Core Principles to Support Anti-Racism in Collective Impact


In this podcast episode, Collective Impact Forum senior advisor Junious Williams talks with Erika Bernabei and Theo Miller who co-lead the consulting group Equity and Results. Erika and Theo share what they’ve learned supporting organizations who want to embed anti-racism practices in their collective impact work. They also discuss a set of core principles that can help guide collective impact initiatives that want to go deeper into their racial equity work.

Ways to Listen: Stream this episode below. You can also listen via Itunes, Spotify, Simplecast, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, Amazon, and other podcast apps.

Please find a transcript of this podcast lower down this page

Resources and Footnotes


The Intro music, entitled “Running,” was composed by Rafael Krux, and can be found here and is licensed under CC: By 4.0. The outro music, entitled “Deliberate Thought,” was composed by Kevin Macleod. Licensed under CC: By.

More on Collective Impact approach to collaborate for social change:

Listen to Past Episodes: You can listen and subscribe via Itunes, Spotify, Simplecast, Sticher, iHeartRadio, Amazon, and other podcast apps.

Podcast Transcript

(Intro) Welcome to the Collective Impact Forum podcast, here to share resources to support social change makers working on cross-sector collaboration.

The Collective Impact Forum is a nonprofit field-building initiative that is co-hosted in partnership by the nonprofit consulting firm FSG and the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions.

In this episode, Collective Impact Forum senior advisor Junious Williams talks with Erika Bernabei and Theo Miller from the consulting group Equity and Results. Erika and Theo share what they’ve learned supporting organizations who want to embed anti-racism practices in their collective impact work. They also discuss a set of core principles that can help guide collective impact initiatives that want to go deeper into their racial equity work. Let’s listen in.

Junious Williams: Hello and welcome to the Collective Impact Forum’s podcast series. My name is Junious Williams and I’m a senior advisor at the Collective Impact Forum and I’m the moderator for the podcast today. I’m really excited about the session today since I’ll have the opportunity to talk with two folks whose work I greatly respect and admire. Recently, I’ve had an opportunity to work with both of them.

I’d like to introduce you to Theo Miller and Erika Bernabei, principals and co-founders of Equity & Results, a consulting firm which in part works on designing racially equitable systems and transforming culture and results in the long term. You’ll learn more about their work throughout the podcast. I want to begin today by providing both Theo and Erika an opportunity to tell us about themselves and their work. I’d like to start by just asking both of them to tell us a bit about yourselves and what brought you to doing this type of work. Maybe you could lead off, Theo.

Theo Miller: Certainly. Thanks, Junious, and great to be with you, great to be with one of the folks that I admire dearly. Theo Miller, and you know, in my heart, I’m a community organizer. I’m trained as a lawyer, born and raised in Los Angeles, a cis Black man and I live now in the Bay Area. I come to this work after doing years of work in government, years of organizing, years of working mostly with low-income Black communities really across the country. For me, I’m just obsessed with this idea of how you can actually take impact, how you can actually take antiracist impact from this idea, from this thing that you read about with MLK or Audre Lord. You can take it from your head and your heart into your hands. My obsession is to be in collaboration with brilliant folks like my partner, Erika, and really community to try to drive what we call antiracist impact. That’s the single motivator for me in this work.

Erika Bernabei: Hey everybody, I’m Erika Bernabei. I am a queer White woman in New York. At the end of the day, I also am an organizer. I was trained through the People’s Institute over the past 25 years to really understand antiracist principles, to really understand what it takes to do this work from a personal as well as from a systems perspective and so over the course of the past 20 years now, I’ve worked at both organizations like PolicyLink as well as government to really attempt and to I think successfully begin to build methodology and framework that allows anybody, any kind of organization interested in doing collective impact to enter and to begin to deconstruct and reconstruct systems. For me, that’s my passion. I also have a background in research and frankly, the work that I love best is actually with government and collective impact. That’s my passion. I love working with government. I love working with those agencies that are very internally focused. Groups like contracts, groups like human resources, because they’re often left out of the picture and that’s sort of who I love to work with. Thanks, Junious.

Junious Williams: Thanks, both of you. Both of you have had experience as practitioners in this work and you’re doing consulting work and serving as advisors to a wide range of clients. What have you found to be the core components or elements of doing what you’ve described as results-focused antiracist collective impact work?

Theo Miller: Why don’t you take it first, E? I’ll tango off you.

Erika Bernabei: OK, great. In essence, what we learned was that without a set of principles—and we don’t use the word lens when we talk about antiracism. We actually call them a set of principles. Without a set of principles, we actually can do a lot of harm to Black, indigenous, and people of color, and their communities throughout the country. We need to have a set of principles that guide our work, that we’ve culled and synthesized from organizers, researchers, community members, scholars and elders, over the course of the last really hundred years. Both Theo and I have read these pieces and learned these pieces firsthand from some of these folks themselves. So without these principles we really end up in a situation where we look for that quick fix, that technical solution, and we really can’t get to the heart of the matter.

So we have these several principles and Theo, let’s tango on them and talk just briefly about what they are and again, what we’re doing is not just sharing antiracist principles but we’re sharing these principles as a bridge, a bridge between traditional antiracist principles that we’ve learned from groups like People’s Institute, bell hooks, whomever it is, and impact frameworks that have zero antiracist principles baked in. This is a set of bridge principles, so to speak. Theo, do you want to start off?

