Collaboration

Building Many Stories into Collective Impact

For long-lasting, effective change, collaborative efforts must fully engage diverse community voices.

Equity and Collective Impact Equity and Collective Impact This series shares perspectives on the importance of embedding an explicit focus on equity throughout any collective impact effort.

“If you are not at the table, then you are on the menu.”

I was recently on a Community Investment Network conference panel with a woman who regularly shares this adage with the Native American sovereign communities she works with in North Carolina, and the comment struck home. Since our mission at the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions is to support collaboration that helps communities effectively address their own challenges, we want affected community members not just to be at the table, but also to share in cooking the meal. And as co-founders of the Collective Impact Forum, we believe that collective impact is a promising approach to creating deep social change.

Unfortunately, many of the barriers facing communities are tied to inequities that exist on a structural level (public schools, for example, are funded based on property taxes); this prevents many important voices from participating in discussions or decision-making that affect their lives. To help collective impact live up to its promise of meeting complex problems by creating systems-level change, we must fully engage representatives from within the communities most impacted by systems change. If we don’t, our efforts may not meet the needs of the entire community, especially groups on the margins.

Thus, as we aim for systems change, it’s important that we intentionally apply an equity lens—aptly defined by PolicyLink as “just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential”—to the core of our work. We must design collaborative efforts to provide those who will live with the results access into the process, structure, relationships, and trust-building that are vital to success. And especially because collective impact brings together cross-sector stakeholders around a common agenda, it simply doesn’t work when perspectives are missing.

To achieve equity, all perspectives and voices must be able to enter into the conversation in full voice—they must have power and agency to impact solutions. Otherwise, we run the risk of what author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “The Danger of a Single Story”—the danger of believing that a single story represents the experiences of an entire group of people. Without a diverse set of full-bodied voices at the decision table, we might misunderstand each other, or worse, misdiagnose a problem or invest resources ineffectively. Adichie reminds us that stories are implicit exercises in power dynamics; she shares the Igbo word nkali, which loosely translates as “to be greater than another.” Stories, she says, are defined by the principle of nkali: “How they are told, who tells them, when they are told, how many stories are told are really dependent on power.” Adichie talks about power as the ability to not just tell the story of another person or community, but to make it the definitive story of that person or community. Communities must have the space, tools, and opportunity to tell all of their stories—the good, the bad, and yes, even the ugly. This is exactly what successful collective impact efforts should be about: engaging all the stories in a place.

Adichie’s talk is a strong reminder that it is impossible to engage properly with a place without engaging with all the stories of that place. This is something that I struggle with personally and that we at the Aspen Forum work hard to build into all aspects of our work. On a personal level, I must be vigilant about remembering to recruit and share stories that don’t fully match mine or that I don’t expect. My story, for example, is not the only story of a black woman; there is no “typical” story for any one person or community. When looking for solutions to social problems, we must always take several stories into account. Through support and circumstance, I am fortunate to have a seat at many privileged tables, and I believe it is my duty to create space at these tables for as many other voices as possible.

Creating this space is core to our work at the Aspen Forum—impacted communities must be central to any conversation that aims to “solve their problems.” For example, we actively engage youth in our Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund, which uses collective impact to build education and employment pathways for young people. They share governance of national and local collaboratives, and their stories and feedback feed into into our convenings and advocacy efforts. Their voices are important to successfully creating long-term solutions, because they have the lived experience, and can explain what has worked and not worked as they have struggled to succeed.  Our role, then, is to put a spotlight on success stories and share best practices across community collaborations, and we hope to enlist more communities to pull together for community-wide progress, while providing them with the tools, support, and resources necessary to achieve results.

I’m not alone in reflecting on the power of community voice. Southeast Seattle Education Coalition’s Erin Okuno recently wrote a terrific piece titled, “The Danger of the Single Loud Noisy Story from a Community Perspective.” She makes some similar points, and we agree that fully including the diverse voices of a community when seeking change is absolutely critical to doing good work. It is reassuring to know that others are also championing this issue.

Anchoring collective impact efforts in equity means understanding the challenges at hand so that we can create the most effective solutions and wisely use scarce resources. It can help us ensure that communities are no longer on the menu but fully represented at the table.

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COMMENTS

  • BY Erin Okuno

    ON October 20, 2015 09:50 PM

    Great post. I really like the part about ensuring communities have the space, tools, and resources to ensure their stories are heard. Looking forward to seeing more ‘stories’ about equity and community building from diverse voices.

