Collaboration

The Equity Imperative in Collective Impact

The five conditions of collective impact, implemented without attention to equity, are not enough to create lasting change.

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.

We’ve learned a lot since we first wrote in 2011 about collective impact as an approach to large scale social change. The collective impact framework can empower people to make a real difference in communities around the world, but the five conditions (a common agenda, shared measurement systems, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and backbone support organizations) are missing a critical dimension: equity. The five conditions of collective impact, implemented without attention to equity, are not enough to create lasting change.

With input from thoughtful partners, clients, and community members, we’ve come to understand that most efforts to achieve collective impact inevitably take place within a context of structural inequity that keeps people of different backgrounds and races from achieving equitable outcomes. If participants in collective impact initiatives are to make the lasting change they seek, they must pay explicit attention to policies, practices, and culture that are reinforcing patterns of inequity in the community. They must develop targeted strategies that specifically and differentially take into account any underlying advantages that some people have, as well as the disadvantages that other groups face. And throughout every aspect of the collective impact process, they must bring to the table those whose lives are affected by the results of the work. Without vigilant attention to equity, efforts to align and coordinate resources can inadvertently reinforce institutional patterns that promote disparities and constrain progress for our most vulnerable community members.

Simple and straightforward, even intuitive, but not inevitable

At a convening of collective impact practitioners in May of 2015, Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and CEO of PolicyLink, delivered a powerful keynote entitled, “Equity Matters in Collective Impact,” which described how critical an equity focus is within a collective impact effort. In her words, the work of equity is to create the conditions that enable “just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential.”

As simple, straightforward, and intuitive as that sounds, we are learning that just and fair inclusion for all— regardless of race, gender, ability, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation—doesn’t just “happen” most of the time when people engage in collective impact efforts. Even with the best of intentions, it is not inevitable. Without purposefully bringing an equity lens to bear on every aspect of the collective impact process, practitioners inevitably miss opportunities to seek out, recognize, and purposefully resolve inequities in their local context that can block the change they seek to achieve.

And adding “equity” to the collective impact agenda isn’t enough. Organizations engaged in collective impact initiatives should first consider and take action on how they need to change from within by applying an equity lens to their own people and practices. As we’re finding at FSG through our own organizational and personal journeys with equity, this is not an easy challenge to meet.

The change “out there” begins “in here”

The process of building equity into FSG’s organization, culture, and work, in fact, has been an iterative journey of discovery through which we are continuing to learn. On this journey, we have been greatly assisted by experts, including consultants from the National Equity Project and Robin DiAngelo, who have helped us understand and question our assumptions of how racial inequity and white privilege affects our consulting work, our internal processes, and the management of our organization. And as a result, we are examining and changing our hiring practices, our leadership and governance structures, and the ways in which we work together. We are broadening our personal awareness and understanding of equity issues.

Our internal efforts to deepen engagement with equity have been enlightening but also uncomfortable at times. As organizational leaders devoted to social change, it is difficult and disconcerting to see how our positions as white males of power and privilege create blind spots regarding other individuals’ experiences and context that can actually perpetuate the very inequities we work so hard to address. It is hard to accept the fact that those blind spots, however unintentional, have been embedded in unexamined structures, policies, and practices.

We’re not “done” and never will be. We must continue to take actions that move beyond good intentions to truly create a more inclusive and equitable organization and consulting practice. While still early in our journey, we are hopeful that changes in our understanding and actions related to equity practices and policies “in here” will help us become better social change agents “out there.”

Effective equity practice in collective impact

We are not equity experts. But we do believe that we have a responsibility to put equity in the spotlight as we continue to highlight effective practices for collective impact. To do this, we are increasing our efforts to learn from and share the practices of those placing equity at the center of their work. Anel Mercado and Richard Crews are two such practitioners, and their experience in Phoenix, Arizona, offers a good example of the difference an equity lens makes:

Mercado, Crews, and their team at Thriving Together (members of the Strive Together national network) brought equity to the table in a “cradle-to-career” education collective impact effort. They did it when it was uncertain that the community wanted to “go there.” And they did it by navigating through discomfort, developing common language, and deeply disaggregating student data.

