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Working Together for Equitable Systems Change

A few years ago, I came to a realization I imagine is all too familiar to many of us working in the social impact space. As the grandchild of sharecroppers and domestics, I know that change is possible, and I have dedicated my career to driving positive change in communities of need. In my case, that meant helping to generate resources and support for deserving organizations working to transform public education. Yet after nearly ten years expanding high-performing charter networks and scaling innovative school support interventions, it had become difficult for me to identify the meaningful, sustainable, and scalable change my work had achieved.

This is not to say there were not bright spots of impact, encouraging data stories, and individual lives transformed. But it was all quite fragile, threatened by any shift in school district leadership or change in philanthropic strategy. For all of my effort and good intentions, I had become complicit in a broken system that was not producing the outcomes any actor in the system envisioned. This realization launched a new personal exploration; instead of seeking to uplift any one intervention as the solution, I began seeking to understand the levers to bring transformative change at scale. I began to see what’s possible when we work across sectors and effectively knit together practice, policy, and culture. I also began to see the pitfalls when our field and movement-building efforts ignore any one of these elements.

Most recently, my exploration led me to co-create a youth-led, youth-designed initiative called the State of Young People, where we not only put young people at the center, but actually ceded and shared our decision-making power with them. Being in community with those young leaders was a transformative experience and forced me to confront another troubling reality of my career. How many times had I been in board meetings, strategic planning sessions, and other privileged decision-making tables with the very community we were seeking to support excluded from the conversation? Again, for all of my effort and good intentions to advance equitable outcomes, I had become complicit in a broken system that perpetuated inequity because we did not address power, who has it, and how we can share it.

Today, this personal exploration has led me to FSG, an organization on its own journey to reimagine social change. In my new role as a leader of the firm, I am excited to combine my lived experience and expertise with the tools and resources of FSG to help organizations transform their thinking and behavior. Moreover, I am excited to work in partnershipwith my colleagues, our clients, and perhaps most importantly, the very communities we seek to supportto create equitable systems change.

I share my story here from a place of hope, recognizing that the personal realization and exploration I have described is happening for individuals and organizations across the country. I share my story here from a place of honor, recognizing that we are not the first to experience these things, and our work today only builds upon the countless contributions of those who came before us. And I share my story here from a place of humility, recognizing that I don’t have all the answers, but stand ready to create a more equitable and sustainable future together.

John Harper

Managing Director