Theo Miller: Yeah, I love it. I love it and I know the first and the last are sort of my favorites. We’ve read right out of your work, Junious, and some of your stuff is reflected in these principles.

I’ll say the first for me and what has been the most central has been the participatory principle, and you get it. As you all have sort of rewritten collective impact to center equity, the participatory principles say nothing to us without us. As the late great actor, Michael Williams, once said, “I knew that those closest in proximity to the problem are closest in proximity to the solution.” it’s this idea that in work—and this is what’s so disturbing to me when I was a practitioner, when I was in city government, when I worked philanthropy, when I was doing things like collective impact initiatives and public housing in San Francisco or others that we can talk about, there was this notion that we know better than thee. We know better for you. It almost made me think about we have several principles that we use but the most important for me is the participatory principle. This idea that we have to center our design, our backbone, everything that we do with the experience of those most impacted. In our work it’s folks of color. It’s Black folks, it’s indigenous folks, Latinx folks, communities of color, and we believe in the notion that you have to lead as Nelson Mandela said you lead from behind. You lead as a shepherd would lead the sheep. You’re sort of in collaboration but you’re following those who are closest in proximity to the problem.

Erika Bernabei: In the most recent paper that you all wrote, you talk about this examination of power and that is core to participatory principle. Again, when we hear groups from across the country especially government groups say, “How do we do community organizing?” Or, “How do we do outreach or community engagement?” That’s the usual phrase we hear better. We say, “Have you examined power, where power comes from, where it leads to? Have you examined who has it? If you haven’t, you haven’t even started the journey to be able to do going to community engagement.” And that’s the participatory principle in a nutshell.

I’ll say the second one we talk about is data culture. Data culture is a really critical principle and at the core of it is that data has been done to communities of color historically and we think about things like eugenics. We think about the Tuskegee syphilis experiments where data was sort of desired to be culled, to be utilized for really, really violent and rancid ends. This history of data is important and we have to recognize that culture still lives inside of the way we think about data and the way our communities think about data.

Theo Miller: You all talk about data and when we say data, I’m just thinking about the stuff we did in the Bay together. I’m thinking about the stuff that we did with collective impact initiatives that were funded by philanthropy. We mean qualitative data as well as quantitative data. We mean the stories. We mean the grandmas and the aunties. I remember the time where we helped facilitate a space on what’s the strategy? What’s the strategy for public housing? We found the strategy from being in community with folks who were formerly incarcerated. That was the best way to go to actually go to Sunnydale, to go to Double Rock in the Bay Area, and if you want to talk about it, if you want to understand how to reimagine community, how to do it in a collective impact way, you start first and foremost with community. That’s the participatory principle. But what we learned also is that they had the data. That they knew the history. So this data principle runs through for us.

I’ll also say for me one of the core principles is about root cause analysis and in many ways one of the core things that we like to do and that we spent months doing is what we call ensuring that you’re designing strategies with an eye to root cause. Oftentimes in this work well-intentioned folks are running out there and they’re getting money, they’re drafting grants and they’re moving, but are you actually designing those strategies with an eye to root cause?

In your piece, you all talk about the structures and the systems and all that and some of that gets esoterical for folks. The core for us is really sitting in space with organizations and saying, “Why is it so? Why do we see this disparity? Why is there data?” and really asking ourselves why the boat is sinking before we say we need to jump out of the boat or we need to prepare this or we need to do this and that. That idea of designing strategies with an eye to root cause is really something that we hold dear and core.

Erika Bernabei: A piece of that and it’s also connected to another principle of ours, organizational self-reflection, is the way that White folks show up in this work. It’s not a principle of ours but it’s just a nuance I want to pull out. What we’ve seen across the country is that often White leadership, well-intentioned White leadership, even White leadership that is desiring to talk about racial equity, has done that training, has done that work on ourselves, that we don’t do the kind of self-reflection. We don’t do the kind of root cause analysis. We don’t share the data about our struggles and our failures and hold ourselves accountable within the collective impact framework so that we can actually come up with strategies that take our challenges into account. Not to center White folks but to say there is role for us to be pulled out and to say what are the strategies we need to be working on that we can come to the table inside of collective impact in an accountable and in an impactful way in service of and to support the leadership of people of color. Again, that’s not a principle per se but it takes a few of our principles and it connects them.

Theo Miller: Junious, the last one that I’ll speak to and I’ll give you just an example. We were in session this morning with the amazing city of Philadelphia and we started our session with some reflections from the mayor who came to our space with about 100 public servants and just wanted to start and hold space around a moment of silence. There was a tragedy that happened last week. Twelve folks including nine young children died tragically in public housing. In a building in the city of Philadelphia. It’s a building that was constructed almost in the 1800s.

So when you think about racial equity, equity, antiracism, think about collective impact is understanding that people’s lives are at stake and our final principle, the one that I’ll talk about is the relationship principle and it says that, and Ron Chisom from People’s Institute gave us this. It said, “We have to build a net that works. The relationships are the key. Authentic, meaningful relationships are the key.”