Navigating through discomfort: Thriving Together is an initiative designed to better prepare a quarter-million young people who live within the greater Phoenix metropolitan area for success from birth to career.  Community leaders (including senior leadership from public education, higher education, business, philanthropy and community based organizations) wanted to improve education in the urban core, but were initially reluctant to confront the impact of racial barriers to educational achievement. “[P]eople automatically wanted to go socioeconomic; it’s much easier to digest that it must be poverty,” noted Mercado in a recent report published by Lumina Foundation.

Crews, Thriving Together’s Collaborative Action team manager, adds to this, explaining that, “Historically in Arizona, institutions have been reluctant to talk about educational disparities through a racial equity lens. The first time we tried to have the equity conversation, it fell flat. There seemed to be a general hesitation [to focus] on race or ethnicity explicitly.”

Some of this hesitation, Mercado and Crews understood, was due to the specific political context in Phoenix, where conversations on immigration and ethnicity can be emotionally charged. But the Thriving Together team committed to moving the conversation forward despite the discomfort and brought in Calvin Terrell, an equity content expert, as a facilitator.

Developing common language: At Terrell’s first meeting with the steering committee for the effort, he asked, “What does equity mean to us in this work?” The room fell silent. The group didn’t yet have common language with which to explore the ways in which some students were being left behind. Terrell then shared an image comparing equality (treating everyone the same) and equity (treating everyone fairly according to their needs), and facilitated a dialogue during which the group agreed that not all students start from the same place. They also agreed to view equity as a precursor to equality—to acknowledge students’ varying starting points and provide differentiated resources that would allow students truly equal access to the same educational opportunities.

Disaggregating student data: The common language and resulting commitment enabled partnership members to dig more deeply into student data. “We said, ‘We’re not saying it’s not poverty, but there is something with race/ethnicity here, and sometimes [there’s something] with gender,’” explained Mercado.

“We had to go deeper in the data to see where disparities were truly manifesting,” said Crews. “For example, graduation rates for Latino students looked pretty good. But when we further disaggregated our data, we saw that many Latino graduates were not college ready. It wasn’t a socioeconomic issue; the data showed us otherwise. But it was systemic—our state standards meant students could finish high school, but ACT scores were demonstrating that many students of color were not being prepared for postsecondary education.”

“Having that data lens allowed us to take a lot of personal bias out of it,” said Crews. “This time, it was not ‘the equity guy coming to have that conversation.’ It was about ‘what do you see in the data?’ We didn’t say what we were seeing. We allowed them to look at the data unencumbered by anyone else’s opinion. They saw [that the] system was graduating students but inadequately preparing them to move on, and this created space for deeper conversations about what to do.”

As a result of those deeper conversations, Thriving Together action teams are now developing interventions that are more tailored to the unique needs of different students (such as Latino males in remediation programs within community colleges). The equity conversations also helped create a shift in perspective among local leaders, from seeing students as “problems” to viewing them as assets worthy of investment. That shift led to greater engagement and increased commitment, particularly from philanthropy and business stakeholders. For example, Arizona Public Service, the local electricity company, has now provided 10 continuous improvement coaches (with a pledge for more as needed) from within the company to work directly with selected schools, district leaders and community partners.

“Once they saw the data on student outcomes,” says Crews, “they said, ‘We get it. This population is our greatest asset—they’re our future customers and employees.’” Crews points to continuous improvement as how equity will happen in the partnership. He concludes, “Breaking things down into micro processes will allow us to identify and address systemic and process problems, and make a real difference for our students.”

Starting is more important than feeling ready

Some CI practitioners may wonder whether their organizations or collaboratives are ready to tackle issues of systemic disparity. Within FSG, we have found that it is more important to get started than to feel ready. Certainly, the guidance and support we have received from those with experience in bringing an equity lens to the work has greatly helped. We encourage collective impact efforts that are newly engaging with race and equity to seek assistance from the field of equity experts.

