“When I use the term equity, I mean just and fair inclusion into a society where all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential. The work of equity is to create the conditions that enable that to happen.”
– Angela Glover Blackwell, PolicyLink
Glover Blackwell was joined on stage in a follow-up discussion with William Buster, W.K. Kellogg Foundation; Ray Colmenar, The California Endowment; Ashleigh Gardere, Office of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu; and Steve Patrick, Aspen Forum for Community Solutions.
Transcript (Angela Glover Blackwell’s Opening Remarks):
Good morning. I am so happy to see so many of you out for this particular conversation.
This is really exciting and I just want to start off by sharing with you an experience that I had in Oakland, California that I think has real relevance for what it is that you’re doing here.
This was back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and I was at the Urban Strategies Council then, where Junious is now, and one of the things that we did was that we started off (this will sound so old school; you’ve moved so far beyond this), but we started off putting data using GPS to be able to actually show where things were concentrating, and we started disaggregating the data by race, and we looked at all the things that impact children in their development.
One of the things that we did was that we disaggregated by race and place the infant mortality rates in Oakland, California. And what we found when we did that is that there were neighborhoods in Oakland where the infant mortality rate was three to four times what it was nationally, and the difference between the infant mortality rate in the white community and the black community was really quite astounding.
The community really got energized around understanding this data, thinking about a way to solve this problem in Oakland, California, and to be able to come together and make it a high priority. At the same time that the Urban Strategies Council put out this data, the head of healthcare services for Alameda County (the county which Oakland sits) named Dave Kears, decided that he was going to make this an important issue for the healthcare agency. Dave Kears was an extraordinary leader.
What Dave did is that he pulled together all the community actors that would have anything to do with solving this problem, and the Urban Strategies Council worked directly with him in framing and setting this table and setting the agenda, and beginning to figure out how we are going to talk about this. To this table came the faith leaders, the neighborhood leaders, the education leaders, the social service providers, people from social work and probation, everybody came to this table. We met around a huge table where at least 65 people would show up for the meeting every time we met. It was amazing. To have that many people sitting around, looking at the data and understanding what was going on. The private physicians who worked in the community, most of whom were black, were sitting around the table with the people who were running the community clinics.
The first thing that happened was that the people who ran the Asian health center and the Latino health center said, “This data says we have not been spending the money properly that has been coming into our community.” What would happen is they would send out data about where the problems were coming into the county and the county would just spread it across the community. All of the agencies got equal amounts. They said, “Infant mortality is not a problem in the Asian and Latino communities and is a huge problem in the black community. Know that we are here as your partners and the only thing we will do with our resources if you want us to is to help in the black community, or we will give up the resources so they will all go to the clinics and the other groups working on the problem.”
The churches said, “We’re right in the neighborhoods where infant mortality is the biggest problem. We are in touch with the families, or we ought to be. How can we begin to have community baby showers? How can we begin to put some of the women in church in touch with young mothers or in touch with to-be mothers to make sure that we get on top of this problem?”
A whole bunch of things like that happened. It can be a long story. But you get the feel of it. So, what happened was that this data, this collective group, this collaborative, this focus on the result, put Oakland in a perfect position when the federal Healthy Start applications came down, and communities were invited to be able to apply for a substantial amount of money to reduce infant mortality by 50%. Of course, Oakland applied with this complete support of this whole apparatus. Of course they got one of the grants, and of course, Oakland, California was the first city of all the Healthy Start communities to reduce infant mortality by 50%.
It came together because there was an authentic problem that the community identified as a community. They came together to be able to identify that problem and use the data to be able to inform their strategies. They pooled together everyone who was touching the problem and allowed people to be able to use whatever was their knitting to make their contribution but to be clear about what they were contributing to. They constantly were looking at data to see how were we doing, where do we need to do something different. They worked with community-based organizations as full partners which is hard for government agencies. As full partners, they celebrated as they were making progress, but they did not celebrate too much until the job was done. They pulled in somebody from the community who had run one of the health clinics. Her name was Mildred Thompson to lead the effort, and I am proud to say that here, so many years later, Mildred Thompson works for me at PolicyLink, and she leads the PolicyLink Center on Health Equity in Place so that we continue to build with her extraordinary knowledge.
I think that that story has many of the elements that I know you all must be struggling with as you think about how to move forward. That it really is a story about equity. And when I use the term, what I mean is just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential, and the work of equity is to create the conditions that enable that to happen.
Now I don’t know what you’re working on. I haven’t looked at a list of all the issues. But I’m sure every issue that you’re working on is based on the notion that some people are being left behind. Whether it is education, whether it is health, whether it is employment, whether it is incarceration, but whatever it might be, you have some people who are not able to participate, prosper, and reach their full potential. And for every single individual within the group that you might be focused on, there is an individual story. And every group has a group story. And you can’t really come up with a strategy that is going to make a difference to allow all to participate, prosper, and reach their full potential if you don’t have a way of tapping into that story, of tapping into that journey.
