Whether it be equitable housing in San Francisco, workforce development in New Orleans, or inclusive innovation in Albuquerque, cities engaged with The Integration Initiative (TII) are working collectively within and across their regions to solve some of our country’s most wicked problems. While each city is unique in its players, politics, and culture, the genesis of each of their challenges is predicated on the same – the cumulative effects of decades of historical, structural, and institutional racism in communities of color. Over time, these people and places have been denied equal access and opportunity to prosperity in the United States through numerous, intersecting means, codified through policy. To truly move the needle towards more equitable outcomes, it is imperative that institutions – government, non-profit, and philanthropy alike – understand and own the role their policies and practices have had in the development of the social ills we aim to change.
In San Francisco, the HOPE SF initiative intentionally refers to its work as reparations. City systems have failed our African American communities, resulting in the hemorrhaging of our black population. In 2016, only about one out of every 20 city resident was African American, compared to one of seven residents in 1970. For the approximately 46,000 remaining African Americans, education, workforce, and health outcomes show disparity across nearly every measure. The majority of public housing residents are African American. The foundations upon which our social systems have been built perpetuate these outcomes. They have been patched for decades, with no enduring improvement for communities of color. It is only in the undoing, and repairing, of these systems that we have a chance to change the trajectories for the communities we serve.
In my former role as Deputy Director of HOPE SF, I had the great responsibility of building a cohesive and strategic operational backbone for transforming public housing, health, education, resident leadership and economic mobility across four communities. A part of this was developing our collective impact ecosystem, which engaged over 120 people each month, including developers, property managers, community based organizations, philanthropy and cross-sector government partners and residents. I was fortunate to be amongst partners and allies that let me work with integrity, keeping residents as the compass and heart of our structure. I was blessed with the leadership of people like Theo Miller and Fred Blackwell who encouraged and demanded that we center racial equity, ask the hard questions, and—with scrappy sophistication – do it differently.
I knew that a new approach was necessary in order to reach the HOPE SF shared result: for legacy families to thrive in socially, racially and economically inclusive communities, where race and place are not barriers to prosperity. The way in which we did business, or the how, needed to reflect our values. Without transforming our systems, we risked pushing nearly all of our African American community, and other vulnerable populations, out of the city.
A Roadmap for Organizational Healing
A guidepost for grounding our operational practice came to HOPE SF from a colleague and partner in the San Francisco Department of Health. The Trauma Informed Systems (TIS) frame, developed and lead by Dr. Ken Epstein and Trauma Transformed, provided language for a values-based approach to operational culture. The model recognizes that organizations, like people, are susceptible to trauma, and that the resulting actions of traumatized organizations reinforce oppression and create harm.
With respect to communities, traumatized institutions manifest themselves in fragmented, unresponsive, authoritative, and apathetic systems that exacerbate poverty. It is broken promises, short-sighted policies, defunded community programming. It looks like dilapidated public housing, family separation, and mass incarceration. It is the casualties of our trauma-induced actions as policy and social service practitioners. In essence, traumatized institutions perpetuate the status quo, or the structural inequities we were working to undo.
In contrast, “Trauma Informed Systems principles and practices support reflection in place of reaction, curiosity in lieu of numbing, self-care instead of self-sacrifice and collective impact rather than siloed structures.” A Trauma-Informed System recognizes the harm done to communities through historical and structural practices, and centers resident leadership, ownership, and respect as the key to transformation. Developing an organizational structure based in Trauma-Informed principles allows you to create new practices and standards for power, relationships, trust, policies, blighted and disconnected environments. When we talk about trauma, we are not objectifying the experiences of our constituents. Rather, we reflect on the role our system has played in creating those experiences and work to repair relationships, trust, policies and blighted or disconnected built environments.
Operational structures are too often low on the list of priorities of social change institutions or initiatives. In my experience, our everyday structures and practices contribute to our broader missions and visions for our communities. Every interaction, every process, every structure is an opportunity to build respectful relationships with each other and those we serve – to exhibit our duty as public servants, to center constituents. Developing the Collective Impact infrastructure for HOPE SF presented the opportunity not only to operationalize the results of an ambitious initiative, but more importantly to create a healing organization (Figure 1).