When Reinventing Isn’t Just a Catchphrase

So, what happens when county school superintendents, the mayor of the county seat, major institutions and companies big and small throw out the playbook for how secondary and post-secondary education was always run and join up on the same team?  It might just lead to reinventing an entire region and re-envisioning its future.

The Yadkin Valley Regional Career Academy in Davidson County – only in its second year of operation, but 10 years in the making – grew out of a conversation about the future of the county, sparked by the North Carolina New Schools initiative.  New Schools adherents commit to ensuring that every student graduates high school “ready for college, careers and life.”  Students in Davidson, and neighboring counties, though, were going in the opposite direction.

Over the last decade Davidson County, which is part of the Piedmont Triad, lost 5,500 manufacturing jobs, primarily in textiles and furniture.  These were family-supporting jobs that didn’t require post-secondary education or training, which meant college-going was not a tradition.  Indeed, high school completion wasn’t necessarily a priority.  When those jobs moved off, and new jobs arrived, the workers weren’t prepared to take them on.

The “first response” effort was on re-engaging displaced workers through postsecondary education or certification.  But what about upcoming generations?  A culture of higher education striving and attainment doesn’t happen overnight.  It has to be built.

In collective impact fashion, Triad education, workforce, civic and business leaders came together to explore what kind of high school experience not only could overcome the education deficits many area students had, but also inspire students and their families to set their sights on learning beyond 12th grade, and prepare them to succeed on that path.  They believed that finding a new way to move their young people onto higher education was how they could reinvigorate their region and economy and sustain it into the future. [Read more…]

Collaborative Heroes

Battling philosophies on the best way to reform K-12 education, especially large, urban systems, in the U.S. seem to have made one thing very clear:  schools, alone, can’t catch all of America’s kids up to where they should be.  Enlightened school system management, strong principals, well-trained and motivated teachers and engaging curricula are essential, of course.  But children need to arrive at school conditioned to learn.  They need to be encouraged to stretch and succeed.  They need to be well nourished and well rested.  They need to feel safe and secure.

So, with the tremendous daily challenges school districts face, how can they meet that scale and kind of needs? Partnerships became the easy answer.  Let non-profits, community organizations, even businesses help fill the gap.  On a case-by-case basis, many partnerships had meaningful, positive impact.  But school districts also began to find themselves drowning in partnerships – all well meaning—but most doing their own thing their own way and with little coherence between programs, schools and, most important, in their interactions with students.

That’s where we’ve seen the collective impact process have real effect, particularly the “backbone” organization aspect.  In our work with the Boston Opportunity Agenda, stemming summer learning loss emerged as a priority to help achieve the Opportunity Agenda’s goal for significant increase in the number of Boston Public School (BPS) students on track for high school graduation.  The idea was to reshape summer learning – to fuse enrichment with academics, to build personal strengths along with educational advancement, and to expand students’ horizons.

But how to do that?  The first answer was to pull together recreational and cultural providers and team them up with BPS principals, administrators and teachers and design a new system of summer learning.  The planning process yielded shared goals, consensus on how to achieve them and agreement on an unprecedented level of information sharing on students and information exchange and training between BPS and the consortium of summer partners.

The second answer was to find a trusted and capable backbone organization to keep the planning moving forward (the timeframe was ambitious:  nine months) and to manage implementation.  A non-profit, Boston After School & Beyond (Boston Beyond, http://www.bostonbeyond.org/), was the hands-down choice.  Boston Beyond began as an entity charged with mapping all the out of school enrichment programs for Boston children and youth and building a website that parents, or kids, could access to make plans for afterschool and summer.  In this context, it was clear that Boston Beyond had the contacts, the funding to support its initial involvement, the credibility, a savvy staff and, most important, the vision to bring this new system of summer learning to life. [Read more…]

Tension between Convergence and Divergence

In collective impact, coming to consensus on vision and goals is like a dance held in the tension between convergence and divergence.  Partners choose to come together to solve a difficult problem but they can come from such different places and purposes it is hard work to identify the common ground and then navigate the differences.  That, however, is where the beauty of collective impact lies, mining those in-between spaces to find a whole new expression of how to reach the goals.

It’s also our experience that the same kind of creative tension exists between intentionality and emergence.  Goals certainly must be intentional in order to maintain a clear focus on the way forward.  And the means of measuring that progress must be intentional and agreed upon during the planning of any initiative.  But what collective impact is showing us is that there is room between intentionality and emergence – where new insights, new opportunities, even complementary goals, can arise.  Hewing to goals is important, but not at the expense of a better solution or better result that can emerge as the work progresses.

