Conversations with Experienced Backbone Leaders: KConnect


Here at the Forum we’ve been having amazing discussions about equity in collective impact. As part of the discussion series with experienced backbone leaders, I had the chance to catch up with a three key members of KConnect to talk about the role of equity in their work. KConnect is the backbone of a collective impact initiative focused on providing all children in Kent County, Michigan a path to economic prosperity through family, education, and community opportunities.

Representing KConnect are Pamela Parriott, Executive Director of KConnect; Lynne Ferrell, co-chair of the KConnect Board of Trustees; and Paul Doyle, consultant for KConnect’s Equity & Inclusion Workgroup and focus.

Speaking with Pam, Lynne, and Paul was especially meaningful for me because in 2012 I helped KConnect’s Steering Committee write their common agenda. In those early days, I’ll admit that we had a lot to learn about the role of equity and what it meant for Kent County. Kent County is anchored by the city of Grand Rapids, but also includes many rural areas. Across the county, there are stark disparities in youth outcomes across racial, economic, and geographic lines. Even though KConnect’s leadership made equity as a centerpiece of the initiative, they knew that they had to be patient, and bring the community along at the right pace.

Here are a few highlights from our conversation:

  • When it comes to equity discussions, people will come with varying degrees of knowledge and energy. KConnect has made an effort to meet people where they are and employ different tools to increase awareness and build capacity. As Lynne said, “we are constantly trying to strike a balance between doing it well, and doing it at a pace where people stay engaged.”
  • Disaggregated data are a critical tool to illuminate disparities, which can lead to differentiated strategies and “aha” moments.
  • Working toward equity is ambiguous, and it takes patience and commitment.
  • KConnect’s Equity & Inclusion Workgroup supports other workgroups by identifying key performance indicators, suggesting discussion tools, and employing “inclusion filters” to ensure strategies work toward equity.

David: What are you excited about regarding KConnect’s work on equity?

Lynne: I am feeling like equity might just be the tipping point for us to really achieve something substantive. Our community has spent substantial time and energy in understanding and embracing diversity and inclusion. KConnect is entering this conversation after years and years of this work. Now we feel we are in a great place to advance the conversation beyond diversity and inclusion to equity; the community is ready to expand the conversation.

Paul: I agree. We are now using data to move towards equity. We are creating a learning platform for our stakeholders where they can understand what is involved in achieving equity. That will have great impact.

Pam: When I think about the equity work, it’s some of the most authentic and difficult work related to KConnect. To tell the full story, we need to pair qualitative and quantitative data. This allows us to create a more accurate narrative about where resources are most needed.

How did your initial conversations around equity go?

Lynne: When we first started KConnect, we knew we wanted to be reliant on data. In the early days, we were presented with data that showed the disparities in the community, and it was an “a-ha moment” for us. We did not proactively ask for disaggregated data [from our consultants], but that’s what we found ourselves with as we were forming our vision statement. That data helped us see the enormity of the problem and we came to a courageous decision to try and embed equity in everything we do rather than making it an add-on. But we’ve needed to get comfortable with ambiguity. We realized that we may not fully know how all of this would unfold, but we did know that the status quo was unacceptable.

What is KConnect’s overall approach to equity?

Paul: We have a diverse group of individuals that make up the Equity & Inclusion Workgroup in terms of sector, grassroots, and grasstops. This allows us to have broad perspectives and knowledge at the table. The Equity & Inclusion Workgroup members will help the other workgroups utilize an “inclusion filter” approach to insure we consider the factors that impact all children in their strategy development process. By doing this, we can create an opportunity for individuals who are not close with equity work to increase their competency and understanding.

What we are grappling with right now is really a key question for us: how do we infuse equity and inclusion within the fabric of KConnect so it’s the air we breathe and the water we drink? We don’t want to be reactive, but rather make equity be a proactive part of our behavior. We continue to work through what this means for KConnect.

Can you give me an example of how the E&I Workgroup supports other workgroups?

Paul: Although working toward equity is a continuous journey and you’re never “there,” we essentially want to:

  • Establish performance indicators around equity across workgroups
  • Look at data stratified across demographics
  • Enhance their capacity for intentional community engagement

We’re also looking at targeted universalism as a tool, in which we have a universal goal, but are creating targeted strategies that help different groups achieve that universal goal.

Pam: Embedding equity has been a difficult journey, but one of great learning.

In terms of operationalizing, we are focused on how we prepare and equip the Equity & Inclusion Workgroup to support equity conversations within the 3 “domain” workgroup. For example, we explore how best to use tools (such as intercultural development inventory) in a group format to foster multi-cultural thinking.

Four members of the Equity & Inclusion Workgroup serve on an “advisory team,” which advises the other workgroups. They help our working group members understand, for instance, what it means to look at data with an equity lens. We’ve had incredibly rich conversations as a result, adding depth and understanding to a group who is supposed to look at systems change in a new way and be innovative.

What has been challenging for you?

Lynne: Devoting the time and empathy to do this work well is a challenge. We are constantly trying to strike a balance between doing it well, and doing it at a pace where people stay engaged. We lean toward doing it well, but that will be hard as we go forward.

Paul: You have to meet people where they are at in terms of understanding equity and inclusion and get them to see the role they need to play. That’s not easy. KConnect’s value is providing intentional opportunities for everyone to feel they are stakeholders.

What advice do you have for other collective impact practitioners?

Lynne: I would recommend having an equity expert at the Steering Committee level in the early stages when you are forming the ideas around your work. We had that person in the room and that helped us think broadly about equity out of the gate.

Paul: You have to be proactive and mindful of the rules of engagement [with the community]. We have more work to do around engagement, but we try to give individuals in the community the opportunity to be part of the initiative; this creates an atmosphere of ownership.

What do you think? Share your questions and comments below.

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