Thriving Together’s experience demonstrates that it is possible to foster a greater focus on equity even in situations where doing so seems daunting. And Thriving Together is not alone: grassroots organizations, public/nonprofit leaders, and other advocates who have been working in community for decades are building a robust movement highlighting the importance of equity in collaborative efforts. These are voices we need to learn from, notably those who are weighing in on collective impact. For example, we’ve benefited recently from a piece by Junious Williams and Sarah Marxer of Urban Strategies Council, that shares their thoughts on how to bring an equity lens to collective impact. We’ve also learned from a recent blog by Juan Sebastian Arias of Living Cities and Sheri Brady of the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions who offer suggestions for three steps that can help in advancing equity through collective impact.

As we and our FSG colleagues continue to highlight quality collective impact practice, we are committed to shining a much brighter spotlight on the importance of placing equity at the center of collective impact efforts. We will leverage the Collective Impact Forum (in conjunction with our partner, Aspen Forum for Community Solutions, one of our guides on the equity journey) and other partnerships, such as a new partnership with PolicyLink, to highlight the resources and wisdom of the many organizations with deep equity expertise. We will also do more to include those living in the communities we strive to serve as partners in our work. We hope you will join in these efforts. Bringing greater attention to equity in collective impact will lead to more meaningful progress for all.

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COMMENTS

  • BY Julie DiBari

    ON October 8, 2015 05:49 AM

    I think this article is fantastic. I also want to point out that I believe that addressing equity must include having the voices of those directly impacted by collective efforts at the table (and truly empowered to be at the table). The barriers faced are often very nuanced. Empowered engagement of impacted individuals and qualitative approaches to understanding the issue are critical to success.

  • BY Judy Harper

    ON October 8, 2015 05:58 PM

    You’ve mentioned race, gender, ability, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation - but how about “social class”?!  Perhaps a re-review of the Studs Terkel classic, “Hidden Injuries of Class”?

  • BY John Kania

    ON October 9, 2015 05:04 AM

    Thank you Julie. We absolutely agree that having the voices of those impacted and authentically engaging them in dialogue and decision-making is critical to moving forward effectively. Please feel free to share any suggestions you may have as to how you’ve seen this done well; the more we can learn from each other, the more quickly we can improve our field-wide practice. We appreciate you sharing your thoughts.

  • BY Renie Carniol

    ON October 9, 2015 08:53 AM

    Excellent article! Many comments are important to consider by the Fund that I direct, the Grotta Fund for Senior Care, as we launch a new initiative to Create Age-Friendly Communities in Northern NJ.

  • BY John Kania

    ON October 9, 2015 01:16 PM

    Thank you, Judy. We would agree that class and economic situations are an important factor when examining why communities are left behind, and these economic factors are often even more intensified when other factors, like race, ability, gender identity or sexuality are overlaid.

  • BY Andrew Woods

    ON October 9, 2015 04:20 PM

    Yes, great article. Can someone point me to an equity article that speaks to supporting the collective impact efforts led by non-white organizations? Much of what i come across is based on how white organizations should be “more inclusive or considerate”., of those they want to help.

  • BY Marci Ronik

    ON October 13, 2015 08:07 PM

    Excellent article! Kudos on recognizing the need to look within and to be brave and courageous to take those steps at FSG. Working with the most marginalized, disenfranchised populations in our work (those with behavioral health-mental health/substance use, HIV, homelessness, etc.), we see how great the need is to apply an equity lens not only in the aforementioned groups but also to the specific needs of special populations. Thank you again for the introspection and the deep dive into what matters.

  • Michelle M. Peltier's avatar

    BY Michelle M. Peltier

    ON October 16, 2015 03:03 PM

    This was so interesting. It has given me hope that change can occur using this model. I understand clearly by reading this article all that was missing when you get in a room of well meaning people who want to make a difference but don’t agree on the meaning of what that difference is, why it matters and how to get there together. Using data, having difficult conversations and making sure that everyone is on the same page seems easy but we all have our own way of seeing the world and the “collective impact” approach seems like a way to really change the world. Great article.

  • BY Muneer Karcher-Ramos

    ON October 16, 2015 03:27 PM

    I agree. Equity starts at home – within individual selves as leaders and our organizations.

