Part 1 in a series on the topic
A colleague recently shared with me this post from the witty (and insightful) blogger, Vu Le, of Nonprofit With Balls: Is Equity the New Coconut Water. In it, Le discusses how in the philanthropic community, discussions of “equity” have become faddish, yet programs and initiatives developed in the name of equity actually perpetuate inequity for low income communities and communities of color—“dissonance in equity”, as the author describes it, or “Fakequity”, as another post discusses.
The article reminded me of the work that I helped build at the DC Trust through the Communities on the Rise (COR) initiative, Washington DC’s first place-based, multi-year youth-focused collective impact initiative. True equity work is difficult. In part: It is about undoing large multi-layered systems with significant history and weight. Many philanthropic organizations are funded by the very systems that equity work seeks to dismantle. There are no formal “schools” (at least institutions of higher education) where one can learn how to do equity work, so those in the funding community who have been trained in those institutions might not have a theoretical and practical knowledge base to equip them to do the work.
As Le notes, to truly level the playing field in philanthropy, to make it equitable for low income communities and communities of color, requires redesigning many cogs, or really, redesigning the entire system itself. Communities on the Rise was a stab at righting the system.
While the COR initiative is far from perfect, and while we understand that it is a work in progress, an iterative process that involves significant listening, learning, and re-drafting, it represents a radical departure from the oftentimes patronizing approach of many community development initiatives, the sometimes inequitable demands of funders, and the siloed work at the government level. I will share my thoughts on both the theory and the challenges of praxis from this living process in multiple parts, each post focusing on one key aspect of the whole.
First, a bit of background…
The Rise of Communities on the Rise (COR)
The Communities on the Rise initiative was born from more than four years of interagency work within Washington, DC government, coordinated by the DC Trust on behalf of the executive administration of Mayor Gray. Dubbed the One City Summer Initiative (or One City Summer Fun Initiative), this collaborative work was initially envisioned as a summer youth crime reduction strategy. Each summer the Metropolitan Police Department city would identify a number of neighborhoods that, during the course of the year, had seen a high level of youth crime. The DC Trust then layered onto the crime data other data points relating to youth development and wellness (academic proficiency, high school completion, domestic violence, obesity, unemployment, poverty, etc.) to select a number of “target areas”. Over the ten weeks of summer, all the largest District agencies would rally their troops and outlay additional funds to offer programs, events, and services to the youth and families in those neighborhoods. These included recreational activities, academic enrichment programs, wellness visits and workshops and community celebrations.
This effort was successful, in the myopic sense that youth violent crime decreased during the weeks of engagement. However, as one would suspect, no real sustained impact was seen. In fact, many of the neighborhoods targeted in 2010 remained on the “hot list” each successive year. This is because once the summer ended, the targeted focus would also end, leaving the youth and families once again without opportunities and services to thrive.
It was clear to all involved that a new approach would have to be taken if the City really wanted to change the outcomes for the youth and families in the most marginalized “at risk” neighborhoods. When the team at the Trust really began digging into neighborhood-level data and conducted focus groups and participant interviews, the complexity and scope of the problems really began to emerge.
Aside from the very significant systemic issues found in the large institutions the community residents interact with (school system, justice system, public welfare system, etc.), some of the other reasons this well-intentioned but short-sighted first iteration of work failed to produce lasting outcomes for youth and families in the neighborhoods are:
- The length of engagement had been limited to summer months, when clearly the risk factors that created the negative developmental outcomes existed year-round. No large scale, cross-sector, year-round efforts had existed focused on youth development outcomes.
- Community residents had largely been left out of the planning and development process. Efforts had always been brought to them and put on them, without empowering and engaging them to help guide and lead the efforts.
- Efforts had focused on funding singular programs in communities, and those programs typically were not networked, did not share information, and did not work collaboratively.
- Many of the programs deeply embedded in the communities, those that had strong relationships with the youth and families there, did not have strong organizational capacity, and so could not offer services consistently or at the quality and scale needed.
- There was no guiding infrastructure in place to help formalize, focus, and support the work—no shared goals and outcomes held by all programs and agencies, no division of labor and responsibilities, no communications systems and feedback loops between the various stakeholders, etc.
Though by no means comprehensive, this list of issues was where we started when designing the Communities on the Rise initiative—hoping to build a more equitable system and create real change for the most underserved youth and families in Washington, DC.