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:

The power to transcend paradigms 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 embedded 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.