Living Cities Blog en-us Wed, 30 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0400 15 Where do Collective Impact, Community Engagement & Racial Equity Intersect? 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 work 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.

4 Early Insights

While these conversations are still going on, we’ve identified 4 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 or through twitter at @_jsarias.

]]> Wed, 30 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Juan Sebastian Arias
A Mayor’s View: The Effect of Collective Impact Initiatives on City Hall In our journey to explore and learn more about the role of municipal government in collective impact initiatives we had a wonderful opportunity at our most recent Integration Initiative Learning Community convening to interview former three-term Mayor of Minneapolis, MN, R.T. Rybak, who is now a part-time Senior Advisor to Living Cities. As mayor, R.T. participated in several collective impact initiatives focusing on an array of issues including youth violence, transportation expansion, education reform, and chronic homelessness. Below are some highlights from our insightful conversation with R.T. To learn more from R.T.’s experience, watch a highlight video of the conversation, below.

What did you learn about the role of philanthropy, government, and community in collective impact initiatives?

One major thing I learned is that it’s not philanthropy’s job to rescue government. Philanthropy is the jiffy lube that can help make government run, but it is not a substitute for government or an antidote for things not working in government. Collective impact models like The Integration Initiative (TII) can serve as a vehicle to disrupt the government power grid that is often more interested in maintaining control than achieving results. The beauty of the collective impact table is that it jumbles up that rigid government power grid allowing equal distribution of power around the table. In TII and other collective impact initiatives that I was a part of as Mayor, the table allowed the power to shift dramatically, setting the mayor and other elected officials on equal footing with non-profit partners and community members most impacted by the problem we were trying to solve.

How critical is the role of community?

Like I said before, collective impact initiatives can really shift the power dynamic putting mayors and other electeds on equal footing with community. That power shift forces elected officials to recognize how much he or she needs other people to bring about real systemic change that goes beyond their term in office. In working with such an array of partners I had to walk humbly into those meetings, embracing the idea that the change that was needed was only going to be sustainable if I practiced true servant leadership -- which is not easy for type A elected officials, like myself, who often feel they need to have all the good ideas and make it all happen on their own steam. Around our youth violence initiative work, I went into those community meetings knowing that I did not have the solution. Listening to the young people and their families impacted by the violence led to some critical policy changes that would not have happened without that community voice at the table.

What is your advice to elected officials beginning to work in collective impact initiatives?

Elected officials need to accept that there is virtually nothing they can solve totally on their own. I’d advise them to do some real soul searching from the very beginning asking themselves – Am I really trying to do collective impact or am I trying to get a bunch of people to say “I like your idea Mr. or Ms. Mayor?” If the latter is the case then I don’t think they’ll achieve the type of success that’s possible through these efforts nor will they improve the lives of the people they were elected to serve.

What is your advice to those outside of government?

Those outside government need to recognize when they are being brought in as equal partners and when they are not. If equal partnership is not happening they need to push back, letting their elected officials know that they understand the difference between just supporting a mayor’s ideas versus engaging in true collaboration. If those outside of government want effective collective impact they must push their elected officials for shared results, outcomes, and accountability from the very start.

What role did race play in pulling together collective impact tables?

Race was and is a big part of the equation especially when you are pulling these tables together. Often we would find ourselves in meetings with the top people from our philanthropic institutions and social service agencies which was a good thing, but the racial make-up of that meeting was often all white or predominately white people trying to solve the problems of communities of color. We had to racially and ethnically expand the table so we could have an authentic conversation about who we are ultimately trying to help, understand the differences and similarities in experiences of an African-American youth living on one side of town versus a Somali immigrant youth living on the other side of town, and make collective decisions based on that knowledge. The ability to have those conversations drive policy and change was one of the major benefits of working in this new way.

Want to learn more from R.T.? Watch additional highlights from the Q&A:

Municipal Innovation and Collective Impact: An Interview with R.T. Ryback from Living Cities on Vimeo.

]]> Tue, 29 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Ronda Jackson
Lessons on Open-Sourcing Social Change to Disrupt Inequality On July 16, 2014, Living Cities hosted a Twitter Chat on open-sourcing social change and the role that this approach plays in our work to disrupt inequality in America. The chat, co-hosted by our Chief Operating Officer, Elodie Baquerot, was the second in a series we’re hosting this summer on #DisruptingInequality, the focus of our 2013 Annual Report. During that chat, participants surfaced a number of themes on what it takes to come up with solutions to complex social problems. Encouragingly, our Twitter community collectively acknowledged the potential of open-sourcing social change to transform the way the social sector works for the better.

To learn more about what it takes to open-source social change and disrupt inequality – and for examples of this work on the ground - check out our post-chat Storify:

]]> Mon, 28 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Elizabeth Vargas
5 Opportunities (and Challenges!) of Community Engagement When Seattle/King County set out to decrease health and social gaps among low-income residents, we embraced a new way of working and engaged in a Collective Impact initiative. In my post yesterday, I shared some of the core learnings about community engagement that informed the creation of our Communities of Opportunity partnership.

Even though our Collective Impact initiative is new, we have found the process of working directly with communities to be both rewarding and vital in designing and planning our initiative. But, as I mention, the opportunities also come with challenges.

Here are five opportunities and challenges we’ve faced in community engagement:

1. OPPORTUNITY: Education of residents

At the 2013 Community Forum, Dr. David Fleming, Director and Health Officer of Public Health-Seattle & King County, presented color-coded maps of health and well-being inequities in the county. This visualization of the data (below) was a powerful way to educate residents about core issue we faced in Seattle/King County. The illumination of the intersection of place and well-being sparked attendees to think about issues in new ways. Receiving knowledge in a new way also encouraged us to explore areas where we work “better together”— and where we need to break down siloes to address underlying root causes of poor outcomes.

Maps of Seattle/King County showing concentrations of poor health and social outcomes in dark red in the lowest income parts of the county.

2. OPPORTUNITY: Surfacing of new ideas

Community stakeholders contribute different perspectives to policy, programs, and interventions. The ideas surfaced at the Community Forum ranged from creating a “food innovation district,” to creating a neighborhood-level resource portal, to building partnerships between health plans and housing providers. If not for the forum and the input of cross-sector stakeholders, the Communities of Opportunity partnership may have neither imagined these solutions nor discovered the widespread desire for shared goals.

3. OPPORTUNITY: Gaining buy in early on

At the forum, County Executive Dow Constantine spoke to the meeting participants. He implored everyone to harness the power of Collective Impact and declared that, with the combined efforts of everyone in the room, we could “do something extraordinary.” This enthusiasm from a top regional player demonstrated commitment to the ideas generated in the meeting. It also gave participants confidence that the ideas of the initiative had the support to really take hold in the communities where they work.

4. CHALLENGE: Little advice has been given about how to engage with low-income community members

A common question at a recent gathering of The Integration Initiative sites was: “How do we actually engage at the grass-roots level with the low-income people where we are working?” We heard anecdotes from other health, human services and foundation efforts to work from, but didn’t find a coherent body of work on ways to effectively bring low-income communities into a Collective Impact initiative. Richard Harwood of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation called this type of engagement creating a “civic culture.” We need more concrete examples of successful grass-roots community engagement in Collective Impact to learn from. It’s too easy to create tables of “the usual suspects” instead of opening the circle to those with different backgrounds and perspectives. One of our mantras is “if it isn’t hard, it isn’t equity,” but a little guidance on how to make inclusion work well would be welcome. We think our second mantra “if it isn’t fun, you’re not doing it right” can also guide our work on this.