    I run the Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood in Minnesota. One of our principles of engagement and community building is “parent are the first teachers and greatest assets in a child’s life.” As a place-based education initiative, it’s incumbent upon us to partner very closely with parents in all aspects of our work. One day when we were talking with parents in the Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood, they kept hearing staff use the term, “collective impact.” Once explained, they were unsure to how exactly they fit into the “cross-sector” nature of collective impact. They preferred that we shift the frame to “collective ownership,” where we collectively own the issues and collectively own the solutions. Depending on the audience I speak to I still use collective impact, but am increasingly talking about collective ownership. Inclusive language is part of equity, but beyond language it is equally important to move beyond the terminology, whether collective impact or collective ownership, to action, with a laser focus on delivering results.

    When I think about action and equity, I agree with Julie DiBari’s comment above, “addressing equity must include having the voices of those directly impacted by collective efforts at the table.” Parents are nearly always co-presenting, doing funder site visits, and hosting influencers with the Saint Paul Promise Neighborhood. Our parents developed our 2015 Promise Agenda, which established our policy priorities in the Minnesota state legislature. We believe that those impacted by the issue are those who should lead in speaking to the issues. We had 3 huge policy victories at the state level (you can read about it here: http://preview.tinyurl.com/strive-pn-policy), but more importantly the parents were honored with a House Resolution acknowledging their role in influencing public decision making that impacts their lives. Like many organizations pushing policy, we could have hired a lobbyist to be the surrogate for advancing our policy priorities, but we didn’t. It was vital to not displace the power of parents because they had a role to play. As they kept reminding us and legislatures this past session: if parents aren’t at the table, then they are on the table. We must never leave equity on the table.

    You can read the resolution here: http://tinyurl.com/sppn-parent-res

  • BY Sandra Gasca-Gonzalez

    ON October 16, 2015 08:41 PM

    Thank you for shining the light on the need for intentional focus on equity and not leaving it up to chance. I’ve always assumed this was an interwoven focus of collective impact and to hear of your learnings is very helpful.  The notion of getting your own “house in order” is the right first step. I also believe that data with the voice and thought of those we serve is what truly moves the needle on results. “Nothing about us without us” is the right mantra that gets to empowering communities in a meaningful and sustainable way. Appreciate your article as I will be using this in my work to educate folks in “the house” to build the necessary energy to move results. Thank you!

  • Michelle M. Peltier's avatar

    BY Michelle M. Peltier

    ON October 17, 2015 09:20 AM

    This was so interesting. It has given me hope that change can occur using this model. I understand clearly by reading this article all that was missing when you get in a room of well meaning people who want to make a difference but don’t agree on the meaning of what that difference is, why it matters and how to get there together. Using data, having difficult conversations and making sure that everyone is on the same page seems easy but we all have our own way of seeing the world and the “collective impact” approach seems like a way to really change the world. Great article.

  • BY Julie DiBari

    ON October 19, 2015 07:58 AM

    Dear Mr. Kania, Thank you for your positive feedback on my comment regarding the importance of commmunity/client voice in equity. As you requested here are some examples that are worth looking at:

    1. The Women’s Resource Center in Rhode Island:  Both the federal Center for Disease Control and the Department of Health in Rhode Island are funding the Women’s Resource Center here in Rhode Island to do some excellent on the ground work related to community voice that has included using Photo Voice with youth to help them articulate issues in their community; holding events such as mural paintings that gather the community together in natural ways to gather feedback; stipending both community members from disenfranchised communities and grassroots organizations to lead community discussions. They are engaged right now in a very deep process of community engagement that includes all of these elements, and more, that is definitely worth checking out. We are supporting their work and they are engaging other organizations with expertise in this area as well such as Creativity Labs (http://ds4si.org/creativity-labs/), an organization that uses design thinking to engage communities in conversations about social innovation.

    2. We have also been working recently with Loomio (http://www.loomio.org), an exciting, fast growing international social enterprise that has developed a technology platform solution that has the potential to greatly broaden the number of voices engaged in conversations about community issues and includes a collective decision making platform that can be customized. There is tremendous power is incorporating technology with on the ground engagement to achieve greater scale with community voice.

    3. We have also always supported youth groups that are focused on bringing youth voice to the table in authentic ways. We believe this must include helping adults learn how to play the role of supporter in helping youth articulate issues, underlying community factors and potential solutions rather than inadvertently leveraging youth voice as a tool to forward an adult agenda. It takes patience but the results can be amazing! We have worked with many of these types of organizations over time. Our favorites are Foster Youth in Action, Youth In Action and ROCA.