You can talk about data. You can talk about root causes. You can even talk about centering the voices of communities of color, but if you don’t actually design your work, your collaboration, your initiatives with relationships at the core, nothing will happen. I used that example with the mayor and the tragedy of these young folks in a city that has been challenged, that has been challenged to move antiracism back in the city that’s predominantly Black, in a city with a White mayor, in a city with complex dynamics, with constrained resources, and in a city that faces this incredible tragedy. What was so inspiring for me, I don’t know about you, E, was to sit back and to see folks actually reflect, to not name and blame, but to lean in together and as we come out of that work with them to really try to design strategies, yes, with an eye to root cause, yes, that has transparent data, yes, that keeps community participating. But the key is going to be them. It’s going to be the folks. Are they in relationship with each other to hold the work? Not the executives, not the leaders, not Erika and Theo, not the consultants, not Junious, all due respect, but it’s like the folk. Will they be in relationship to hold this net for that antiracist impact?

Junious Williams: That’s really helpful. As I hear you describe that set of principles, some things emerge for me that really kind of coincide with a lot of the work that I’ve done. You just mentioned, Theo, the whole issue of relationships and that to me also connects to that participatory practice because that’s a context in which if you do it right you can have a context in which to help people develop relationships by working together and seeing each other in different senses.

I especially like this sort of learning and understanding theme that comes through your work and part from the data, the organizational self-reflection, even the root cause analysis, the real emphasis on this notion that people are working together in relationship to inquire and learn to figure out solutions. That to me is really sort of powerful as you say, a transitional set of principles to get over to some of these impact tools like our results-based accountability to make sure that we just don’t repeat kind of what’s happened before. I can really appreciate that.

Could you talk a little bit more because I think this is really significant for a lot of people. The difference between what we see happening with a lot of folks who are making commitment statements about equity and race versus the way that you framed it in terms of trying to take people on a journey to become an antiracist organization. Could you say more about that because I think for some people that sort of feels abrasive but I think you’re making an important point about how we approach these problems societally.

Theo Miller: I know you got this, Erika. I know this is your issue.

Erika Bernabei: Well, yeah. You know, Junious, I just—this is a point of heat for me. My cortisol goes up when I think of it, and the reason is, number one, we know that there are so many good, well-meaning people in this country and across the world looking to do powerful collective impact work. We have no question about that but at the end of the day we have to respect the sort of process and the developmental journey that we all need to go on to to be able to do it differently.

When we say antiracism, we use People’s Institute’s set of principles but in essence, again it’s not a lens we take on and off, and it’s not just something we measure. Do we disaggregate the data? Do we see the data moving in the right direction? Of course those things are important but an antiracist set of principles means that an organization or a collective impact group is going on a journey together that really is able to say where are we on that journey? Have we done the personal work that’s required? Do we have folks of color as a part of this group with meaningful voice? Is our organization willing to take some hits? Is our collective impact willing to make some mistakes, to actually look at our failures, to look at our strengths, to be super honest?

And then are we also willing to go to bat? Are we willing to go to bat and push against power, think differently about structures? So again, when an organization looks to engage us as a support, as a technical assistance, our first question is, “Are you doing DEI work or are you really here to do systems change work when it comes to race and racism?” And if they’re not ready to talk about race and racism at least hypothetically, we’re not for them. DEI is a very different orientation than what we come at this work with.

And the second is, can we feel, can we actually learn are they willing to take some hits, some losses, and I don’t mean getting fired, that kind of thing, Junious. Sometimes that happens but I actually mean are they willing to take some ego hits, some power hits. Are folks willing to collaborate differently which doesn’t necessarily lift up the individual but actually lifts up the collective? Are White folks willing to show up and also get out of the way? So there’s a lot of ways to think about this work, and it’s not superficial and it’s also not short term. So somebody comes in and says, “Can you come and do five trainings?” No, we don’t do it. We do systems change work.

Theo Miller: I love it. In many ways harm has been caused, and I don’t have to tell you about this, Junious, right? But harm has been caused by this notion that you can do a press release about George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or maybe you can give Juneteenth as a holiday or maybe you can have a reading, a book club, and you read Ibram Kendi and Ta-Nehisi Coates, and that on some level is going to position you to do the work, and what we know—Francesca Polletta, a great socialist about the civil rights movement once said this when she was researching civil rights movement, referencing Fannie Lou Hamer, she said, “Freedom is an endless meeting,” and so it’s this notion that this is a long struggle.

In the work that we do, racial equity work, and now it’s the rage and everyone wants to put equity in there although there’s a real retreat but we can talk about that in terms of antiracist work, folks think that that’s enough, and we get inundated with requests to sort of come in but I would say 30 percent of the folks who come to us are actually even close to wanting to really do racial equity work, antiracist work versus the DEI work that Erika is saying that’s caused a lot of harm. A lot of people have taken these jobs as DEI officers and collective impact and it’s caused a lot of harm, and so 30 percent are actually ready to do it. And of that 30 percent that maybe we take on, I would say 30 percent of those organizations will actually persist, so 30 of the 30.

