“Building Bridges” by Gage E. Paine

“I am where I am because of the bridges that I crossed, Sojourner Truth was a bridge, Harriet Tubman was a bridge, Ida B. Wells was a bridge, Madame C. J. Walker was a bridge, Fannie Lou Hamer was a bridge.” -Oprah Winfrey

We often warn against burning our bridges, but sometimes I think we can forget how important it is to build those bridges in the first place. Bridges help us get from where we are now to some other place in our future. Bridges help us get across difficulties. Sometimes those difficulties are rapidly flowing rivers or deep ravines, but sometimes those difficulties are resource issues, rules or practices, or the ‘silos’ we build in our organizations. Bridges are ways across those barriers to the implementation of new practices. Bridges are connections that help us share resources whether those resources are dollars or ideas. Building bridges – developing relationships, creating processes, finding new ways to follow the rules or new rules to follow – this is leadership.

Last year, I gave a couple of speeches on this idea of bridge building as an essential part of our work. To quote Ralph Ellison, “[e]ducation is all a matter of building bridges.” For us as educators, understanding the work of building bridges is an essential skill. If you Google the phrase ‘how to build a bridge’ you find many websites that will help you build bridges out of a wide variety of materials, including spaghetti! But one website I found was very useful both for building an actual bridge and metaphorical bridges. (The citation is at the bottom.) It had important reminders such as “…you do not see bridges going up overnight and it takes a skilled engineer to master this craft. Bridges can take months, possibly years to build.” This is true in organizations as well. It takes time and skill (we call it leadership) to develop the complex bridges needed to make organizations run well. Short-changing this process causes problems down the road in both literal and metaphorical bridges. In relationship (bridge) building we have to pay attention to the details.

According to the bridge building website, “[o]ne of the last steps, probably the most important, would be to pave the bridge.” Our organizational bridges need to be usable by many people for many purposes. Like the Oprah Winfrey quote above, part of our work as leaders in higher education is to create bridges that others may use. This June 1st, it will be 30 years since I started my first full-time job in Student Affairs. As I look back over that time period, it is very clear to me that my success is due in large part to the bridges others built. Not only did they build bridges that have stood the test of time and stormy weather, they showed me the way over them time and time again. The people who have supported, taught, and given me direction range from supervisors to those I supervised, peers, colleagues, students, good friends and folks I found difficult to work with. Some relationships were short term and some have spanned decades, some were campus-based and others range across the country. All of them have served as bridges to the place I find myself today.

I find I often think of bridges as massive structures and, of course, bridges such as the Golden Gate Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge certainly are massive. But in my searching for facts about bridges, I realized how narrow my mental images were. Rickety bridges, light and airy-looking bridges, stodgy or fanciful, they are completely individual, a mix of the situation and the designer’s response to that space and time. The bridges we build have to be just as flexible in design and we have to be as creative in finding ways to develop them and then to maintain them. I live in San Antonio where it rarely snows. Mostly, when it is that cold and wet we get ice and all of the bridges in the vicinity are immediately closed though often the surface roads are still open. And then we realize just how many bridges we use every day without even being aware of it. We realize how difficult it is to do a day’s ordinary business without access to our bridges. We understand that we take these important connections for granted. They took time and expertise to build and they take time and attention to keep them sturdy and useful for everyone who benefits from their existence.

So I encourage you to think some about bridges and relationships. Where do you need to be building a bridge today? Are there any bridges that need some time and attention? Are there some colleagues or students who need some help crossing a bridge you have built? I look forward to hearing your stories in the comments.

Quotes from
• monsterguide.net/how-to-build-a bridge
• thinkexist.com


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