5. CHALLENGE: Hard to define “community representative”

How do you know at which level to engage in a community? Who actually are the grass-tops and the grass-roots players? Should you speak to local elected officials? Representatives of community-based organizations? Neighborhood leaders? People walking down the street? Communities of Opportunity has spoken with many different community representatives and we will continue to engage at all levels of the community. Our King County Community Engagement Guide provides advice about how to structure interactions honestly with community groups depending on whether their input will be advisory or decision-making. Yet we need more clarity on which community representatives can provide the most helpful input around the design and implementation of a Collective Impact initiative. And what kind of feedback loops we can use to ensure we are on track with pursuing community priorities.

Many of the communities highlighted in our maps of King County have clearly articulated actions plans that spell out a comprehensive set of priorities they believe will make their communities healthier and more livable. We are committed to taking the lead from the local organizations and people who live in these neighborhoods, so we can build on existing hopes and dreams rather than lose energy by imposing solutions from the outside.

Do these opportunities and challenges resonate with your experiences? If you have had a different experience engaging with your local communities, let us know in the comments.

]]> Fri, 25 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Kirsten Wysen
How to Steer a Collective Impact Initiative through Community Engagement Community engagement is a critical part of making lasting changes in low-income places. It’s worth the effort, resources and time to do well at both the grass-roots community level and at the grass-tops political and organizational leader level. “Communities of Opportunity,” a cross-sector partnership in Seattle/King County, recently joined The Integration Initiative with a bold goal of decreasing health and social gaps among low-income residents in our county.

The initiative was born from a 2013 task force charged with preparing two King County departments for national health reform. The task force recommended working to change community features in low-income places that contribute to today’s poor health and social outcomes. At the same time, The Seattle Foundation was interested in similar place-based work. Rather than doing business the old way and proceeding on independent tracks, King County and The Seattle Foundation decided to work together in 2014 to co-design a framework that would set the stage for engaging other partners and investors in a Collective Impact approach. One of the guiding principles the partners share is to actively design strategies and interventions with input from all levels of stakeholders from the southern parts of the county, where the greatest disparities lie.

An important pre-cursor to the Communities of Opportunity partnerships was a large open invitation community forum in late 2013. The community forum brought grass-tops and grass-roots leaders from multiple sectors together to explore what it would take to make changes in under-resourced regions of the county. The 175 participants came up with dozens of ideas about how to work in the intersection between health and community development. From that point, the initiative has worked with a smaller design committee, also composed of cross-sector representatives, to identify three places in South King County to employ these strategies. The committee is advising that we use a “mutual selection” process so communities can decide if they want to work with us too.

Even though we have only recently begun this Collective Impact initiative, we have found the process of working directly with communities to be both rewarding and vital in designing and planning our initiative. However, these benefits also come with challenges.

Stay tuned for more insight into the benefits and challenges we’ve faced in steering a Collective Impact partnership.

]]> Thu, 24 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Kirsten Wysen
3 Fabulous Flavors of Feedback Needed for Collective Impact At Living Cities we think of Collective Impact as a set of principles: (1) a cross-sector partnership that has collectively agreed to a (2) shared result they aim to achieve and a (3) commitment to behavior change based on a (4) feedback loop of measures and outcomes that signals whether or not they are on track. (whew!) But anyone doing this work knows that, in application, it can be messy and confusing. To stick with the recipe analogy from my recent blog about the yummy tensions of collective impact, feedback is the binding agent that holds all of the other ingredients together. But it isn’t something that you can just throw into the mix. It has individual, flavorful elements that have to be carefully incorporated into the larger process. When done well, this creates an enabling connective tissue upon which the Collective Impact partnership can thrive.


When I busted onto the social-sector scene, I succeeded admirably in one thing: pissing everyone off. I was used to speaking in terms of "accountability", "corrective action" and "metrics". When I didn't hear that language back, I assumed (you know what happens when you do that) that it just wasn't there and started to come across as patronizing. I learned the hard way that the private, public and social sectors have different languages. That doesn't mean we don't want the same things, we just tend to go about trying to achieve them in different ways. What I quickly learned was that, while we used different language, we were often doing similar activities. During my work in youth development, we called the sum of these activities “feedback culture.” But it wasn't your run of the mill constructive criticism. Each young person we worked with had to sign a contract about committing to professional behavior (accountability). At the end of each week, what they did or did not do well was read in front of their peers by category (metrics). But that wouldn't have done anything without coaching. So that same group of peers would also give feedback about what they did well and what they could do better so that the person had the opportunity to change behavior (corrective action). What my youth development organization called feedback culture, I believe most professionals would call anxiety-laden.

For the young people I had the privilege of serving, the end result was a career pathway to make a better life for them and their families. Cross-sector partners need this level of transparency and vulnerability. They need the courage to share what's going well, what's not going well, and why in order to improve continuously That requires building trust that everyone in the group is coming from a place of caring and that the temporary discomfort is worth it in order to reach the end result the group is committed to.


It is always hard for me to hear people say things along the lines of, "it's all about the data". That might seem strange since I was an electrical engineering, computer science double major. But what I've found about data is that it is surprisingly subjective. A savvy person can make data do or say whatever they want in order to prove a point of view. Also, the data is not the point. What matters is whatever the data allows passionate people to understand and change. As Jeff Edmondson and the StriveTogether folks often say, the best data doesn't help you prove, it helps you IMPROVE.

Although we spoke about feedback loops in my earlier blog, one thing to note is that “feedback loop” does not equal “information technology system”. Feedback Loop literally means collecting the information that is needed to know whether or not you are on track. When people start thinking about data, they often go on a mad spree trying to collect EVERYTHING…blades of grass, wind speeds, rainfall percentages. The best feedback loops are processes that are elegant and iterative. They inform you about the validity of your choices as quickly as possible. I love the blinking speedometer example; those flashing numbers inform you whether you should speed up or slow down, but the desire and choice to do so is still ultimately your own.

Another important distinction is that many organization ALREADY HAVE feedback loops. The challenge is that they exist within the boundaries of their own organization. That brings us to my last element of feedback.


Inevitably, if your Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) is audacious and scary enough, no one organization will house all of the information needed to be able to assess progress toward the goal. When I was speaking at an environmental conference recently, we walked through an example using an initiative with the goal of reducing CO2 emissions in Washington D.C. by 25% in five years. I asked them, “What are you doing to drive this change?” The answers were fast and furious.

"Planting trees!"

"Engaging employers to change their polluting behaviors."

"Burning down power plants." (That last one was a little alarming but every room has a wild revolutionary.)

When I asked how they would know that the CO2 emissions were reduced, and if they had that data themselves, most folks scratched their heads and said, "Uhh…no." Most of them could tell you the number of trees they planted, or the private-sector people who signed up to change their behaviors, or even their progress toward their goals. It's not that they weren't collecting data. It’s that the issues they are ultimately trying to impact are so interconnected with larger, more complex systems that it is easy to “achieve” programmatic success in a vacuum without seeing any improvement big picture change. Achieving a BHAG will require laying down infrastructure that gets you the right information when you need it. That's what is so awesome about the first two flavors of feedback. If your cross-sector partnership builds a feedback culture and feedback loops that keep them informed if they're on or off track, inevitably there will be a tension with getting the information they need fast enough so that they can change course, if needed, in real time.

A great example of what can happen when people take that journey together is what happened when Cuyahoga County, in Ohio, began preliminary research for a Pay for Success deal aimed at decreasing the average number of days a child spends in foster care. In the process of building a Pay for Success model (which, by the way, is one of the best emerging models that is naturally aligned with the principles of Collective Impact), they realized that part of the reason children were not being picked up from foster care when their parents were released from jail was because the criminal justice systems and the family services systems didn’t “talk”. Since they needed to prove outcomes to receive a financial return, they were not comfortable with convoluted paper pushing processes. The county decided then and there that they would invest in building infrastructure between the two systems so that they would automatically notify each other. This change will last regardless of administration changes, or people being promoted. And as a result, no mother will feel that it is not her right to reach out to her children and no child will wonder why her mother doesn't care enough to take her home. When it's all said and done, that's when you know you've achieved enduring systems change.

