Making Space and Changing Systems

Making Space and Changing Systems – Bobby Cochran’s reasons for a fellowship and next steps

By Bobby Cochran


city art It’s Fall again, and there’s a lot going on around us. School is starting, hurricane season is here, and many other significant events are both marking the passage of time and have the power to reshape our lives and perspective of the world. For me, I’m back at Willamette Partnership after a wonderful year of working with the National Policy Consensus Center (NPCC) and am now in a new role at the Partnership—Senior Fellow, Community Resilience and Innovation.

There were two reasons I took the past year with NPCC;

  1. Changing Systems. At Willamette Partnership, we are experts at problem-solving within systems. But I didn’t feel confident enough about how to change the systems that stood in the way of our vision for resilient communities and resilient ecosystems. When a history of redlining once reinforced segregation and now urban growth is sparking displacement—we need strategies for changing the systems that govern how people live with each other and with nature. When rural leaders feel disconnected from tools to restore forests or build affordable housing—we need strategies for changing the systems that concentrate power away from communities. And, when we build infrastructure at the expense of the environment or of our health—we need strategies that treat systems as integrated wholes.
  2. Making space for powerful leaders. I have been working with Willamette Partnership since 2004, first as support via Clean Water Services and then as our Executive Director. The Partnership is an innovator—one who leads from its values of integrity, collaboration, leadership, passion, and balance. It is critical to make space for leaders to emerge everywhere, in every community, and Sara O’Brien is an incredible leader. We knew it was a perfect time for Sara to step into our executive role with her vision, compassion, and strong belief that when nature thrives, so do people.

senior women exercising

In this past year, I began to see how systems change might work. The Shift Health Accelerator, launched with fellow Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Leaders, is an initiative to simplify access to resources and expertise that communities need to shift the systems for health equity. The Oregon Atlas of Collaboration mapped the social and physical geography of the 4,200 people participating in ongoing collaboratives in Oregon. This work was conducted with Portland State’s National Policy Consensus Center and Syracuse University’s Program on the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration. And, I had the honor of supporting the framing and information gathering stages for Oregon’s 100-Year Water vision—an investment strategy to create built and natural water systems Oregon needs to thrive for generations to come.

All of this work in advancing health equity, defining structures to support community collaboration, and moving $ to support community visions will happen under the heading of Willamette Partnership’s work on community resilience. For us, resiliency is a community’s ability to plan for and recover from the kinds of economic, social, and environmental shocks that seem to be coming their way more and more.

I can’t wait to continue to work with you all, to grow the network of friends and leaders I have the joy of knowing, and revel in being a part of the Willamette Partnership team who are committed to supporting community-led leadership at the intersections of nature and people. Thank you all for more than a decade of support for Willamette Partnership and here’s to, at least, a decade more of continued relationships!

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Bobby Cochran led Willamette Partnership's work around building community resilience and innovation. He is passionate about supporting community leaders to move resources from dumb stuff to better stuff - especially when that means clean water, better health, and economic inclusion. Bobby is now with the Rural Community Assistance Partnership. He received a Ph.D./M.A. in Urban Studies/Conflict Resolution from Portland State University.


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