    4. We are currently using the Evaluating Complexity framework in our role as outside evaluator for the Newport Public Schools partnership with community agencies to address truancy. We are seeing early successes and I hope this becomes a case study both for collective impact and the role of equity in collective impact. We are using research validated school climate surveys with parents and youth to identify areas they feel need improvement at the whole school level as well as with children, youth and parents experiencing absenteeism and truancy issues. We are also connecting this effort to the efforts of the Women’s Resource Center to work more deeply with the community on feedback and solutions.

  • BY Julie DiBari

    ON October 19, 2015 08:00 AM

    1. The Women’s Resource Center in Rhode Island:  Both the federal Center for Disease Control and the Department of Health in Rhode Island are funding the Women’s Resource Center here in Rhode Island to do some excellent on the ground work related to community voice that has included using Photo Voice with youth to help them articulate issues in their community; holding events such as mural paintings that gather the community together in natural ways to gather feedback; stipending both community members from disenfranchised communities and grassroots organizations to lead community discussions. They are engaged right now in a very deep process of community engagement that includes all of these elements, and more, that is definitely worth checking out. We are supporting their work and they are engaging other organizations with expertise in this area as well such as Creativity Labs which use design thinking to engage communities in conversations about social innovation.

    2. We have also been working recently with Loomio, an exciting, fast growing international social enterprise that has developed a technology platform solution that has the potential to greatly broaden the number of voices engaged in conversations about community issues and includes a collective decision making platform that can be customized. There is tremendous power is incorporating technology with on the ground engagement to achieve greater scale with community voice.

    3. We have also always supported youth groups that are focused on bringing youth voice to the table in authentic ways. We believe this must include helping adults learn how to play the role of supporter in helping youth articulate issues, underlying community factors and potential solutions rather than inadvertently leveraging youth voice as a tool to forward an adult agenda. It takes patience but the results can be amazing! We have worked with many of these types of organizations over time. Our favorites are Foster Youth in Action, Youth In Action and ROCA.

    4. We are currently using the Evaluating Complexity framework in our role as outside evaluator for the Newport Public Schools partnership with community agencies to address truancy. We are seeing tremendous successes and I hope this becomes a case study both for collective impact and the role of equity in collective impact. We are using research validated school climate surveys with parents and youth to identify areas they feel need improvement at the whole school level as well as with children, youth and parents experiencing absenteeism and truancy issues. We are also connecting this effort to the efforts of the Women’s Resource Center to work more deeply with the community on feedback and solutions.

  • BY Julie DiBari

    ON October 19, 2015 08:03 AM

    Dear Mr. Kania,

    In the comment above my intro was somehow left I out. I meant to thank you for your feedback on my comments regarding the importance of client/community engagement to achieve equity in collective impact (and the comments of other responders as well). In my work at The Capacity Group (http://www.thecapacitygroup.org) we have come across many great examples of this in action, and have been a part of many of them. The above are the examples you requested.

  • BY Rachel Mosher-Williams

    ON October 21, 2015 06:00 AM

    Hi John, Thank you for openly sharing FSG’s efforts to introduce an equity lens to the organization’s internal culture. This is a critical conversation in the sector - not only the focus on equity and inclusion to effect social change but the issue of how internal culture matches external impact on complex social problems. At Community Wealth Partners, we are also learning how to use a race, equity, and inclusion lens and have started having the sometimes “uncomfortable” conversations you describe both with our internal team and with our clients and partners. Needless to say, none of us have all the answers so we need to be open with and learn from each other. We recently shared our thoughts in a blog post at http://tinyurl.com/ohkvebk and would love feedback from any readers of this series. Let’s keep the conversation going!

  • John Kania 's avatar

    BY John Kania

    ON October 21, 2015 07:41 AM

    Rachel, thanks so much for sharing your experiences and journey at Community Wealth Partners with race, equity and inclusion.  Great blog with helpful lessons.  Wonderful contribution to learning for those of us on this journey.  Look forward to continuing the conversation!

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