]]> Wed, 23 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Tynesia Boyea-Robinson
Social Physics As A Public Utility This piece is cross posted from the Data-Smart City Solutions blog hosted by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard Kennedy School.

Prime innovation ecologies are at a premium these days, as both municipal and private-sector officials scout out sites to host the next innovation district or biotechnology firm. A new branch of science, social physics, will help them develop innovative neighborhoods to deepen their bench of prospects.

Developed by MIT Professor Alex Pentland, one of the world’s foremost experts on big data, social physics derives fundamental rules of social interaction from the “statistical regularities in human movement and communication” made tractable by information technology and big data. This is the descriptive aspect of what Prof. Pentland terms “reality mining”: Who is going where, with whom, in what mood, for how long, by what route, to buy what – and all the patterns of conversation along the way.

The key finding is that innovation is an emergent property of interpersonal networks that precisely balance engagement with exploration. Engagement refers to a densely transitive hub of face-to-face ties. These hubs forge ideas into good ideas into actionable ideas by volleying them back and forth in a richly social pattern layered with the implicit communication that accounts for most of the information exchanged between people. Ties of exploration, oftentimes electronic and/or transient in nature, connect these hubs of engagement, seeding them with new ideas in order to prevent them from becoming echo chambers.

The predictive dimension of social physics, though, is what earns it the “physics” moniker. Because humans are habituated through the influence of their peers, their behavior can be forecast by mapping and measuring their interpersonal interactions. As individuals, we can perceive this only dimly because we lack an aerial view of the network, but statistically the findings are overwhelming: Our ideas, norms of behavior, germs, fashion choices, and even weight gain are extrinsic properties, mostly determined by who we see every day. So, just as physicists can predict the behavior of an object in space, social physicists can predict a human’s behavior in a network.

The benefit for city planners is that if engagement and exploration can be measured, they can be managed. And the measurements are getting very good.

Researchers at Prof. Pentland’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, its partner institutions throughout the world, and its spin-off companies, like Sense Networks and Sociometric Solutions, are able to tap into the data that stream through telecommunications providers, search engines, mobile gadgets, social media, credit card payment systems, and sociometric badges to precisely map the social dynamics within an organization or location. Furthermore, the City Science Initiative at MIT, managed by Dr. Ryan Chin, has recently launched CityScope, which acts as an “urban observatory, urban intervention simulator, and decision support system”, that allows planners to dial-tune policy inputs to map their effects on a physical representation of their neighborhood or city.

Instead of describing each technology in isolation, consider this hypothetical example of how they might be integrated: A merchants’ association in a well-situated but underperforming downtown retail center decides that it wants to improve the center’s network dynamics in order to generate innovation. Helped along by grants from the city and non-profit organizations, the association contracts with the City Science Initiative for a comprehensive year-long study that requires tracking all credit-card transactions, the location data from all mobile phones, the content of all social media output from the retail center, the construction of behavioral profiles of mobile users, and even the imposition of sociometric badges, which when worn around the neck can measure the distribution and quality of face-to-face interactions, on employees, customers, and pedestrians in the downtown center who opt in.

Using CityScope, the City Science Initiative then projects onto a scaled, three-dimensional model of the retail center the hubs of engagement and ties of exploration. Macro trends, like foot traffic through the light rail and commuter stations and the spatial concentration of different demographics at different hours, can zoom into granular profiles, i.e. behavioral avatars of the pedestrians on Main Street plaza, between 8am and 10am on weekdays; the quality and the quantity of the face-to-face interactions they’re having with each other and which stores they’re having them in; how long they stay at each site; what types of things they’re purchasing; where they go after their purchase, and by what route.

Standing at the helm of CityScope, city officials can then calibrate the network dynamics of the retail center by dialing up or down a host of variables instantiated in the model. Graphics for exploration and engagement are indexed to these variables, so that planners can see in real time and in three dimensions what happens when, for example, permits for sidewalk seating are granted more liberally, or zoning density and mixed-use allocations increase, or the exits for transit stops are shifted across the street to be nearer to open cafes. "Graphing network dynamics onto a user-friendly platform like CityScope,” Dr. Chin explains, “will provide city planners with new insight into how to, literally, build innovation."

As it stands now, planners in charge of capital investment and improvement budgets may be the most receptive, because the money is substantial enough – over $100 million annually for Boston, for example – and the backlog of worthy projects long enough that an apolitical, time-intensive planning tool could synchronize with the already deliberate process for triaging the funds.

Ideally, though, the theory of social physics and the increasing sophistication of its measurement will change the way cities think about fostering innovation. That thinking today is capital intensive: administrations assume that synergy is inevitable when they lure in human capital, whether by recruiting STEM-heavy firms or place-making for the creative class, and build physical capital, like innovation centers. The productivity of the network is an ex post facto and qualitative consideration.

Instead, cities should ultimately treat network enhancement as a public utility, to be measured, improved, and published as open data. Let the market then internalize this new information to determine how capital, both physical and human, is allocated.

Jake Auchincloss is a research assistant at the Ash Center and a dual degree candidate at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

]]> Tue, 22 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Jake Auchincloss
9 Pieces of Advice on Cross-Sector Partnerships What works in a cross-sector partnership? What doesn’t? What can we learn from past cross-sector partnerships?

We had a panel of cross-sector partnership leaders share their thoughts on these questions at a recent gathering of our sites in The Integration Initiative. Each gave three pieces of advice, which are listed below. Watch the video for a more in-depth discussion.

Maria Hibbs, Principal, MPH Social Strategies and former Director of Partnership for New Communities

  • You need to know and understand the culture in which you are embarking on the work
  • Secure a reputable convener and facilitator for a cross-sector partnership
  • Alignment of all of the aspects of your initiatives is essential

Monique Baptiste, Initiative Director, Newark’s Strong Healthy Communities Initiative

  • Constantly assess your capacity
  • Grow patience
  • Find out what “needle” you want to move, and then determine which stakeholders need to be at the table

Eric Muschler, Program Officer, The McKnight Foundation

  • Make it time limited
  • Focus on abundance of existing resources
  • Integrate cross-funding streams to accomplish outcomes

Nine Pieces of Advice on Cross-Sector Partnerships from Living Cities on Vimeo.

]]> Fri, 18 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Jeff Raderstrong
Why Language Is Critical to Catalyzing Change The language around Collective Impact is continuing to evolve, which frankly, for some practitioners, might seem like a pain in the butt. If you look at the language describing Collective Impact on the FSG website, what Living Cities uses, what Strive Together uses, and what many other Collective Impact practitioners use, you might throw up your hands and give up trying altogether.

Before you decide we're a bunch of crazy people who just can't get it together, it might help to check out this great video from the Lean Startup Conference (minutes 8-15) which talks about what it takes to transition an organization to lean startup principles. Here are a few concepts that are similar to what we're seeing as we implement Collective Impact on the ground.

