These five steps are practical ways that collective impact partnerships can begin to address issues of equity.

Earlier this year, we shared insights from an ongoing conversation among select cradle-to-career partnerships about how to leverage collective impact efforts to address disparities across different races, classes and cultures.

Since then we’ve continued the conversation through monthly calls and in-person convenings with this group of partnerships. While we’re still learning about the many different ways to advance equity goals through collective impact, the conversations helped to identify a preliminary list of concrete steps partnerships can take to reduce local disparities. We offer these as just a few of the several ways that collective impact partnerships can begin to address issues of equity.

1. Be mindful of language and how you frame the conversation.

Incorporating equity considerations into collective impact will almost always require courageous conversations among all stakeholders involved. Yet different phrasing can trigger different reactions with different communities or types of partners. For this reason, partnerships need be sensitive to local narratives when framing conversations about equity. Language can very easily lead to charged and unproductive conversations, especially when opening up discussions about race or class. Establishing shared terminology can be an important part of framing these conversations.

Partnerships need be sensitive to local narratives when framing conversations about equity.

One specific tool for effectively framing conversations about equity is the Head, Heart and Hands framework developed by Jarrod Schwartz and Just Communities (which was adapted from a model by Anthony Neal). The framework emphasizes the importance of grappling with issues of equity from both an intellectual space (the head) as well as a personal, emotional space (the heart) before moving to action (the hands). Collective impact partnerships are often very comfortable and skilled with data and theories (the head), but need to be more intentional about taking the time to understand the stories behind the data (the heart). Framing equity conversations so that there is time for both is essential for landing on the best action moving forward.

2. Seek outside expertise.

Understanding structural equity often requires some learning. Luckily, plenty of resources, tools and organizations exist that either have this capacity or are able to build it within people. If you are looking to tackle topics such as racial equity, you can tap local expertise to bring in added capacity to your collective impact effort. While your partnership doesn’t need to be the “expert” in equity, the backbone does need to have an explicit equity lens. And while it can understandably feel risky, backbones shouldn’t be afraid to introduce courageous conversations around race, class or culture.

Two examples of partnerships that have engaged local equity experts are All Hands Raised in Portland, which partners with the Coalition of Communities of Color, and THRIVE Santa Barbara, which partners with Just Communities. In both cases, the additional capacity significantly helped advance efforts to address racial inequities.

Community officials and representatives stand outside a home in Baltimore.

3. Assess community readiness and meet stakeholders where they are.

There’s no cookie cutter approach for explicitly integrating equity into collective impact work. Depending on where the community, the staff or the leadership may be in their understanding of structural equity issues, the steps you take to incorporate an equity lens can look very different. In some communities, the first step is simply be bringing everyone together in the same room. In others, deeper conversations around topics like racial equity might be possible. Regardless of your community’s readiness to address structural inequality, there is always an entry point. In Dallas, two local family foundations recognized that their community needed to build the capacity for conversations around race and racial equity. With this capacity building as a starting point, they’ve since engaged over 250 organizations and 700 individuals wanting to build these skills by offering a series of racial equity workshops for different audiences, including teachers, students and nonprofit leaders.

Community readiness is critical to understand, yet also difficult to assess. Luckily, tools currently exist to help in this process. In Portland, All Hands Raised and Coalition of Communities of Color developed a tool for organizations to identify how their currently policies and practices influence racial equity. This organizational self-assessment tool allows partner organizations to gather baseline information and identify growth opportunities for organizational change to improve outcomes for children of color.

4. Disaggregate data to show disparities & shape the community narrative.

Collecting and sharing data on disparities is one starting point for equity conversations in collective impact partnerships. Partnerships should identify local disparities and use that to guide what disaggregated data is reported. If disparity in the community shows up along sex or class lines, then break down data by those dimensions. Different communities will often see different disparities, which may also vary by indicator or partnership focus. In Seattle, the Road Map Project releases its annual report card disaggregating data by race and class. While they don’t disaggregate each indicator by both race and socio-economic status, they do disaggregate based on the local disparity identified. See examples here and here.

Disaggregated data also serves the critical role of building a shared community narrative on equity. The use of disaggregated data can shape local narratives in several ways, such as by bringing about awareness of local disparities or by countering and replacing commonly held narratives. In some cases, this narrative-shaping will happen only when you unpack the disaggregated data to look for the deeper stories that underlie or counter common narratives. Without this intentionality, disaggregated data can run the risk of reinforcing commonly held narratives. In Santa Barbara, Just Communities was able to use disaggregated data to help shift the local narrative away from blaming parents for student performance and towards the structural causes of racial disparities.

5. Equitably include and empower community members.

Collective impact approaches run the risk of reinforcing inequality when they solely consist of institutional stakeholders (i.e., those formally in power). The intentional and equitable inclusion of low-income communities and communities of color in the design and implementation of collective impact efforts is thus one step partnerships can take to advance equity. In the case of cradle to career efforts, the parents and youth who efforts seek to benefit are themselves best equipped to shape those efforts (i.e., they’re the context experts). This inclusion of community expertise should occur at all levels and should occur equitably by creating targeted opportunities around the unique needs of those historically disengaged from civic decision-making.

Of course, the onus of creating the right conditions for authentic and equitable engagement is on the partnership. For example, Just Communities in Santa Barbara ensures Spanish-speaking residents are able to authentically participate in meetings by providing two-way interpretation services instead of only having non-English speakers wear headphone and listen to translations. These efforts helped create meeting spaces without a dominant language.

Collective impact efforts need to be intentional about dismantling structural racial and class inequality in order to truly transform systems into more equitable ones. While certainly not exhaustive, this list outlines some initial ways collective impact partnerships can advance conversations on equity. Systems change requires behavior change at both individual and organizational levels, and the first step in changing behavior is raising awareness and understanding.

We hope these five practical steps are useful in starting the equity conversation in your community, and to making the necessary shift to see systemic change in addressing local race and class disparities.

This post also appeared on the StriveTogether Blog.