This essay was originally posted to Living Cities’ blog on July 24, 2014.
At Living Cities, we spend a lot of time thinking about how to change the systems that consistently produce poverty, income inequality, and all their related disparities. One of our core beliefs is that the seemingly intractable problems facing cities today can only be addressed when decision-makers from across different sectors come together around a common vision to re-engineer the systems that produce these outcomes in the first place. This approach – also known as collective impact – is one that Living Cities has been testing in the social sector over the past several years.
We also recognize that race influences and shapes the same systems that together produce uneven outcomes for low-income people in U.S. cities – from housing to health to education. Given this reality, we recently committed to incorporating a racial equity & inclusion lens across all our work in order to more effectively disrupt the persistent inequality and poverty in our cities.
And at the same, the importance of community voice and engagement in collective impact has emerged as a critical issue in the field. More and more, a national conversation around how to authentically engage community stakeholders at all levels of collective impact work has grown. Indeed, it makes sense that the perspective of community members is needed to inform and guide the social change efforts that seek to impact their everyday lives.
What is less clear, however, is how collective impact, racial equity and community engagement all intersect. How do we effectively integrate community voice into institution-heavy collective impact efforts? How do we authentically and meaningfully involve communities who have historically been left out of decision-making processes? And how do we engage stakeholders in the sensitive conversations about race, class and culture without driving away those who need to sit at the problem-solving table?
Living Cities’ Exploration with StriveTogether
The importance of these conversations can be easily ignored when working systematically. In order to more intentionally address these issues (and in direct response to a call to action by leaders on the ground), StriveTogether and Living Cities are convening a working group of practitioners currently grappling with these issues in their work. By convening this group we seek to build our collective knowledge on how to apply an equity lens in collective impact work focused on improving outcomes for youth from cradle to career. We’re working to identify the support that local partnerships need in order to engage communities more equitably in their work and ultimately reduce inequality across different races, cultures and class groups.
Four Early Insights
While these conversations are still going on, we’ve identified four early insights that we think may be useful to others working on similar efforts.
- First: Conversations about race and class can be incredibly difficult to navigate, and some communities may not have the capacity to constructively facilitate them. Given the sensitive nature of the topics, a common language is often useful to help communities engage in constructive conversations. Language is contextual and certain words can turn some people away while bringing others in. For example, ‘underserved’ or ‘underrepresented’ or ‘minority’ are often used interchangeably to identify target communities, yet they can each inspire different reactions in different people. Regardless, these tough, courageous conversations are an important starting point for any movement towards incorporating equity considerations into collective impact work.
- Second: We need to be clear on who we mean by the community. The first half of an answer is that community is defined as the people who will be impacted by the changes the collective impact partnership seeks to make. Going one step further, in equitable community engagement, the targeted community can be defined as those individuals who will be impacted by social change efforts and who are also historically left out of the decision-making process. In cradle-to-career work, this can include local students and youth as well as communities of color.
- Third: We need to recognize the difference between equity and equality in community engagement. It’s not enough to give all community members an equal opportunity to engage in the collective impact effort; we need to actively meet communities where they are and create targeted opportunities around the unique needs of community members historically disengaged from civic decision-making. For example, equitable engagement could include offering translation services for non-English speakers or timing engagement opportunities later in the day so that working parents are able to join.
- Fourth: We need to more carefully redefine power in collective impact efforts. Conventionally, power resides in the leaders and institutions that have authority to make unilateral decisions. Yet, in collective impact, power also resides within community members who have the ability to quickly identify what is and isn’t working. Collective impact partnerships themselves may have a role to play in helping drive this shift by highlighting the importance of incorporating community feedback into the work of the larger partnership.
Join the Dialogue
This is only the beginning of our exploration into equitable community engagement as a way to address inequality. As we continue to explore this question, we’re committed to sharing our insights and questions through this blog. Over the next several months, we will share knowledge ranging from examples of equitable engagement in the field to insights gained from our ongoing discussions. I invite you to join us in this dialogue by reaching out to me – either through email at email@example.com or through Twitter at @_jsarias.