1) Meet people where they are

The presenters in the video were from a company acquired by Microsoft and were struggling to get Microsoft bought into the concept of Lean Startup. No matter what they tried (force feeding, flash mobs, bribery) they couldn't seem to get people to buy into the concepts. Until they realized that what mattered most was behavior change. Similarly, we may feel that we need to go around advocating for Collective Impact. If we just teach people enough of the concepts, they'll surely get it, right? Instead, we need to understand where people are and what we need to do to support behavior change. My colleague Alison Gold has written extensively about the messiness of cross-sector partnerships, and one thing she says is that you need to take time to “form” your partnership so that it is strong enough to survive the “storming” that inevitably comes with developing shared results. Without meeting people where they are and building strong relationships at the outset, it’s difficult to have strong cross-sector parnerships down the road.

2) Use language that resonates with your audience

It's easy to fall into the trap of being patronizing when you're trying to support changing behavior. "Sigh, I just don't know how many times I can explain the same concepts to people to get them to understand me." Before you gallop off on that high horse, remember that changing behavior is just difficult overall and is more about changing hearts and minds than drilling definitions. I recently presented to a group of our sites from The Integration Initiative (TII) about Collective Impact. My team and I made several (painstaking) iterations to the presentation to ensure the language fit the audience. Of course, I got a lot of feedback after that presentation and I will continue to iterate on how I talk about Collective Impact. (If you want more information on how we talk about Collective Impact at Living Cities, see below for a copy of my slides from that presentation.)

3) Recognize culture

The folks at Microsoft rejected the Lean Startup language, but jumped at the concepts behind the scientific method: hypotheses, assumptions, and experimentation. You'll note that at Living Cities, we've focused more on the “Build-Measure -Learn" concept of the Lean Start Up methodology, but why not just use the scientific method? When we work with our innovation partners, the concept of social experiments is rife with baggage. Our mission is to improve the lives and economic well-being of low income people. The people we are privileged to serve are not lab rats or something to be done to; they are actually part of the problem solving process. Build-Measure-Learn has worked for us because the language helps provide guidance without triggering negative perceptions. In the end, what matters most is that the language we use is sensitive to the culture of the people who will be using the tools.

4) Recruit credible translators

You've often heard that change moves at the speed of trust. One critical piece with catalyzing change is to have trusted people on your side who can serve the role of translator. For Microsoft, these were people who had experienced the good, bad, and ugly and could share how changing their approach could help make the team stronger. Similarly, the team in Albuquerque leading the current TII efforts was involved in a similar Collective Impact initiative to end chronic homelessness. While that effort was ultimately successful, that team built credibility in their community by pushing through even when the path was difficult. If Collective Impact efforts are not grounded in concrete experiences, it begins to feel too theoretical and abstract. It's not about the tool, it's about what the tool allows you to achieve together.

5) Iterate to find language that works

The Microsoft folks continue to iterate not just with the products they're developing, but with the language they're using to shift their culture to Build-Measure-Learn to produce change more rapidly. Similarly, our language at Living Cities hasn't evolved in a vacuum. It started in our immediate team, moved to the organization through brown bags and staff meetings, was tested at external conferences, vetted by TII Initiative Directors in a webinar, and then shared with TII sites during a learning community. Every iteration helped us make the discussions more about the changes we seek and less about the tool we're using.

Have any more thoughts on language and catalyzing change? Love to hear it in the comments!


View Ty's slides: Collective Impact Principles Overview from Living Cities
]]> Thu, 17 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Tynesia Boyea-Robinson
Creating Mixed-Income Communities Are mixed-income communities merely a utopic vision or do they actually exist? What policies and incentives can be used to create and/or maintain mixed-income communities? How can we ensure low-income populations benefit from increased economic activity in their communities?

We convened a panel this spring to discuss these questions and more. You can watch the highlights of the discussion below, which includes insights from:

  • Fred Blackwell, President and CEO of The San Francisco Foundation
  • Robert Liberty, Director of the Urban Sustainability Accelerator, Portland State University
  • Rolf Pendall, Director, Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center, The Urban Institute
  • William Towns, Assistant Vice President, University of Chicago, Office of Civic Engagement

For a deeper dive on the topic, you can read our briefing paper “Building and Sustaining Thriving Mixed‐Income Communities.”

Creating Thriving Mixed-Income Communities from Living Cities on Vimeo.

]]> Mon, 14 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Jeff Raderstrong
Disrupting the Pace of Adoption: July 16 Twitter Chat The Living Cities 2013 Annual Report has sparked discussion across the nation about what it takes to disrupt inequality. We’ve been excited to hear the thoughtful responses from the field, the innovative ideas that pour through our Twitter and emails, and the questions from our partners. One question that we keep getting is: ‘what can we do?’

While organizations across sectors are working to disrupt inequality, we acknowledge that the pace of social change is still too slow, the scale too small. Today, six million Americans are still living in poverty. So, in order to accelerate the pace of change, Living Cities is doubling down on our focus on networks and learning.


We know that there is an appetite in the field for innovative approaches to social change that transcend sector, locale, and issue. On Wednesday, July 16, at 1 PM ET, we will turn to you once more to share these innovations and discuss ways we can accelerate the pace of change. The Chat will be co-moderated by Living Cities’ Chief Operations Officer, Elodie Baquerot (@elbaq511), and will focus on the idea of open-sourcing social change.


We invite you and your organizations to participate in the Twitter Chat on Wednesday, July 16, 2014 at 1 PM ET using the hashtag #DisruptingInequality. Over the course of an hour, we will pose a series of questions about disrupting the pace of adoption of innovations that expand the scope and scale of social change. Participants will have 10 minutes after each question to answer and discuss, before we move onto the next question. At the conclusion of the hour, all participants will be invited to share final thoughts and ideas. We will share the questions in advance of July 16.


Your participation is crucial to disrupting inequality. Living Cities recognizes that the issue of inequality is complex, and difficult to solve. We are open-sourcing solutions to you, our followers and partners, so that we might co-create a path forward in disrupting inequality.


This will be the second Twitter Chat in a series that will explore key themes in #DisruptingInequality. The subsequent Twitter Chats will occur on:

  • Aug 7 at noon ET: Disrupting the Status Quo in Government
  • Aug 13 at 1pm ET: Disrupting the Flow of Resources
  • Aug 19 at 1pm ET: Disrupting the Teams and Scorekeeping

Stay tuned for updates on how to participate.

]]> Fri, 11 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Elizabeth Vargas
When to Apply Collective Impact We have noticed lately that some social change practitioners are feeling pressured to apply “Collective Impact” given its popularity in the field. Since Collective Impact is one of many different tools, which model you should use is entirely dependent on the result that you are trying to achieve.

Success is the right tool meeting the right solution.

At Living Cities, we’re finding it useful to try and think about different models of cross-sector partnership in light of two factors:

  1. How much do the partners have to change their own behavior to achieve their intended result (not at all or fundamentally)?
  2. If the partnership achieves its intended result, where does the benefit accrue (to the members of the partnership to the community)?

We’ve even started plotting a REALLY rough chart of different models of cross-sector partnership in light of these questions.

So what do you think? Is this a useful way to think about cross-sector partnerships in general, as well as specific models? Why or why not? What other models should be included in the chart, and where do you think they would fall?

Leave a comment or join the conversation on Twitter with @Living_Cities using hashtag #xsector.


Cartoon by Nadia Owusu, Living Cities. Chart by Alison Gold, Living Cities.

]]> Thu, 10 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Tynesia Boyea-Robinson
Speaking the Unspoken “All of our solutions to the great problems of health care, education, housing, and economic inequality are troubled by what must go unspoken,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates in a powerful much discussed 16,000- word piece in The Atlantic. While much of the buzz sparked by the article—rightly, considering that it is entitled “The Case for Reparations”-- has focused on reparations both as a conceptual notion to push the national dialogue around race and as a policy vehicle to ‘settle with old ghosts’, what has stuck with me is the way that Coates constructed his argument. In short, while I certainly spent a lot of time mulling over the case for reparations in terms of substance, I spent an equal amount of time dissecting the piece in terms of style and form.

