The role of equity in collective impact has evolved over the past several years. The recent field-wide study of collective impact by ORS Impact and Spark Policy Institute, “When Collective Impact Has an Impact” included a deep dive on how equity is being implemented across various collective impact initiatives. The report included the following definition of equity:
Equity is fairness achieved through systematically assessing disparities in opportunities and outcomes caused by structures and systems and by addressing these disparities through meaningful inclusion and representation of affected communities and individuals, targeted actions, and changes in institutional structures and systems to remove barriers and increase pathways to success.
Operation Youth Success (OYS), located in Douglas County, NE has been on its own journey with respect to equity. Specifically, the initiative has evolved its approach to inclusion of the youth it seeks to support – those currently or formerly involved in the juvenile justice system. When FSG began its work with OYS in 2015, there was an urgency to make the collective impact process more inclusive than past reform efforts. Many efforts in the past had been top-down and driven by the “system” rather than taking an inclusive approach to involving families and youth in the change effort. OYS leadership was committed to a different approach to change – but the path forward was not clear.
The recent field-wide study identified meaningful inclusion and a shift of power to the communities being affected by an issue as a challenging area for most study sites. Study sites were identified as having strong representation and meaningful inclusion when:
- Leaders, implementers, and influencers are representative of the of entire community intended to benefit from the initiative in terms of demographics and lived experience;
- The initiative is meaningfully engaging of and empowering to the community; and
- The initiative makes an effort to engage non-joiners and traditionally disenfranchised groups (e.g., meetings at convenient times/locations, bilingual translation, transportation/child care, or compensation for time/expertise).
Operation Youth Success initial inclusion activities
As OYS formed its common agenda, it sought input from community members in several ways. The first was through town hall meetings that asked community members to share thoughts on areas for the initiative to focus and potential solutions. The town hall meetings were held at local high schools, offered child care and dinner during the event, and provided simultaneous English-Spanish translation in a neighborhood with a large Latino population. Additionally, the FSG team conducted individual and group conversations with youth and families through community service providers to further vet the Steering Committee’s initial ideas.
To ensure that this engagement was sustained beyond the common agenda formation process, two OYS structures were created. The first was a working group focused on family engagement and empowerment. This working group specifically aimed to address the mistrust and miscommunication between traditional “system” leaders and families. Second was a Youth Council comprised of currently or formerly involved juvenile justice youth. The goal for the Youth Council was to provide on-going input and feedback to the Steering Committee’s work and also provide opportunities for youth to have access to the community’s system leaders.
The Youth Council achieved several milestones in its initial meetings:
- Created the name “Operation Youth Success” for the initiative
- Provided feedback on specific strategies to the Steering Committee and working groups
- Discussed advocacy strategies the Youth Council could take on itself
- Discussed barriers to success they experienced in their own system involvement
- Reviewed and provided feedback on the Families work group product, Family Guide; Douglas County Juvenile Justice System
- Reimagined the juvenile justice system in a feedback gathering exercise for the Douglas County Comprehensive Juvenile Services Plan
The Youth Council and families working group also sent a signal to the community that this effort was different – those affected by the juvenile justice system had a direct voice in the changes being considered and implemented. There was a sense that this effort was different from those of the past.
Challenges faced by the Youth Council
Despite its initial success, the OYS backbone staff faced challenges maintaining Youth Council participation and engagement after the first 6-12 months. Participation was challenged by competing priorities facing the youth as well as logistical challenges such as transportation. In addition, there was a sense that the participation in the Youth Council may not be representative of the breadth of the juvenile justice population in Douglas County. Many of the youth who regularly attended Youth Council meetings were at the same level of juvenile justice system involvement. Therefore, the breadth of the youths experience was not representative of the multiple levels of youth who are system-involved. As participation dwindled, the OYS backbone staff also realized that the Youth Council may be redundant to inclusion and engagement efforts of other partners.
An evolved approach to inclusion and engagement
The OYS backbone staff recognized the Youth Council was not functioning as it was originally designed but the intent to involve youth in decision-making processes remained important. They reached out to their partners to understand other avenues that existed in parallel to OYS that engaged juvenile justice involved youth. They identified several venues that already convened these youth and worked with these partners to determine how OYS could use these existing spaces to gather input for their work.
The strategy evolution turned from trying to bring youth into a new meeting to partnering with existing community-based youth serving organizations and events where youth were already convening. The OYS backbone staff is interacting with young people and families in a variety of environments: cultural events, community events, school events, faith-based programs, after-school programs, and the Douglas County Youth Center. The backbone staff view community engagement as a continuous process. As the organization builds a local network, their reach in the community continues to expand. Each opportunity to engage with the public produces another connection for OYS to pursue. It is through this diligent work in community networking that OYS has begun to build traction and add to their collective impact.