  • Kathy Szenda Wilson's avatar

    BY Kathy Szenda Wilson

    ON October 21, 2015 06:08 AM

    Thanks, Sheri. The Danger of a Single Story really hit home when it was first shared with me not too long ago.  Having spent the last half of my career focused on deep, true engagement and amplifying that to include those doing front-line social services, I can attest to the importance and difficulty of creating the space for their voices to be heard, respected, and included in decision-making.  Without them - it won’t have the impact we seek

  • BY Daniel Bassill

    ON October 22, 2015 08:05 AM

    Thanks for the post. This is a very complex problem and understanding this complexity is one step toward creating strategies that work. I use concept maps to share ideas. This Race-Poverty map is an example. http://cmapspublic.ihmc.us/rid=1NYRZ33L1-FSPG2-31NZ/Connecting Rich and Poor in America.cmap

    It shows two clusters, with nodes showing issues that affect lives of affluent people and those that affect lives of poor people. Many are the same. Some are different. The lack of available and/or affordable resources poor people have to deal with their issues is one of their challenges.  Each node probably has thousands of stories that could be aggregated on some type of web forum. I someone doing that?

    A similar map should be created to diagram the challenges of creating equity in collective impact.  We’re sharing ideas on SSIR but how many people in poor neighborhoods have access to the internet on a regular basis and are sharing ideas and stories in forums like this? Face to face small group get-togethers are still more common in many places, but who’s capturing the stories from these spaces and using the internet, or local media, to share them beyond the small group so they are heard by more? I’ve been in this space for 20 years, and still am a small voice. How many others like me are sharing ideas, but are not yet being heard? Mapping the problem using various forms of concept mapping might show it better, engage more people, and lead to new solutions.

  • Jill Blair's avatar

    BY Jill Blair

    ON October 22, 2015 08:27 AM

    This is a good and well presented reminder - we need to ask who isn’t at the table and why?  And why???

  • BY Kathleen Krenek

    ON October 22, 2015 11:28 AM

    rather than the menu/table, a wise person of color once told me to engage a diversity of participants we need to get rid of the table.

  • BY Julie DiBari

    ON October 23, 2015 12:48 PM

    I am so glad to see equity as part of the collective impact discussion. At The Capacity Group (http://www.thecapacitygroup.org) we have been adding an empowerment lens and an adaptive leadership lens to the collective impact framework for a while now. To achieve equity in collective impact we need leaders that not only have the desire to bring the impacted parties to the table but also the skills and the tools to empower them in that process. It strikes me that I hear many examples of youth leadership - and I have been involved in many groups giving youth an authentic voice myself - and far fewer examples with adults. I worry it comes down to issues of which groups are easier to contain and control in the ways those of us with power feel comfortable. We are starting to see really innovative ways that groups are engaging community using tools like Photo Voice, or natural gatherings such as mural paintings to engage the community in conversation. Bringing people to a “table” is the wrong way to think about things. “Tables” are places professionals gather and where we hold power. We need to think about the places that the communities we serve feel comfortable and go there. As an aside, I want to give a plug to an organization we think has some amazing technology to bring to the table that could open up our collective conversations to broader audiences. It is Loomio (loomio.org). Definitely check it out. It won’t help us bring those most vulnerable in our community to the table who do not have access to technology, but it certainly has the capacity to broaden the number of voices and the richness of discussions by breaking them out of the confines of the standard meeting.

  • BY Julie DiBari

    ON October 25, 2015 12:40 PM

    I am so glad to see equity as part of the collective impact discussion. At The Capacity Group (http://www.thecapacitygroup.org) we have been adding an empowerment lens and an adaptive leadership lens to the collective impact framework for a while now. To achieve equity in collective impact we need leaders that not only have the desire to bring the impacted parties to the table but also the skills and the tools to empower them in that process. It strikes me that I hear many examples of youth leadership - and I have been involved in many groups giving youth an authentic voice myself - and far fewer examples with adults. I worry it comes down to issues of which groups are easier to contain and control in the ways those of us with power feel comfortable. We are starting to see really innovative ways that groups are engaging community using tools like Photo Voice, or natural gatherings such as mural paintings to engage the community in conversation. I agree with the commenter above, bringing people to a “table” is the wrong way to think about things. “Tables” are places professionals gather and where we hold power. We need to think about the places that the communities we serve feel comfortable and go there. As an aside, I want to give a plug to an organization we think has some amazing technology that could open up our collective conversations to broader audiences. It is Loomio (loomio.org). Definitely check it out. It won’t help us bring those most vulnerable in our community to the table who do not have access to technology, but it certainly has the capacity to broaden the number of voices and the richness of discussions by breaking them out of the confines of the standard meeting.

  • Chris Moriarty's avatar

    BY Chris Moriarty

    ON October 29, 2015 07:33 PM

    This was very thoughtful and well presented. All social issues of concern need the perspective of every “story” no matter how unpopular or controversial the subject matter, no matter what party is involved, all positions need to be represented. Each individual has their story, providing fresh insight.

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