At Living Cities, I lead our communications work, focused on fostering the spread of experimentation and adoption of promising approaches to move the needle for low income people in U.S. cities. So, a big part of my job is thinking about, testing, and measuring ways of communicating our mission, purpose, and vision for broader understanding of the issues on which we work. How, I pondered, had Coates succeeded where so many others had failed in terms of speaking of those things that ‘must go unspoken’—things like institutional and structural racism— and challenging others to do the same in a way that elevated the conversation above the standard rhetoric? Indeed, I have been encouraged by the level and diversity of thought emerging from the commentary, critique, and conversation about this piece.

While the social sector, in our communications, is very conscious of allowing for additional interpretations and possibilities, offering careful quantification and qualification of positions, and acknowledging opposing arguments, sometimes we do so in such extreme ways as to obscure the important points that we are making—points that, if understood and rendered actionable could make a world of difference in terms of advancing our missions. Coates’ article, on the other hand is unflinching in its reporting. He weaves historical context, reporting, storytelling and opinion together adeptly, shedding a harsh light on our past and our present; and holding us all collectively responsible for our future. He states plainly that “to ignore the fact that one of the oldest republics in the world was erected on a foundation of white supremacy, to pretend that the problems of a dual society are the same as the problems of unregulated capitalism, is to cover the sin of national plunder with the sin of national lying.” The conflating of these things is just one example of a common practice that I have seen (and probably perpetuated at times in my own content) in social change communications, and one that I think that we must get much better at untangling. At Living Cities, for instance, we are currently in the early stages of an organizational change process focused on more explicitly and intentionally applying a racial equity and inclusion lens into our work. This will necessarily mean giving a lot of thought to how we must change our narrative around poverty and inequality, and how these forces intersect with race.

Recently, my colleagues at Living Cities, Alison Gold and Jeff Raderstrong, shared their reflections on the article and on the effectiveness of reparations to achieve the goals outlined by Coates. Alison argued that reparations will not change systems that continue to produce inequitable outcomes for African Americans in the US; and Jeff noted the significance of the reparations discussion in terms of pushing us as a nation to “take a hard look at who we are…and whether or not we are living up to the democratic values that our founders espoused.

These are both, I think, strong hypotheses, and ones that are deeply related to the questions that we are asking ourselves as part of Living Cities’ racial equity and inclusion agenda. And, Coates’ assertion that “wrestling publically with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced” resonated with me as a call to action.

So, as we continue on our journey to learn about and better confront both the overt and more insidious ways that racism continues to dictate people’s life chances, we are committed to doing so in public—here on our blog, on social media, and on other platforms where we share what we are learning. And, I am eager to test some of my own hypotheses around why Coates’ argument itself (whether or not you agree with his conclusions) was so resonant and far-reaching. Is it time, I am asking myself, for the social sector to be more fearless in calling out things that we know to be true—like that systems, structures, and policies (e.g. laws, housing policy, and education funding), in ways both explicit and implicit, work to exclude people from opportunity, in part based on race? And, can we do this while still maintaining that we do not, despite what we do know, have all the answers about what to do about it. Coates’ article suggests that we should, and we can. While he skillfully makes a solid case for reparations, in the end the bill that he supports would purely call for a Congressional study of slavery and make recommendations for “appropriate remedies.” Wicked problems, he seems to acknowledge, then, cannot be debated or solved by one man with a platform and a story. But what that man, woman, or organization can do is plant the seed to make what was once (troublingly) unspoken, spoken.


This blog is part of a series in which Living Cities staff have reflected on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations.” Read the prior blogs in the series on Reparations and America's National Identity and Systems Change.

]]> Wed, 09 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Nadia Owusu
City Governments Step Forward to Address Income Inequality Income inequality continues to grow in America and has even accelerated, post-2009, in the aftermath of the Great Recession. What is new, however, is the attention the nation has placed on income inequality. President Obama cemented the conversation into the national dialogue this past January when he highlighted income inequality as one of our most significant shortcomings as a nation. And more recently, inequality dominated conversations at an annual meeting of U.S. mayors, where New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is leading a task force on the issue.

Indeed, the growing debate today around how to shrink income inequality is unprecedented. Yet, despite public and political clamoring for solutions, the federal government has been unable to move on the issue. With political gridlock limiting the federal government’s potential role in addressing the issues of growing poverty and income inequality, cities and metropolitan areas have increasingly taken matters into their own hands. Following more modest minimum wage hikes in cities like Washington, D.C. and San Francisco earlier this year, Seattle’s recent passing of a $15.00 minimum wage is perhaps the most significant step forward on the issue to date. By navigating the political complexity and accounting for the economic implications of such legislation, the Seattle City Council has set the precedent for other cities, large and small, to follow suit.

Seattle’s legislation is invigorating this conversation in cities across the U.S., and numerous ambitious proposals are in the works. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently appointed a task force to consider raising the city’s minimum above that of the state. In Los Angeles, lawmakers have been advocating to raise the wages of hotel workers to $15.37. And in San Diego, Oakland and several other cities around the country, more aggressive action has been taken by municipalities ahead of federal action on the issue.

Though exciting, we know that raising wages is only one factor in tackling widening income inequality (especially considering that even $15 per hour is not necessarily enough to live a quality life in many U.S. cities). Still, higher incomes for low-wage earners will reduce many of the existing barriers to housing, transportation, health care and other essentials, providing workers with more stable and productive lives. And bottom line, they’ll have more income to spend locally.

More importantly, Seattle’s push for a $15 minimum wage is a big step towards improving job quality for low-wage workers and low-skill job-seekers. Characterized by better wages, benefits and opportunities for advancement, quality jobs are an increasingly important focus of workforce development efforts. Funders and workforce advocates alike have begun calling for workforce development to focus not only on building career ladders, but also on raising the floor of job quality standards. By raising the baseline of job quality, cities and states can focus workforce development efforts on developing a broader set of available job openings, rather than struggling to stop gap the declining number of well-paying positions with reasonable skills expectations.

Beyond changing the landscape of opportunity and inequality in Seattle, the $15 minimum wage legislation is setting a precedent for increased leadership on tackling growing income inequality, and catalyzing dialogue and action across the nation. At Living Cities, we’re helping to connect city leaders so they can learn from how others have attempted to tackle common urban challenges. Through our Project on Municipal Innovation (PMI), we convene chiefs of staff and policy directors from around the country to grapple together with seemingly intractable problems, including rising income inequality in cities. As we support ongoing dialogue and collaboration across the network, this platform is an ideal space for learning and exploring how cities are individually tackling income inequality, and how Seattle’s city government navigated the political challenges of raising the minimum wage and what they learned from attempts at implementation.

While raising minimum wage may not be a silver-bullet for closing the startling wealth gap in this country, it is an essential step forward in improving economic opportunity for low-income people. Seattle’s success offers a leading example of how one city took the lead and began to tackle income inequality on its own terms. Which American city will be next?

Image by ichaz licensed under CC 3.0 Unported.

]]> Tue, 08 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Juan Sebastian Arias, Sara Draper-Zivetz
One Reason Most Cross-Sector Partnerships Don’t Work What hasn’t worked in cross-sector partnerships that you’ve participated in in the past?

When I asked this question to 50 leaders from Albuquerque, New Orleans, San Antonio, San Francisco, and Seattle involved with the second round of The Integration Initiative, it took them less than 5 minutes to write down more than 75 answers to this question including (but certainly not limited to): superficial commitment, hidden agendas, turf issues, poor communication, suspiciousness, and somber processes.