Now the individuals that we’re with, the collective impact initiatives that we support, those brilliant Black and Brown folks and Asian folks and White folks that are there that want to move on it, 90 percent of those go through and they want to do something but the organizational change—such a fraction of organizations and those executive leaders are actually committed and actually want to persist, actually want to take those hits, actually want to utilize data, actually want to read your pieces and do all five of those steps. So it’s just a reminder for us that this thing is not going to be changed overnight, and we have to actually be super tactical about who we’re supporting, who we’re engaging, and who we’re allowing to actually utilize the terms of racial equity and antiracism because it does harm, not to us, not to consultants, not to FSG, not to Collective Impact Forum, but to the communities who are at the center of this, right? So folks of color who are waiting and in many ways dying on the vine.

Junious Williams: I’m glad you described that because I think one of the challenges that many folks are trying to do this work encounter is this readiness issue. Everybody thinks they’re ready in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder and the so-called racial—they call it reckoning, there’s been no reckoning in my judgment but I’ll concede awakening, that there’s readiness.

So part of what I think is a challenge is when you discover that folks really aren’t ready to engage in real antiracist work, what do you do? I also want to complicate it even a little more in terms of personal journeys versus organizational journeys versus collaborative journeys which gets when you kind of throw all that into the mix, it gets confounding. Could you talk about when you figure out in those settings that it’s not a situation where people are ready, what’s a prescription? What should people be doing to get ready?

And I’ll throw one other complication in which is many collective impact initiatives started with no focus at all on equity let alone antiracist sort of practice and systems, so they need to transition. So I throw all of that out and would be interested in hearing from you both about how you navigate those situations and what you might suggest to folks who find themselves, who know we’re not ready in this community or this org or this collaborative.

Erika Bernabei: These questions are so up our alley, Theo. I mean this is what we talk about constantly.

Theo Miller: All the time.

Erika Bernabei: I’ll just say just a little bit and then toss it over to Theo. When we think about readiness at the personal level as well as the interpersonal level and then the institutional level, these are all unique and obviously connected areas to be working on, and race comes into play as well, right? So there’s different ways and different work that White folks have to do obviously than folks of color, and even within the group of folks of color there’s different work for different folks of color to be doing.

So when we have a group that comes to us and either they’re at the very beginning of their journey, they’re not ready, or they actually haven’t begun, we believe that it begins with the personal journey so we always recommend to them that they begin not just doing DEI implicit bias training but actually get into some kind of training that is explicit on racial equity. We have a list we send to them but the first step for us is for them to get common language, common understanding of history, and actually really are educated. Sometimes we bake it into our process but often folks really aren’t ready for it, that’s where we come—

Theo Miller: Sometimes you’ve got to do that in affinity, right? Sometimes in certain organizations you’re going to do that and you want to create some safe spaces where folks can have those conversations in affinity, White folks with White folks, Black folks, you know, so on and so forth just to create that environment in the organization because there’s this notion that you can just, “OK, we want to do something to help that Black community outside of our doors, “but you actually will create harm if you don’t know what you’re doing. There’s no such thing as neutrality, and so this idea that a lot of folks come to us saying, “OK, we want to focus externally. We want to have our collective impact initiative do more about third grade reading or mass incarceration,” but have you taken the time to look inward? Like Erika was saying, “Have you actually taken the time to do a landscape analysis of your own organization internally to see if you have the individuals who are ready?”

Because we have folks who have come to us who are so eager, eager to go out and experiment and do things on a community, and they haven’t taken that moment for that foundational learning, for that own inner reflection. We know that this is going to be a challenge, is going to be a problem.

Erika Bernabei: Absolutely, and not only that, Junious, but we also know that our sector, the nonprofit social justice sector but more specifically the antiracist—I’m going to say it in quotes, “anti-racist” sector, we haven’t done a good job of connecting the dots between what’s the personal work that then can lead to institutional work which then can lead to systems change. We haven’t done a good job connecting, and who’s doing each of those things, and are they good, and do they have the same framework.

So Theo and I are also working on a project with about 20 other practitioners—actually now it’s more, all doing antiracist work to understand developmentally what it takes to move from individual to sort of interpersonal to institutional journey, not necessarily to come up with a framework that is just like yet another framework but so that we understand it as practitioners. Again, we think of it as developmental. I think a lot of folks think it’s sort of like put as much as you can in the pot and hope it works, and our thought is no, it has to be strategic. We believe it often does start with that interpersonal.

Theo Miller: We see this running afoul of this sort of readiness most often in philanthropy, most often in philanthropy. There are a lot of times with foundations that come to us, community foundations, major national foundations, are so intellectually clear on what they want to do externally but so woefully, massively unready to acknowledge their own institutional practices, the harm that’s happening on their own grant officers and program officers and folks of color inside, their own unreadiness or lack of willingness to look at their financial practices and their endowment that it’s offensive. It’s frankly offensive sometimes with so many philanthropic organizations that think that they’re doing things but they’re actually enacting more harm on top of community.

You can say what you’re going to say about government, it’s functional, but at least there’s a transparency and there’s an acknowledgment about their books and about their process and about the historical harm that’s been done. There’s almost nothing in either the private sector and philanthropy that gives us much confidence that those folks have done the readiness work to actually implement and support collective impact initiatives with antiracism at the center.

