This first installment in a series on equity and collective impact shares insights into how a backbone organization can amplify grassroots efforts to achieve equitable systems change.

In Oakland, CA, one of the most racially diverse cities in the U.S., too many boys and young men of color face life-threatening challenges on the path to adulthood. In the city’s African American, Latino, Native-Indigenous, Southeast Asian and Asian/Pacific Islander communities, neighborhood-based organizations have shown great creativity and determination in reaching young men and supporting them to navigate those challenges so that they can thrive. Through engaging in a collective impact process, these grassroots organizations now are poised to align their efforts, increase their impact and offer lessons to other communities.

This is the first of a two-part series on insights about equity in collective impact emerging from Urban Strategies Council’s work in Oakland, CA. This series explores how the process of working with an explicit equity agenda across communities and systems can strengthen very local, grassroots efforts in particular ethnic communities and simultaneously build system-wide capacity to identify and address disparities.

Gender/Ethnicity Equity Lens Focusing on Boys and Young Men of Color

Early in this decade, Urban Strategies Council had two major opportunities to bring our equity-focused expertise to community-wide initiatives with a gender/ethnicity lens: one was as convener of the Oakland-Alameda County Alliance for Boys and Men of Color (the Alliance); the other was as an early partner in the Oakland Unified School District’s Office of African American Male Achievement. The Alliance is an effort of public systems and community partners to improve health, education and employment outcomes for boys and men of color through effective policy and programs. The Office of African American Male Achievement is a district-wide reform effort to eliminate the disparities in academic and social outcomes that face African American male students from preschool on.

Culturally-focused manhood development programs emerged early on as a common strategy among community-based organizations in the Alliance. These school-and community-based programs, led by men who share the participants’ cultural/ethnic background, promote positive models of masculinity and include mentorship, rites of passage and cultural values for creating respectful, caring and supportive relationships with each other, with adult men, and with women and girls. Before coming together through the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, many of these small ethnically and neighborhood-focused programs were unaware of each other’s work.

alt text here Alameda County is a racially diverse community with no single ethnic or racial group making up a majority of the population of boys and young men.

Prioritizing Participation of Grassroots Community-Based Organizations

Connecting to a collective impact initiative has the potential to amplify the successes of hyper-local efforts by providing them a way to scale their reach.

Due to the usually thin staffing and limited financial resources in grassroots organizations, these groups are among those least likely to participate in the leadership of collective impact initiatives that do not operate with an explicit focus on racial, gender, or economic equity. (The extensive time required to fully engage in collective impact efforts can be prohibitively costly for small organizations.) Yet the experience in Oakland suggests that these organizations have developed some of the insights that collective impact initiatives most need. Learning what works for specific groups of young people – e.g. Southeast Asian young men who have experienced trauma, formerly incarcerated African American young men, Native/Indigenous young fathers, Latino young men facing immigration status challenges – is an essential step in achieving the community-level goals that drive collective impact initiatives. At the same time, connecting to a collective impact initiative has the potential to amplify the successes of hyper-local efforts by providing them a way to scale their reach.

To make participation in the Alliance more appealing to smaller organizations, Urban Strategies Council drew on our staff’s well developed network of relationships with community-based providers and advocates, which we have developed over decades. In addition, we made sure that the agendas of both the community partners table and the joint table that draws together system leaders and community partners were responsive to the needs and priorities of smaller organizations. As part of our fundraising role as backbone, we consistently have sought funding to pay for some of the staff time that community-based organizations devote to the collective effort.

Jointly Increasing Impact and Scale

As the Council and our community partners surveyed the landscape of culturally-focused manhood development programs, including their geographic location and target populations, the need to strengthen, scale, and sustain these programs became clear; each was producing promising early outcomes but even together they do not have the capacity to reach the majority of boys and young men of color in Oakland.

The practitioners forcefully articulated the need also to recognize practice-based evidence.

To help the various manhood development programs become truly mutually reinforcing, the Council convened a new working table of the Alliance – the Culturally-Focused Manhood Development Learning Community. This table initiated conversations among manhood development practitioners about articulating the evidence base for their programs. The practitioners forcefully articulated the need also to recognize practice-based evidence – the knowledge emerging from innovative work in communities not often represented in research. Social Policy Research Associates, a firm conducting process evaluation of the Alliance, produced a portfolio that highlights both the evidence-based practices and the practice-based evidence that inform the innovative work happening in Oakland around manhood development.

Backbone as Bridge

In this case, Urban Strategies Council, as backbone organization for the Alliance, was able to function as a bridge between smaller ethnic and neighborhood-focused practitioners and the community-wide effort to improve outcomes for boys and men of color, and among those organizations. This bridging is helping them articulate the evidence base for their work, create a learning community among manhood development practitioners to strengthening program design and delivery, as well as serving as a forum through which to identify common issues and pursue a common agenda.


Image source: Flickr user Christopher Chan, Oakland Bay Bridge. CC by 2.0.