These experiences are real, and powerful in shaping people’s assumptions about what they are entering into when they get involved in a cross-sector partnership. These expectations can trigger individuals’ least collaborative behaviors, spurring the people around the table end up focusing on “what’s in it for me?” and not “what will it take to achieve our intended result?” And once that happens, all their worst fears about this cross-sector partnership have been validated.

So, when you are building (or transforming) a cross-sector partnership, all of these experiences and assumptions have to be overcome. The big question is, how do you do it?

If this was an organization, the top brass might use their authority to set a vision and hold others accountable. Most people are used to working in settings where there’s pretty high levels of clarity about who’s in charge, what’s trying to be accomplished, what our roles are, and what will happen to us if we’re not contributing.

But, cross-sector partnerships are not organizations. In partnerships—particularly ones employing the principles of collective impact to address complex social and economic problems—there is a low level of clarity about authority, goals, roles and consequences, especially early on. In large part, this is because people and institutions have the choice to opt in or out, and there are no consequences for them either way.

So, what gets people and institutions engaged in a cross-sector partnership in a way that overcomes our negative expectations, and sets us on a path to achieve meaningful impact?


It might sound hokey, but trust is an important and underestimated ingredient to making a cross-sector partnership work. If members of a cross-sector partnership do not believe in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of their partners as well as the partnership itself, it is very difficult to keep them involved and achieve the partnership’s intended goals.

Through our investments and research we’re learning that Tuckman's Group Development Model -- you might be more familiar with the shorthand it created, form-storm-norm-perform--is applicable to cross-sector partnerships because it articulates the stages that a partnership and its representatives need to go through in order to build and maintain trust.

In Living Cities’ research and grantee portfolio, we’ve observed that there’s a common trap that partnerships fall into relating to trust: they try to go straight from forming to performing, or as folks always say “get some early wins.”

Our research is also revealing that undertaking the storming and norming processes actually leads to performing sooner and more effectively than if you skip from forming to performing – a phenomenon we call the form-perform paradox. If you skip the storming and norming, the phases that establish trust and boundaries and clarity and consensus, it’s very difficult to perform successfully. [For a great example of the form-perform paradox in action, check out the case study called Partners for a Competitive Workforce: Insights from Solving Problems through Cross-Sector Partnerships.]

When I shared this learning with the leaders from the new Integration Initiative sites, one attendee responded in a way that you may be wanting to right now. He booed. It might not be the message you want to hear, but addressing conflict and building trust—while difficult and sometimes time-consuming—are necessary prerequisites for a cross-sector partnership to being able to implement work and achieve its goals.

How have you built trust among the members of a cross-sector partnership? What tools and resources have been most useful to you in this process? Share your experiences and feedback in the comments below, via email to agold [at] livingcities [dot] org or on Twitter with @AKGold11 using #xsector.

]]> Tue, 08 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Alison Gold
Can Racism be Ended Through Reparations? One of the central ideas in our work at Living Cities is that systems aren’t broken, rather they are set up to create the results that they produce. And as Donella Meadows wrote in her classic essay Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System, “The only way to fix a system that is laid out wrong is to rebuild it, if you can.”

Meadows’ ideas about systems change have kept coming up for me as I’ve read and re-read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Case for Reparations. In his piece, Coates creates a powerful ethnography of how the formation and evolution of the United States’ democratic and capitalist systems are inextricably linked to producing oppression and economic exclusion for African-Americans.

Before turning his focus to the example of how reparations worked following WWII between West Germany and Jewish Holocaust survivors, Coates writes:

What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal…Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.

But the question I keep coming back to is this: how (if at all) do reparations change systems that continue to produce inequitable outcomes for African-Americans in the US? Or said another way, can racial inequality (for African-Americans) be ended through reparations?

I don’t believe so, and here’s why.

In her work, Meadows offers that there are four types of leverage points in systems—infrastructure, information flows, laws, and mindsets—where changes to infrastructure have the least leverage in changing the behavior of a system, and changes to mindsets have the most.

When I heard him speak in person, Coates asserted that the money matters. And given the history he recounts of sharecropping families’ possessions being stolen, and redlining policies that excluded African-Americans from the benefits of one of the greatest wealth generators of the last century (real estate), I’m not arguing with that notion.

But, the approaches that Coates lays out—a government study and monetary payments—aren’t enough to change how regulated industries operate, let alone to transform systems that implicitly and explicitly prevent an entire population of people from achieving equitable outcomes. These systems are products of people. And government and money don’t change people’s mindsets, movements do.

Reckoning happens when the systems change to produce equitable results. Our greatest leverage in changing systems is not government studies or reparations, but the ability to change hearts and minds. (Need an example? How about LGBTQ rights and equality.)

Coates says that he’s heartened that so many people, especially white people, have approached him to say, “I didn’t know,” about the history his article recounts. It’s an indicator of the great chasm between those who experience its legacy, and those who have never had to think about it, or assert that we live in a color-blind or post-racial society. It is also an opportunity to expose people to the history and the current reality, to help them see the inequitable systems, and their own roles within them and in changing them. Because when our hearts and minds change, we shift our behaviors, and the behaviors of our families, communities, and the institutions with which we are affiliated.

So while I’m deeply skeptical that reparations will ever happen, or that they can ever produce equitable outcomes for African-Americans, I’m hopeful that a high-profile article like this one can lead to more articles, and conversations, understanding, and action. That it can help reinvigorate our country’s commitment and urgency to achieving racial equity, a goal, which like the history Coates recounts, seems increasingly to be forgotten.


This blog is part of a series in which Living Cities staff have reflected on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations.” Read the first blog in the series on Reparations and America's National Identity and look out for upcoming blogs this month.

]]> Mon, 07 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Alison Gold
Reparations and our National Identity I will admit, I didn’t think much about reparations before I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations.” When asked, I would say I supported the idea, but people don’t tend to ask much. For obvious reasons, the topic is difficult and not something one brings up frequently in common conversation. Coates has done a great service to our nation by offering a way to talk about reparations with friends, family, and coworkers.

While others may laud the article for its beautiful prose, its illuminating facts, or its general call to action to make amends for our nation’s sins, what resonated with me the most was how Coates linked the call for reparations with a deep analysis of our national identity. He says:

What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.

My previous lack of interest in reparations was because I saw them as a surface-level solution that would amount to a one-time cash transfer. While some may think the Obama presidency signifies a post-racial society, racism is in fact alive and well. I did not oppose reparations because I thought it was a solution for an earlier time, rather, I thought writing checks would not sustainably shift the systems in place to a more equalized grounding. Coates shows how this line of thinking is completely false: achieving reparations requires an analysis and dismantling of the racialized systems embedded in our nation’s institutions.

Coates states that reparations cannot be achieved without a broad national dialogue about race. A necessary precursor to passing reparations would be to design and facilitate a national conversation about the history of racial discrimination and oppression in our country. This dialogue (assuming it is constructive and not divisive or violent) would help individuals better understand our national history and how we got to the society we have. While this conversation may not get all citizens on the same page about our racist history as a country, it will be a starting point. And truly exposing the truths in our past for all to see will, I hope, create a national identity shift towards a more inclusive society. Reparations may be one policy to come out of this new national identity, but the policy change possibilities are endless.

I saw Coates discuss the article last month, and during the open question and answer session, it became clear that people wanted a solid plan of action of how to achieve reparations. He didn’t have any answers on how to secure reparations, for good reason: there are no clear next steps. (He did continue to bring up, as he talks about in the article, the need for a study that would provide more insight into who should receive reparations and why.) The only next step we can take is to take a hard look at who we are as a country and whether or not we are living up to the democratic values that our founders espoused (through words if not through actions).