A number of years ago I worked with a project focused on providing coordinated services to families of children with disabilities in the far east of Russia. The broad vision was that children with disabilities would live at home with their parents, and families would receive the necessary supports and early interventions to care for their children. The norm at that time was to institutionalize children when they were diagnosed with a disability—virtually any disability. [Read more…]

The Meaning of Place in Collective Impact

A generational shift has happened in the U.S.  Now, the qualities of the place where we live and work and play – the qualities of the place we call our hometown – are as important if not more than the job itself.  This is a significant departure from the Baby Boom era, where the career ladder trumped place and an acronym like IBM stood for a corporate giant as much as a common corporate practice:  “I’ve Been Moved.”  The young talent generations are working to live, rather than living to work.

So, that has big implications on a number of fronts.  For communities looking to attract and keep the talent generation, it means examining their strengths as a “Place” and, if they’re found wanting, building a strong Place Identity.  We would argue, too, in connection with Collective Impact, that Place Identity is a prerequisite for successful collaboration.  A shared Place Identity binds people together and is a crucial source of motivation to aspire to something better, to reach for lasting solutions to difficult problems.

At the heart of creating a great place is entering a process to examine these kinds of issues:

  1. What is the competitive advantage of your place?  What is your place getting right?  For instance, when visitors come, what tops the list of things to see or do or experience?  Study your history, your geography, your economic engines, your amenities, your culture, your institutions and your landmarks.  Building off the strengths you discover equips you to meet the challenges of things that aren’t right, and is the first step to creating a strong Place Identity.
  2.  When people love the place they live there are tangible links to economic vitality and growth. The Knight Foundation’s “Knight Soul of the Community Project” found that relationship in cities and towns across the country.  Do residents of your place love where they are?  That fundamental bond helps groups navigate how they go forward, even if initially there are very different views on how best to do that.
  3. If your Place Identity is weak or if residents are more dissatisfied than in love, it’s easier to be random in community pursuits or “sell out” – that is to pursue development or amenities or other ideas that have worked in other places, but ultimately don’t ring true to your community’s Place Identity.  Misalignment with your core identity can doom even the most promising looking initiative.

Knowing your Place Identity, and being able to bring that identity to life in a way people can relate to and take pride in, is the critical first step in creating the common ground necessary for effective community problem-solving and collective impact.  It is as important to the healthy development of places as it is to the people who live in them.

Making Change Stick

Making collective impact work starts by underscoring the collective part.  Our alliance believes that when communities truly create change together, it is change that withstands funding cycles, election results, leadership and generational shifts.  It is change that sticks.

One of the hardest concepts to embrace when working on social problems is the idea that everyone brings something of real value to the table.  Lip service is easy.  Community input for the sake of inclusion is relatively easy.  The belief that everyone in a community has the understanding to shape smart thinking, and has resources to bring to a solution, is much more difficult.  But, that’s the path to a stronger solution and one that has lasting impact.

Social problems derive, in part, from the deficiency we all experience when we can’t be our best selves and fulfill our full human potential – either due to poverty, oppression, lack of opportunity, isolation or a number of other reasons.  Solutions must welcome, embrace and employ the “best stuff” from everyone involved.  Designing a solution, then, must be rooted in giving everyone touched by the problem a chance to contribute his or her best stuff.

The “best stuff” idea comes from a terrific mentor of mine named Bill Traynor.  For 30 years, Bill has worked as a community builder, running some of the most innovative programs out there including, among others, Lawrence Community Works in Lawrence, MA, and Neighboring America.  [http://risingclass.org/stories/entry/bill-traynor] Among the many things Bill taught me was the idea that the best solutions happen when you conscientiously design opportunities for interaction that:

  •  recognize and value what resources, knowledge, expertise and commitment every person can bring;
  • facilitate genuine exchange of those resources in an environment that feels free of class, position and institutional power;
  • make room for people who spark something together to take action on it together. [Read more…]

Orchestrating Real Change

There’s never been a more important time for collaboration to meet our society’s challenges.  Human service budgets are under tremendous pressure.  Fragmented programs have proven ineffective in improving health, education and economic advancement on a large scale.  And communities are fed up with stale debates about ideology and policy.  They want progress, and sense they’re going to have to work in new ways to get it.

My organization has helped build social causes for more than two decades.  We’ve worked on many of the big issues of our time – from snuffing out smoking to ensuring that children are ready to succeed in school.  And lately we’ve been seeing a promising trend.

The old joke calls partnership “an unnatural act performed by reluctant adults.”  But now, leaders in major cities are combining their efforts and resources to achieve universal literacy, high graduation rates and postgraduate success.  Health organizations and non-profits are working together to reduce problems, like obesity, that drive our skyrocketing health costs.  More and more communities are coming together around the questions of, “How can we become great places to live and work?” [Read more…]