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Signs of System Change

Society is beginning to recognize that the problems we face- hunger, homelessness, poverty, disease- are systemic in nature. These problems involve a group of actors, often very different from each other, who each play a role in maintaining status quo (or changing it). Collective impact is an approach to solving these complex, systemic problems by aligning those disparate actors to a common agenda, allowing them to work together for change.

We’ve been learning a lot lately about the power of collective impact to change systems in order to change lives. We’ve learned that collective impact can change the way an education system operates so that more kids graduate from high school ready to enter college and the workforce. It’s transforming a juvenile justice system to provide more young people in crisis with the opportunity for a better life. It’s fighting hunger around the world or substance abuse in neighborhoods around the United States.

Those are macro level changes. Those are the changes that take years of hard work and commitment of many passionate people tackling social challenges in order to make their communities strong and vibrant. Collective impact involves one group of people trying to influence another group to change their behavior so that yet another group of people changes theirs.  It’s those intermediate steps of behavior change that lead to ultimate impact on an entire system of actors.

For example: FSG has been working with the Tackling Youth Substance Abuse (TYSA) coalition in Staten Island to fight youth alcohol and prescription drug abuse. What is the system at work here? It’s parents, teachers, adults, pharmacists, physicians, treatment providers, coaches, faith-based organizations, businesses, and so many others whose behavior has the ability to impact teens and their the rate of substance abuse.

In Staten Island, the TYSA Steering Committee and workgroups are designing and executing strategies to change the behavior of those system actors to reach the ultimate target, the young people. They are starting to have a visible impact, even after just a short period of time.

  • One workgroup is planning a series of trainings on a tool to screen for youth substance abuse. Their ultimate goal is to train as many adults who come into contact with youth as possible, from probation officers to baseball coaches. This tool will allow adults to identify youth with potential issues, and thus get more young people the help they need.
  •  Another workgroup is creating a best practices guide for pharmacists to educate them on the roles they can play in decreasing prescription drug misuse and abuse. While a policy change may occur in the future, this guide is an intermediate means of supporting pharmacists as they try to change their behavior to promote healthy outcomes.    

These are early signs of systems change. They represent the efforts of one group (the workgroup) to change the behavior of another (coaches and pharmacists) in order to change the lives of young people on Staten Island. Those are the many faces of a system ripe for change.            

    Erin White

    Former Associate Director, FSG