To think in this way requires a level of critical thinking and self-reflection most people aren’t used to. You cannot simply think about your own actions and how they are influenced by the history of racism in this country, but you must also consider how the systems in place have benefited or harmed you. We are not a nation known for its critical thinking skills, and I believe our citizenry needs more critical thinking skills to ensure we have a population that can handle this type of conversation on a national level.


This blog is the first of a series in which Living Cities staff have reflected on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations.” On July 4th, U.S. Independence Day, we kicked-off the series with Jeff's post on America's National Identity. Look out for upcoming blogs in the series this month.

]]> Fri, 04 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Jeff Raderstrong
8 Yummy Tensions of Collective Impact I had the great fortune of attending the first learning community of the Working Cities Challenge (WCC), an initiative led by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston to advance collaborative leadership and support ambitious work to improve the lives of low-income people in smaller Massachusetts cities. Passionate leaders talked through a number of challenging issues that have the potential to sow bitterness and discord in Collective Impact Initiatives. By addressing the conflicts and holding the tensions in balance, that bitterness can become a sweet recipe for catalyzing enduring change.

Here are 8 Yummy Tensions of Collective Impact that I shared with them in my closing remarks:

1. Humility vs. Hubris – One of my favorite sayings from our Living Cities CEO Ben Hecht is that we have the “humility to know that we don’t have all the answers, but the hubris to try.” That about sums up the schizophrenia of the work of Collective Impact. Many committed, passionate, and intelligent people have combatted some of our country’s most pressing problems, and most of these efforts have resulted in incremental change. So who the heck do we think we are that we are going to achieve something different? There’s a danger in believing that because of Collective Impact we are better or smarter than those who came before us. We are not. Collective Impact is just a mechanism that allows us to learn more quickly. Part of rapid learning includes being more comfortable when things we try don’t work out. And having cross-sector partners who both define and buy into the change we seek allows us the freedom to fail together with less fear of repercussions.

2. Cross-sector Engagement vs. Existence – One of the key elements of Collective Impact is building a cross-sector partnership. And this really ticks a whole bunch of people off because it seems like a trumped up facelift of something we’ve been all doing for years - collaboration. The folks at Strive Together have a great visual of the difference between collaboration (i.e. coordinated impact) and Collective Impact Another way to sum it up is that having an engaged cross-sector partnership is different than having one that simply exists. An engaged cross-sector partnership is comfortable having tough conversations with each other. Partners are willing to subjugate their individual interests for what will drive the ambitious change everyone has agreed to. When the initiative is facing heat, different cross-sector partners will navigate backlash on behalf of each other’s organizations, always keeping in mind the group’s or partner’s audacious goal. This is a result of investing in building the connective tissue amongst organizations so they create a shared identity. Instead of a loose consortium of organizations, they operate as one team and the enemy is not each other, but instead, whatever is preventing them from making progress toward their collective goal.

3. Ambitious vs. Achievable – At Living Cities, we recognize the importance of both BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals, aka Shared Result) and SMART goals (Specific Measurable Achievable Relevant Time-bound). The Audacious and Achievable can often feel in conflict with each other and negotiating that tension is usually more of an art than a science. One way we bridge that gap is to share criteria that sites can apply as they think about the goals they are developing for different time periods. For example, Shared Results should:

  • Take 10+ years to achieve;
  • Have a “gulp factor”;
  • Require a cross-sector partnership to achieve as opposed to individual programs;
  • Be stated generically, not naming any projects or activities in the statement.

Example: The labor force participation rate of African-American working age men is increased by X%

We have developed criteria not just for the longer term audacious goal, but also for the interim outcomes that help our sites assess if they are on or off track as they work to catalyze enduring change in their communities.

4. Solutions vs. Hypotheses – During Living Cities’ first round of The Integration Initiative (TII), we spent a lot of time telling people that we didn’t invest in programs. That distinction was esoteric at best and confusing at worst. That said, as many of you may have experienced, it is often easier to rip an infant from the arms of a mother than to stop a program once it has been funded in the government. This is understandable since usually a whole bunch of smart people worked their butts off to get a program funded by sharing their extensive research about why it will “solve the problems that ail us”. When these programs begin showing themselves to be less effective, the work it took to get the resources to support the program in the first place can often create backlash that hamstrings leadership in the future. That is why we work with our sites to build hypotheses about what will drive their Shared Results. By using language that underscores that we are always testing hypotheses as opposed to mandating solutions, it provides our cross-sector partnerships with licenses to fail in service of finding what works.

5. Learners vs. Experts – Committing to a learning orientation amongst a group of peers from external organizations is harder than it sounds. More likely than not, your partners were invited to participate because of their expertise. They have been rewarded and promoted throughout their professional career because of their experience. And now we ask them to sit in a room in front of each other and expose all the things they do wrong every day and don’t know how to fix. This is not a behavior that feels natural for most people and it involves a level of risk and vulnerability most are not expected to exhibit daily. Since this is a muscle that can be built over time, it is important to invest in periods of reflection and opportunities to build trust within the cross-sector partnerships. These efforts move at the speed of trust so not investing the time or failing to make room for what seem like ‘touchy-feely, nice to have’ conversations can negatively impact what your group can accomplish and how quickly.

6. Rigorous vs. Prescriptive – With all these yummy tensions, several team members may begin either demanding the manual or worshipping every whitepaper from FSG as the Bible. One of our Initiative Directors from TII asked me if it was okay that their backbone didn’t follow the guidelines she had read online. She was so anxious; you would have thought Moses had received an additional tablet etched with the Collective Impact Commandments! At Living Cities, we purposely state that we are “applying the principles of Collective Impact” to underscore that it is not a prescription, but a recipe. The best recipes are very rigorous- they tell you the ingredients, the order, the temperature. But they are also flexible! You can use egg or egg whites for the binding agent, sugar or sweet and low or applesauce for sweetness, butter or oil or margarine for fluffiness. What you use is based on who you’re serving and their needs and preferences. Likewise, when applying the principles of Collective Impact, it’s important that the power of the tool is having someone wield it who is knowledgeable about the needs of the community they serve.

7. Network Strength vs. Individual Strength – The folks at Living Cities and WCC invest in creating learning communities because they serve as a multiplier effect for Collective Impact efforts. For those who aren’t in a learning community, online resources like the Collective Impact Forum are also committed to sharing real time learning in public. By leveraging the strengths of our network, we are able to begin disseminating what’s working, what’s not working, and most importantly: why. There is a popular saying that the point is not the destination, it’s the journey. Well, that’s a really hard pill to swallow for folks committed to driving change in their communities. The path to continuous improvement often feels meandering and rife with wrong turns and briar patches. And while the Shared Result is the north star of our efforts, most of us would prefer to just have a GPS with turn by turn navigation. Often the best compass we have is the shared experience of those in other places who are on a similar journey to us. In many ways, we are on the frontier of social innovation, and when we circle our wagons and share through relationships and word of mouth, it helps leave well-worn trails for those coming behind us that accelerate their efforts for their communities.

8. Unique vs. Special – Sometimes when we share our stories with fellow travelers, the first thing that comes to mind is all the ways our efforts are different from theirs.

  • “They’re focusing on African-Americans, while our population is Latino.”
  • “If we had a strong tech sector, maybe we’d focus on small business growth, but we don’t.”
  • “Their economy is experiencing growth while ours is contracting so that doesn’t apply.”