Junious Williams: There are so many things buzzing in my mind, I’m having to try to figure out what I’m most interested in talking with you about but one thing that strikes me is that I know a substantial amount of your work is with public agencies and organizations, and I’m wondering that a big part of doing equity work for me at least is this notion of targeting, that you can’t kind of just get, as John Powell says, the universal goal and everything’s going to happen, that you really have to engage people from communities who are experiencing disparities as a result of discrimination and oppression, and engage them in the whole as you’ve indicated, the participatory practice of figuring out all of this especially what we do but that targeting for government is problematic and obviously in California, because of our ballot measure, but I want to see how is that settling with government and their willingness and acceptance of the need to target so that if women are experiencing a particular type of disparity in a system or institution, it’s OK to go in and focus on them or Black folks are or Latinx populations or people from various segments of the LGBTQ community.

So how is that settling with government and how are they reconciling getting to that kind of targeted specificity that we’re going to help solve the problem that Black people experience or that Latinx people experience because it’s unique and in the context of their historical experience?

Theo Miller: It’s a really good question and I would say it’s complex, right? How is government doing? I would say in general I love your sort of cynicism about a racial reckoning because in some ways government led the charge to get out in front of equity and to center it, have chief equity officers and so forth but government is not immune to the political pressures that we’ve seen, that we’ve seen flood across the country.

To give you an example, in the city of Portland where we’ve done a lot of work and we really love Portland, we value Portland, they have a legacy of being a White man’s utopia. That is in actually their statutory history, racial covenants and so forth. They are a predominantly White city, a progressive city in a challenging state environment. You get too far outside of Portland, forget antiracism, right? Forget equity, and so what Portland has struggled to do is to stick with their now almost 10-year-old commitment to results-driven methodologies that center equity. Now they’re really good at data and at results but the focus on race starts to slip, right? Because again, this is a long journey and so we have pockets of—they call them bureaus, government agencies—that have been able to persist but harm is being enacted on employees at the same time so you’re losing people. People are resigning. People are moving. But you have other bureaus that are really try to push it.

I’ll give one example that came from my colleague, you have the procurement arm of Portland, and Erika loves these sort of internal-facing agencies, and so they hired a chief procurement officer who came in from another jurisdiction and who is explicitly about race, who has put together a fair contracting form, a community of vendors, of workforce, of unions, and has had his employees at the center of the conversation. He’s saying, OK, city council wants me to have a strategic plan to them in July, and we’re going to do a collective impact process, and as a cis Black man, as a chief procurement officer, I’m going to center race, and I’m going to use results-based accountability. I’m just going to go over the data tells me, Junious, so the reality is that all these propositions not withstanding and people’s reluctance to focus on race, if you look at the data, it’s not like Erika and I are obsessed with race. The data tells us where to target, right?

And so it’s not like we’re creating it. You go to procurement, you look at the contracts, you see the disproportionate amount of resources with the statute, with the change in laws, are benefiting White women. That’s where the contracts are going, so we say, OK, if the data—we have disproportionate benefit and we need to redress, right? And so this chief procurement officer, they may run him out of town before he gets it on, right? But he’s saying, “I’m going to do collective impact, and I’m going to focus on the data, and I’m going to bring it, and we’ll see what will happen there.” But that’s an example of a city that’s trying to do something but has really these conflict dynamics working against it, pressures working against it.

Erika Bernabei: This concept of targeted universalism, you know, of course the great John Powell but also Angela Glover-Blackwell has named the curb-cut effect in her article a number of years ago, the key for us is that within government we find also that folks haven’t been invited to this conversation in formal ways as well. So sometimes we have a group of staff that are part of a department and frankly, they all know what’s going on. They understand the dynamics and especially in cities that are majority BIPOC and with majority BIPOC staff, it’s not as if this is news but they haven’t been invited to a conversation about the roots of the problem. They haven’t been invited to go beyond the checking of the box into a design process that not just takes their intellectual and academic knowledge into account but also their lived experience as professional as well as at home.

So when we invite them to that conversation, we find this richness, and we can get into some really amazing designs, systems change designs. Without that buy-in from the top, of course, there is this bloc that is formed so you may have middle management who is really clear or you may have case workers who are really clear, and then you end up with the mayor or the commissioners saying no, and so what we’ve been able to design into a lot of our work is work with both executives as well as the groups, folks who are closest to the problem or at least are engaged in this conversation but I will—not in defense of government but I already told you earlier that I love government. When I learned that the largest employer of Black people in the country was government, I said to myself, well, that is an institution that I need to be behind and I need to believe in as a White person.

But just to say that, the people in government despite having been battered over the course of many years in their professions, when we enter conversations about racial equity, it’s not that they can’t have those conversations. Their question is always, will the powers that be hear us? And that’s true in collective impact as well so if you have a collective impact table where government is a member but they’re not taken seriously, they’re not offered the resources to be able to have the conversation, they’re not provided with any form of cover, they will not—why would they show up fully?

So again, I believe that people in government are in government for the right reasons just like the nonprofit sector, right? So the question is going to be, what is the kind of education or sometimes it’s professional development opportunities, what is the kind of cover often because again folks of color know what’s going on in most of these agencies, what is the kind of cover that the collective impact group can provide, and then finally what is the kind of sustainability that we can start to build in that says even when the powers that be shift and change, that the movement, the collective impact will continue to sustain the work.

