on a grant application. The partnerships were developed over time, growing and expanding, celebrating successes and working through the occasional conflicts, because we were committed to the same goals in the end, whether it was a safer community for victims of abuse or more transitional housing.
This is, I think, how partnerships work, whether they are business partnerships, project partnerships or committed relationships. They take time. They take work. They take compromise. They take energy. And they don’t happen overnight.
Nelson Mandela said, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” Unlike trashy romance novels, most relationships don’t begin with the partners as enemies, but some partnerships do start with the parties on opposite sides of the fence, so to speak. You can see this especially in countries or groups of people who have very different experiences of the world. The significant point Mandela is making here, however, is not where the partners begin, but where they end up — and more importantly, how they go from being enemies to becoming partners.
Partnerships, those between countries, groups of people or intimate partners, take time and work; they don’t come naturally to most of us. Most of us are too focused on our individual needs, our particular ways of understanding the world or our own agendas. It is difficult for us to actually step outside ourselves and truly listen to another person — even someone we would like to have as a partner. There are often real and true disagreements and differences between those who would be partners. There may be imbalances of power and privilege that must be addressed before the partnership can grow. But if the commitment is real, if the goals are shared, if the vision is one which each partner has helped to shape, then the challenges can be overcome and true partnerships can happen.
Mandela’s words are not those of Pollyanna — the enmity he speaks of is real and painful and takes time and honest commitment by both parties to overcome. It takes work. It takes working together. Sharing the successes and the failures, each being willing to do the hard things, listening, compromising — those are the components of successful partnerships in projects or in intimate relationships. Creating partnerships, true partnerships of equals, is not easy. But it is usually important work to do because the shared goal — a healthy intimate relationship, a safer community or a lasting peace — is worth it in the end.