Collective Impact, Privilege, and Empathy

Collective impact is a promising approach for addressing complex problems – those which are ever-changing, interconnected, and cannot be solved by a single actor.

Right now, there is a great conversation about the importance of equity issues within the context of multi-stakeholder collective impact efforts. Juan Sebastian Arias, from Living Cities, described the growing national conversation. Arias highlighted the importance of integrating voices of those often left out of decision-making processes into what can be institution-heavy collaborative efforts. As Jeff Raderstrong, also from Living Cities, put it, “Collective impact is fundamentally about systems change” – and “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.” More recently, Junious Williams and Sarah Marxer provided excellent suggestions for how to incorporate an equity lens into each of the five components of collective impact (common agenda, shared measurement, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and backbone support). The importance of this conversation caused me to reflect on my own understanding of equity in my personal life and my work.

I have no doubt I am a beneficiary of white privilege. I am also a mixed-heritage first-generation American who worked hard to earn my way and cares deeply about diversity, equity and inclusion. I am fortunate to have found a home here at FSG, where I have the opportunity to work on collective impact efforts around the country, often with an equity lens (see the Lumina Latino Student Success work and Washington State’s Essentials for Childhood effort for two examples).

So what does it mean for me to confront my privilege? How can I increase my capacity for understanding the experiences of others? I’ve come across some resources I found helpful and wanted to share them here with you.

In May of this year, I participated in a half-day workshop put on by the City of Seattle’s Restorative Justice Initiative to learn about how restorative justice circles can serve as an alternative to charging people formally for low-level crimes. In September, I attended a Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training. The course taught us how to offer initial help in a mental health crisis, and serves as a complement to more traditional forms of first aid response. Both experiences helped me develop a further understanding of and ability to practice empathy.

Merriam-Webster defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.” How can we seek to affect change in our society without understanding the range of individual experiences and perspectives which make up a community? I believe empathy is a critical and necessary tool in collectively pursuing social progress. As an action, it is an approach we can practice and improve at over time. Empathy enables us to be vulnerable and ask what is going on under the surface, and to be open to the sometimes difficult truths we may find. This applies to interpersonal interactions as well as to our own internal inquiry, which allows us to more effectively connect to and empathize with others (see Brene Brown’s fantastic short film on the power of empathy to see what I mean).

I’ve learned a lot by examining my own experiences and contrasting them with the experiences of others. Listening and sharing back were key principles behind the power of the restorative justice workshop. In the MHFA training, we learned a five-step action plan heavily focused on how to listen non-judgmentally and engage in an authentic two-way dialogue – an action plan that generates empathy. I also had the chance to practice these tools with fellow community members who had faced a wide range of lived experiences. These trainings furthered my understanding of myself while also helping me vicariously experience and better understand the experiences of others in my community.

I would love to learn from you! How have you been able to practice empathy? What tools or resources would you recommend? Please share them below.


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