Theo Miller: Just in terms of that last piece on cover, and you’ve written about this, about executive leadership. I noted, for example, the colleague from the Jackson, I think it was community foundation, and I love I the piece that you wrote, as a White person, owned it. Owned, in Jackson, Mississippi, right? Owned that sort of positional power, and what we find so often is that it’s not even just the cover—Erika’s absolutely right, the cover that needs to be given but it’s also the training that executives need to have. There needs to be separate, intentional—a lot of us who are in collective impact and we’re leading the collective impact initiative, and I know I experienced this when I was a practitioner, we think we got it. We think we’re so woke but in fact we are enacting the same top-down cultural dynamics that are limiting the ultimate impact, and so that idea that executives, leaders of the work, have to be arm in arm in terms of the socialization that we need to change and we need to deconstruct as well.

Junious Williams: So one of the other things I’m interested in talking with you about is one of the critiques of collective impact as an approach to social change with its focus on system and structural changes that we’re talking long term. As you evolve your work you’ve added that there is like this personal dimension, interpersonal, that these multiple journeys are going on. In a lot of the neighborhoods that all of us have worked in or communities, people have been planned and studied to death, and coming in and talking about another process that is going to be about learning or training or anything other than direct action, you get a lot of people saying “I’m not into that.”

So I’m interested in knowing how do you balance that sort of urgency from the community that these conditions have been long term, they have had really negative impact and we need some immediate relief with the notion that the ultimate solutions reside in somehow the structural systemic things but it’s a path even getting there. You can’t just, in a lot of cases, jump so I’m wondering how do you balance that sort of tension, especially as you populate a really representative table, and you’ve got intended beneficiaries and residents from the impacted neighborhood saying another meeting to discuss the problem and I don’t want to be here and other folks saying we need to be deliberate and intentional and look at data and make sure capacity. How do you manage that sort of tension in your work?

Theo Miller: This is really good to hear. I think about results versus accountability on this one. I really think about population versus performance, and I absolutely think about how we’re focused on impact even for us in our work like how do you know folks are better off.

So these dynamics certainly that we see when we’re brought in, and we’re brought in whether it’s philanthropy, whether it’s government, and as Erika said, well intentioned, right? Focused on systems, focused on structures. Even when I was a practitioner in San Francisco working in the mayor’s office, say, Theo, you better get out of here with that, come back here with a job, come back here with some different housing. You’re not talking about reparations, systems change, come back here with a job, come back here with something about this public housing authority as an example.

And so we believe in racial—you know, our social justice warriors teach us that you can walk and chew gum at the same time. The community knows that. I mean community—they’ve been trying to put food on the table as well as advocate and march and organize and systems change so the only thing I’ll say on this, and to my friend, is that with the methodology that we use, and we believe in rigor. We’re not anti-intellectual about it. We believe in data. We believe in deep structural analysis, and we know that the best deep structural analysis and data analysis comes from those same people you’re talking about. It comes from the people. So it’s not so much the process as it is the way in which we’re playing the process out on top of folks.

The best answers that I got, the best direction that I got on short-term, mid-term, and long-term strategies, the best reflections I got on what we call impact measures, better-off measures, were from the people, from community. Like if you’re doing collective impact and you really want to change the structural condition of housing in a city like Philadelphia where kids are literally tragically dying unnecessarily in dilapidated buildings, then you sit with the people, and the people will give you a short-term, a mid-term, and a long-term strategy. They will tell you what short-term success will be for them as individuals, for you as your work with them. They will actually drive you to understand what the long-term success will be.

The problem is that we do an either/or. We come and either say, OK, we’re doing a systems change strategy and we don’t meet the folks with the immediate needs that they have and impact, or we do the opposite. We do a program strategy and think that if we give Black boys haircuts and give them a job at Walgreen’s, that that’s going to take us to the mountaintop, and it’s not. It’s going to enact more harm, another program if you will.

Erika Bernabei: I’ll just add that, you know, sustainability starts with ensuring that the culture and the policies internally meet your values. So what do I mean by that? A lot of times we want to do sustained work, we want to use an RBA methodology which is again short for results-based accountability. We want to do all this for “those people,” and I’m putting “those people” in quotes, right? But in fact, the health of our collective impact, the health of the people who work in our agencies and in our organizations, especially BIPOC, Black, indigenous, and people of color, is not focused on, and I notice this a lot in collective impact, that the entire focus that we get paid, that we get our money for from foundations, that we get articles written about is all about the changes at the population level for people of color.

Well, I am all for that. Believe me, Theo and I are on a long journey here. I hope to die saying the same—having the same morals and ethics and working on this until the day I die but I will say that collective impact collectives and also folks who use results-based accountability have completely missed the bar on the health, the power, the value system of the people who are doing the work, right? Again, community members of course are doing the work every single day doggedly but I’m also talking about us. So what are we investing in in terms of ourselves, and how do we ensure that we are holding ourselves accountable so that we’re not hoping for some miracle out there, and when we sustain ourselves and we make ourselves healthy as a sort of initial step or at least a parallel track to the external work, we stick together. We stick together. We get through those times. We sustain ourselves. We bring new people in and some folks leave but we have a core relationship, and we organize ourselves.

So again, part of White supremacy culture and part of a focus on efficiencies doesn’t allow us to do that kind of investment. We don’t get the resources to do it and we don’t take the time for it. I don’t know about you, Junious and Theo, but everybody I know doing antiracist work right now is completely burnt out, and it’s because we don’t have that, and without that we will not sustain this movement. So it’s about really, I think investing in that as well.