It is absolutely important to have a discerning eye as you share promising practices with each other. From what we’ve seen implementing this approach across the country, no one has ever been able to lift a strategy wholesale from one community and plop it into another. That said, if you listen to the adages within the network, you might realize that while your community is unique, it may not be special. Perhaps what you’re facing is like a dollop of Detroit mixed with a smattering of Albuquerque. Or it’s pretty much identical to Baltimore, but you’d swap out a few ingredients from San Francisco. Regardless of what you’re facing, what we’ve noticed is that someone, somewhere has confronted that issue, and you can learn a great deal from what worked and what didn’t, even if it is not a one for one match.

Have you experienced other yummy tensions? If so, we’d love to hear more and look forward to continuing our journey of learning together.

]]> Thu, 03 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Tynesia Boyea-Robinson
Racism, Collective Impact and Systems Change: Tying it all Together Collective impact is fundamentally about systems change. Systems change is a complicated topic to discuss because systems come in all shapes and sizes—there’s a workforce development system, an education system, a health system. Systems change can focus on a geographic level—a neighborhood system is different than a city-wide system is different than a state system is different than a federal system. And of course, all these systems interact with each other, making intervening in a system all that more complicated.

One of my favorite pieces on systems change is Donella Meadows’ classic “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System.” This should be required reading for anyone working for social change. Meadows says the most effective places to intervene in a system are:

  1. The power to transcend paradigms
  2. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters — arises.

As today is the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act—one of the largest systems interventions in our nation’s history—I thought it would be appropriate to reflect on the interaction between race, systems change and collective impact. Race is the largest system in our society, affecting all aspects of how we live and work. All systems—whether it’s local, national, education, health—are influenced by race. To use Meadows’ vocabulary, our racialized society is “the mindset or paradigm out of which the system…arises.”

At Living Cities, we believe that to effectively create systems change, one most consider how racial factors influence the systems at play. We have begun our own Racial Equity and Inclusion initiative to start a conversation on how we can get to changing those higher-level intervention points in Meadows’ systems change prioritization. It will take time to discover how Living Cities’ work fits in to such as large a system as race, as well as the best way to effectively intervene. Right now, we have simply been talking about how to proceed.

Because dismantling racial barriers is such a complicated task, it is essential we use collective impact to confront the systems-level problems racism creates. Collective impact inherently employs a cross-sector approach to change, and dealing with as large a problem as racism will require multiple actors from all sectors aligned towards a common goal. An individual organization acting alone will not be able to adequately address the problems of racism.

One example of a collective impact initiative using a racial equity lens is the New Orleans Livable Claiborne Communities Initiative, a member of our Integration Initiative. They have committed to address the “the staggering non‐employment rate among the city’s African American working age male population.” To accomplish this goal, the initiative must confront some of the racial issues imbedded into the city’s workforce system. Working to accomplish this goal will, in some small way, start to shift our racial paradigm toward equality.

At Living Cities, we sometimes refer to systems change as changing the “hearts and minds” of a population. Whether we are aware of it or not, we have all internalized the racial system of oppression in our society. Any work we do to improve cities must ultimately change the hearts and minds of the decision makers in those communities. Without this shift within the highest levels of power, we cannot hope to deliver results for low-income communities.

And a shift in power cannot happen without collective impact initiatives like Livable Claiborne Communities working to deliver results explicitly focused on racial outcomes. Improving the employment rate among African-American men in New Orleans will not end racism nationally, but the results developed and the systems changed there can be a lesson to other communities around the country. Their lessons learned can give others grounding to build from. It will take many collective impact initiatives, intervening in multiple systems at many levels, to truly create a more equitable society.

"Charles Zimmerman Speaks at Civil Rights Rally" by Kheel Center is licensed under CC by 2.0.

]]> Wed, 02 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Jeff Raderstrong
Accelerating Innovation in Cities: Early Learnings from the First Phase of the City Accelerator Four months ago, Living Cities and the Citi Foundation announced the launch of the City Accelerator, a three-year, $3 million program designed to “foster innovation and promote collaboration between urban leaders to tackle some of their cities’ most pressing challenges.” We’re knee deep in the selection phase for the first cohort of cities, and have already learned a tremendous amount.

To date, we’ve had the opportunity to hear from leaders on the ground in cities across the nation. We’ve learned about their vision and ideas for adopting and spreading innovation in city hall for the benefit of their communities and residents. It has been an exciting process so far, and we’re eager to share some of what we’re seeing, hearing, and learning.

Towards a More Cohesive Approach to Local Government Innovation

Going into the application phase of the first cohort, we had several hunches. First, that the theme of the cohort- on embedding innovation into city government- would reveal the diversity of definitions and ideas about public sector innovation floating around in the field and in city halls. What does it mean to be innovative? What does it take for city officials to build and institutionalize a culture of innovation? What is the relationship between performance management and disruptive innovation? And how does increased innovation translate to increased impact on the ground?

We have heard from chief performance officers, chiefs of staff, directors of innovation, policy directors, and in some cases the Mayors themselves from cities large and small about their ideas on how to embed innovation in city government. From these discussions, it is safe to say there is a great opportunity in the work of the City Accelerator’s first cohort to begin to weave these definitions and ideas together, and build some consensus around these questions.

While there may be no wrong answers, and we certainly don’t claim to have the definitive “right” ones, assembling and articulating a shared vision and set of principles (that reflect both the aspiration of public sector innovation work and the realities on the ground in places) is an important first step. We’re excited to work in partnership with the 3 cohort cities, once selected, and the entire network of Project on Municipal Innovation cities to cultivate a shared language and vision, and bring increased definition to what it means to embed innovation in city government.

Government is More Creative than You Might Think

Another hunch we had going in to the City Accelerator application process was that a common reputation of city hall- as unimaginative and stodgy– wasn’t entirely founded, and that our application process would reveal some of the creative potential percolating within. Designed with this hunch in mind, the City Accelerator’s application process experimented with an alternative to the traditional RFP process. In addition to a focused written application, we asked cities to produce short, five minute video presentations (either pre-recorded or live) during which they could articulate their vision for embedding innovation in city government. Applicants were then invited to a google hangout where the Living Cities, Citi Foundation, and City Hall officials convened virtually to dig into the substance of their ideas, and engage in a dynamic exchange of questions and dialogue about this opportunity.

The emphasis on a lightweight, interactive, technology-driven application reflected the spirit of the work of the first cohort, and indeed the City Accelerator as a whole. Upon receiving pitches from nearly a dozen cities and interacting with them in early June, our hunch was confirmed. The caliber of creativity – both in thought and production - on display in this portion of the City Accelerator application process certainly gives the “gray government” notion a run for its money.

Thanks to the tremendous effort put forth by applicant cities (both those that have advanced to the finalist round, and those that have not), the application process has set the stage for a truly different type of engagement and partnership with cities going forward- one focused on pushing boundaries, testing ideas, and collaborating deeply.

Today, July 1st, marks the official launch of the next phase of the City Accelerator! Citi Foundation and Living Cities, in partnership with the Governing Institute and hosted, are excited to announce the launch of the public phase of the City Accelerator’s first cohort, and invite you to get involved. As we continue to promote a more open dialogue between the public sector and its citizens, members of the public are encouraged to view the finalists’ pitches and weigh in on which they think have the best chance of institutionalizing lasting, impact-driven innovation in city government. You can visit the City Accelerator landing page here and view videos from our six finalist cities - Albuquerque, Denver, Louisville, Nashville, Philadelphia, and San Jose.

Share your thoughts on who you think should be part of the first City Accelerator -- your input will be one of the factors that we weigh in selecting the three participating cities -- and stay tuned for more about what we’re doing, thinking, and learning!


Nigel's post originally appeared on, where you can watch and rate finalists' video pitches until July 30, 2014. Learn more about the City Accelerator on:

]]> Tue, 01 Jul 2014 00:00:00 -0400 Nigel Jacob