Reflections on the Tamarack Institute Collective Impact Summit: Lifting up Community Voice

John Brown is 19 years old and from the 75215 zip code in South Dallas, Texas. He’s been in and out of the system 3 times since he turned 14 – both juvenile detention and federal incarceration. His community is 70% African-American with under-enrolled public schools, high rates of joblessness and off-the chart STD rates compared to the city average. 70% of the population doesn’t have access to a car, yet there are minimal public transportation options. 93% of the homes in the area are worth less than $100,000 and the region is a food desert – there is little-to no access to fresh produce. 49% of the community does not have a high school diploma or an equivalency and South Dallas has lost 54% of its population between 1970 and 2000, leaving a predominantly poor community with few options to climb the American economic ladder of opportunity.

When John appears before the judge about a parole violation – failing to arrive for a check-in with his PO due to a bus never showing up – he’s asked, “Why are we here today?” To that, he asks himself, “How in the world could I not end up here today?”

John Brown is a fictitious individual with factual statistics – a young African-American male in the South Dallas / Fair Park area of Texas near the fairgrounds, has likely lived Mr. Brown’s reality. I spent the bulk of a Collective Impact Summit engaged in conversation about how our well-intentioned social sector can support people like John in pursuit of realized opportunity. There was much discussion of the “Spiral of Community Engagement” (the magnetism that genuinely engaged stakeholders have on other stakeholders), the importance of trust (progress moves at the speed of trust) and putting agendas aside for the greater good in collective impact.

 The communal goal-setting (common agenda), structure (backbone support, mutually reinforcing activities, and continuous communication) and rigor (shared metrics) of the collective impact framework have proven complementary to the collaborative conundrum we’ve encountered in South Dallas with the WINS Initiative over the past year at FSG. WINS – Working in Neighborhoods Strategically – is a resident-led public-private collaboration committed to leveraging the power of collective impact to revitalize the South Dallas/Fair Park community (zip codes 75215, 75210, and 75223) by improving the livelihoods and quality of life for its residents. WINS serves as the backbone organization for the initiative, providing ongoing support by guiding the initiative’s vision and strategy, supporting aligned activities with several other initiatives and individuals in the area focused on similar issues areas. In partnership with Relational Organizing guru, Jim Capraro, we’ve tapped into the genuine community engagement with resident and organizational leaders that we discussed at length at the Collective Impact Summit in Toronto. With fiscal support from the Children’s Health System of Texas [the commissioner of the project] over the next two years, we are on-the-path to a powerful example of comprehensive community change that capitalizes on systems level resources and community-driven and engaged solutions.

Yet, I would argue that at face value, our collaborative solution is lacking. It makes hidden and largely unnamed assumptions about the ability of the systems and institutions with which we partner to co-create solutions with residents like John Brown, who legally have no voice John is a formerly incarcerated citizen in a country where ‘formerly incarcerated’ decreases the protections of the average ‘citizen.’ John can be legally discriminated against in housing, employment and access to federal welfare benefits. John cannot vote.  And while there are job training programs, few link to actual jobs at part-time or full-time levels, and they are rarely above the minimum wage. In a community that hopes to attract businesses and jobs, the lack of on-the-books income perpetuates the lack of opportunity in the area.

In a community where socioeconomic realities of poverty correlate with dismal indicators in health, education, safety and employment, it clearly begs the question of how we co-create solutions and incite participation with the disenfranchised populations that are systemically set up to fail. Numbers of formerly incarcerated individuals returning home in Dallas on average were at about 40 individuals per zip code in 2009- in South Dallas that number was 400. Attacking symptoms of a failing system may provide acute relief to the communities we serve, and these efforts are valid and necessary. It is at the same time, imperative that we are aware of and address the criminalization of poverty as the chronic and systemic condition it is, for long-term and enduring social solutions that are inclusive of all.

Over the past few weeks, the WINS  Initiative has begun its Work Group Planning Process, reviewing data and utilizing community-generated landscape scans to identify areas of urgency. Resident and organization champions have been pulled together to co-lead each of our five work groups: Education, Economic Development, Safety & Security, Housing, and Health. It is at the intersection of these broad community-identified focus areas that the systemic and institutional dialogue and strategy, has emerged in South Dallas. Resident leaders bring grassroots and real-time perspectives of issues to the discussion; organization leaders contribute their expertise in system complexity – all framed within the structure and rigor of collective impact. Synergies between focus areas, common stakeholders and shared metrics are central to conversations and the Spiral of Community Engagement pulls in the voices of additional community members – friends, relatives and colleagues of resident leaders. 

It is through the Spiral that John has a voice. Policy planning and strategies are informed by residents – informed by John. User perspectives of system blind spots and gaps in service provision are accounted for in discussion of community-appropriate solutions. And the struggles of John’s entire family and community are humanized through the friendships and trust that are generated through the authenticity of consistent intentional community engagement in the area.

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