Theo Miller: I love that. I want it too. I know I can’t ask the question to you but how we sustain the work because this is exhausting work, and you’ve been in the game longer than us, and so I think about Michael McAfee who taught me a couple months ago, I said, “Michael, I’m exhausted. We’re doing root cause analysis. We’re holding this organization. We’re dealing with retrenchment and we’re not seeing the near-term impact that we want. Why do this?” And he said, “Theo, there’s joy. There’s joy in getting clear about your contribution.” I’ll say that again, and so PolicyLink direct quote, there’s joy in getting clear about your contribution to this madness, right?

And that means for me there’s joy for me in getting clear about what we can do as supporters of a collective impact initiative, and what our contribution in terms of privilege and power and gender and race has been to uphold this thing. So that’s what kind of keeps me coming back. This journey is not easy. I don’t want to sugarcoat it. It is not short term. It is not for the faint of heart either.

Junious Williams: Something that Erika just mentioned piqued my interest too which is the issue of accountability.

It’s been several years now pre-pandemic, I went to the Jesse Jackson’s tech convening for Rainbow Push, and I went to a webinar and again, I won’t get into it but I’ll talk offline with you about my problems with DEI construct, but anyway there were the directors of these big—of the DEI units, and these are the big Facebooks, LinkedIn, these were the big players, and in the question and answer I asked them after they had talked about all the wonderful things they were doing under the DEI umbrella, I asked them, which of you have compensation or evaluation metrics tied to the DEI work? Not a single one of them did, and my reaction is, you know, I know the tech world enough to know that everything is driven by their data and metrics, and if there ain’t a metrics and money attached to it, then like all of us, we’re going to go where the energy is.

So the accountability issue concerns me. Are you discovering any effort on the part of government or other institutions to start embedding into the compensation structure, into the evaluation structure, into the reward structure, how well people exercise leadership and produce outcomes around equity because I know in another field with community-based policing, the reason it didn’t work is that the whole incentive in compensation and reward structure didn’t value it so nobody did community policing. I wanted to be in the drug enforcement unit or the undercover. Those were the units that were being rewarded in the system so I want to ask you kind of what do you see going on around that part of an infrastructure that tells people this equity stuff is important and we’re going to reward and compensate and maybe put people into improvement plans based on how well you’re doing this kind of work because it’s so essential to us achieving our kind of goals organizationally.

Erika Bernabei: Junious, we see some of that happening in government, and a little bit in one of our private sector clients. I’ll say within government it often shows up in the fact that they don’t have the data disaggregated by race to even know the impact of some of their strategies, of some of their policies, and so their first step often is to begin to create a strategy to collect or to disaggregate the data. We’ve seen that across various cities, some of the agencies in New York, some of the agencies in Philly, where in order for them to do the kind of policy change, they actually have to have some of these short-term strategies to begin that process.

What we also find is that for White folks, there aren’t better-off measures or performance measures that are aligned with White folks behaving or thinking differently in terms of their ways of doing recruitment, their ways of thinking about hiring, their ways of thinking about compensation structures, and so again the focus is often on folks of color, and noting the data that comes from folks of color as opposed to measuring whether White folks are actually beginning to shift how we develop policies.

I know that sounds really narrow to say is it just White folks. It’s not just White folks. We know that racism as a construct impacts all kinds of folks in different ways but I will say that we don’t really disaggregate the data, and I’ll also just say, Theo, I don’t know about you but when groups like OMB, Office of Management and Budget, and other functions within government finally get this education, they thought they were in a technical role but now they realize they’re in a power role, right? They actually can see that. It begins to—and it is a slow journey but it begins to shift how they understand where their power is derived and where the decision making happens.

So we see a little bit of that in New York City. We see some of that in Philadelphia. We see some of that in Portland but it is in fits and starts right now so I’ll just say that this is—we see some people doing participatory budgeting. That’s a little different. It’s usually this project, right? There’s a little pool of money that they get to play with. What we’re interested in is sort of longer-term culture change which is a very painstaking slow process but we do see it happening. Theo?

Theo Miller: Yeah, I love it, and I’ll just say for us and the way that we believe in doing the work, again first from a rigorous analysis and understanding of the problem, right? So what Erika’s referencing is in some level that root cause analysis, we first have to acknowledge what you’re saying, Junious, that there’s a pay disparity. So I think about one of our largest clients, government client, where they have a division that does inspections, that does building licenses, and they through their root cause analysis, they began to understand that they have a sort of plantation-esque hierarchy in terms of their pay structure, that the mostly sort of White male sort of inspectors if you will are paid a lot more as a salary than some of the other field staff if you will, and it broke down along racial lines.

Another one of our clients in another city, a very large school district, as part of their antiracist impact work acknowledged that even though the school district is constantly talking about racial justice and equity, the only folks who are doing that work and who own that work have to do it on the side. You have to do it as a side thing. It’s actually not a part of their job description. They’re actually not compensated for it so they’re serving on these committees, they’re holding collective impact and if there’s anything that I can continue to emphasize what Erika said is racial equity is not a lens that you take on and off. It’s not. Either you’re running along with the locomotive, the direction that it’s going or you’re dismantling it.

So what we’re seeing in some cases, very few, is that after folks have that recognition of that racialized hierarchy, they acknowledge it, they see it, and then they can have strategies that meet that specific need. Well, we don’t have job descriptions that actually capture your antiracist impact work. It needs to capture that we aren’t funding, we aren’t resourcing, we aren’t compensating for that percent of the FTE that’s associated with that, and so those are some of the innovative approaches that at least I’m seeing in the education world and in government spaces where you have these requisitions, these positions, that have minimum qualification that in many ways are relics, and that don’t capture the antiracist impact work that these folks are holding, and so you can shift the—and it may be poco a poco, right? It may be that the first step is just changing the job description to at least own that, acknowledge that, and then the next step is doing the pay scale analysis, and then the next step is getting the board of supervisors or the electorate to compensate and change it. Again, this is a tactical battle that we’ve got to do on all fronts but at least it has to be given some recognition of the problem.

Erika Bernabei: I’ll just add that in one of our clients which is a for-profit which is a corporation, one of the things that they taught us was actually some of the actions you take to deal with pay equity or to deal with compensation and things like that are actually removing barriers that are historic, that have prevented Black wealth creation. And so again, there is some proactive project and policy needed but some of that, it looks like it’s just the removal which can actually take a lot of time too. So it’s not always this urgency to get it done. Sometimes there’s an urgency but it’s actually about the pulling back of barriers, and that may be to get loans, may be access to resources, whatever it is but again, we’ve noted that that requires input but it also requires that sort of taking away.

Junious Williams: Theo and Erika, we’re at the end of our time, and before we close, I sort of directed the conversation in things that were of interest to me. I thank you much but just as we close, I wanted to give each of you a few moments to just say anything to the listeners that you want to emphasize not filtered through my sometimes distorted lens so why don’t we do that? Erika, why don’t you lead off and then Theo.

Erika Bernabei: Thank you, Junious. Zero distortion on your lens so grateful for your wisdom and for your commitment. I’ll just say that there is a role for White folks to play in this, and the role is a role that is not what we thought it was. It’s not to be quiet and to step back necessarily but it is to consider our leadership and what we have access to as gatekeepers, as Ron Chisom of the People’s Institute says, and so the question for us as White people and White leaders in this work is always going to be about really uncovering the things that are not obvious to us, and really working hard at it. We always have an option to opt out, and so the question will be for us White folks within collective impact, will we stay? Will we not only have a personal commitment to stay but will we stay when we’re uncomfortable? Will we stay when it feels like we can’t tolerate the heat anymore? Will we persist? And if we persist, we can be a real meaningful antiracist community. If we don’t, we have to go back to this DEI—excuse my language—BS which really gives us an out. We have to stay centered on race and we have to stay centered on our accountability.

Theo Miller: So good, so good, and, Junious, so grateful for the space that you’ve given us, such a privilege to be in conversation. I think the only thing I would say, I’m reminded, my father used to say this to me, “Theo, to whom much is given, much is required,” and I’m struck by, you know, we in our business use the word accountability a lot, and I’m gathering that many folks who are listening to this, many folks who have read your pieces, FSG and Collective Impact Forum themselves, have abundance, have resources, have accesses, and so it’s not a game that we’re describing, racial equity. I mean it is literally people’s lives, life and death for many folks, and so my hope is that as we continue to do this work together, there would be that sense of accountability for what we’re given. That there actually would be a shift not in necessarily blaming and shaming but, to Erika’s point, of deepening our own accountability to the impact that we say that we want to have. So again, grateful for the space and look forward to continuing the work with you. I know that this freedom struggle is long term for you as well.

Junious Williams: I want to thank you both. It’s been a really great conversation. For folks in the audience, check out more on Erika and Theo’s work at Equity & Results, a website. There’s a lot of interesting information that will give you even more of a sense of the work that they’re doing. Thanks everybody for joining us today.


And this closes out this episode of the Collective Impact Forum podcast. If you are interested in learning more about what was discussed, you can find links to resources in the footnotes of this podcast.

We would like to acknowledge that this episode was produced and edited on the unceded, traditional lands of the Coast Salish people, including the Duwamish, Suquamish, Stillaguamish, and Muckleshoot tribes. We honor with gratitude the land itself and the past, present, and futures of these tribes.

The Intro music for this episode was composed by Rafael Krux and our outro music is composed by Kevin Macleod.

And for those interesting in learning together, registration is now open for our virtual Collective Impact Action Summit that will be held on April 26-28, 2022. The Action Summit is our biggest learning event of the year, with over 25 virtual sessions focusing on topics like culture and narrative change, shifting power, data, and sustainability.

And a big plus for being virtual is that we’re recording many of the sessions and sharing those recordings with attendees after, so you’ll be able to plan a schedule that fits best with you, and watch other sessions later.

We hope you can join us this April. Please visit the Events section of to learn more about this year’s Collective Impact Action Summit.

This is Tracy Timmons-Gray, Associate Director here at the Collective Impact Forum, and your podcast host. I want to say thank you so much for listening, and we look forward to connecting with you more in our next episode. Until next time, we hope you are safe and well.


Sign Up to Download

You will also receive email updates on new ideas and resources from Collective Impact Forum.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Confirm Your Registration

You will also receive email updates on new ideas and resources from Collective Impact Forum.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.