And so equity is nothing other than what you know is common sense. Which is that if you want to achieve a goal and if people have to be involved in achieving that goal, you have to be able to look at the circumstances, the story, the abilities, the aspirations, and align the strategies to that reality.
If you have children, and certainly if you have more than one, you know that each one presents in a different way, and you also know that you hold the highest outcomes for all of them. But when you think about how to achieve that outcome, you do different things because you understand those children in different ways. The larger society is just the same. You hold an outcome; you will have to do different things depending on circumstances.
To me, the best context in which to really get a deep understanding of equity is to think about it in the context of education because we know what we want for our children and our young people in education. It’s that all will achieve at high levels, graduate, and go on to reach their full potential in careers that allow them to be fully contributing, fully participating partners in the larger society.
So, if that’s what we want, this is not a conversation about equality, is it? And that’s often how we think about education. We think about the equality of education. And we think people ought to have the same books, the same curriculum. They ought to have teachers with the same amount of training. They ought to go to school the same amount of time. Well, that may not produce the result that we want because once you lay out the result of graduating, of reaching your full potential, of going on to a career, you have to back into what the inputs might have to be.
You might have to do the kind of work that they’ve done in Harlem at the Harlem Children’s Zone where they don’t say they’re trying to do things equally. They’re trying to make sure all children achieve what they need. Some will need more time in school. Some will need teachers with a different kind of preparation. Some will need to spend more time working with parents. Because we have been engaged in a decades, decades, multiple decades long experiment in this country, and people who have had the resources have come to the conclusion that you can’t depend on school alone to make sure that children have everything they need. They need to have some summer enrichment program. They need to have afterschool programs. They need to be healthy. They need to have support at home. And so if that’s what’s needed, why do we leave that only for families that can afford to do it? At the Harlem Children’s Zone, they say if that’s what children need, we’re going to make sure that this effort provides it. Once we set a goal of what it is that we want, we have to back in to what the inputs need to be, and they probably do not need to be equal. They need to be what’s needed given the circumstance.
Think about equity in that way. If you think about equity in that way, you run right into the problem that has been the hardest for this nation. It predates the founding of this nation. And that is racism. That we live in a nation in which racism was baked into the society before the nation was born. No wonder it’s hard. No wonder it’s uncomfortable to talk about it. But when you begin to look at the circumstances that have us where we are, we have to understand the role that racism has played. And the term racism is so often associated with people who are black in America. But racism extends well beyond that.
Think about this—years ago we reformed welfare in America, and we reformed it on the image of a black woman with many children. I don’t even want to conjure up all that imagery for you because you know what it was. We reformed welfare on the image of that woman. But if you are a white woman with children who falls on hard times and you have to reach out and get support, that same system impacts you. If you are a Latina, and you fall into needing to have support in the form of welfare, that same system impacts you. So the imagery that gets backed into our policymaking impacts everybody.
And so, it’s not just that we have to lift up these systems for achieving racial equity for people who are black. We have to lift up these systems to fully tap the potential of the nation. Because what we had done, because of unaddressed images, unaddressed stereotypes, unaddressed bias, has put us in a position as a nation that no longer serves us well. And let me say a word about that.
You know that we are rapidly becoming a nation where the majority will be people of color. Very soon. By 2042, 2043, 2044—people don’t know exactly what the date is, but it’s one of those dates.
You know that it’s going to happen, but what you may not know is that since 2012, the majority of all babies born in this country are of color. That we are at a point where the majority of children in this country under five years old are of color. By the end of this decade, (and I always say we’re going through this decade like a hot knife through soft butter), by the end of this decade, the majority of all children in the United States of America, 18 and under, will be of color. By 2030, the majority of the young work force will be of color.
When I say of color, I mean people who are Native American, Asian, Latino, African-American, some combination of other. And within each one of those groups, we find there are people who are disproportionally being left behind. You know the data. I don’t need to conjure it up. I’m not even going to do the data disparity for you. You know the data. Now, what happens to the core, the people of color, will determine the fate of the nation. So the equity agenda, making sure that all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential, while it continues to be a moral imperative, has also become an economic and national imperative.
If we’re going to have a democracy that is anything to be proud of on that world stage, it has to work in the context of that vast diversity. If we are going to have an economy that actually allows for the nation to be prosperous, it’s going to be because the entrepreneurship, the innovation, the leadership, the contributions of workers is going to come from the cohort of people of color. And even though we talk about 2043 being the time when we became a nation that is a majority people of color, the real reality of who’s leading comes much sooner. The median age for people who are white in America is 42. The median age for those who are Latino, and that’s the fastest growing group, is 27.
And we’re seeing that the increases in the Latino population—this is very true in Los Angeles, California—it comes from births. It’s not coming from immigration. It’s inevitable. It’s where the youth is. It’s the thing that nations really pride themselves on, being able to have a young population. It’s all coming from these changes.
So it is a gift. It is a gift. It is not a problem; it’s a gift. At a time when many other countries are worrying about their aging populations, while here, they are so young. At a time when we are in a truly global economy, what could be more important than having people in your country who are connected to the globe by language, by culture, by kinship, by friendship. What could be better in a global economy than to have people who are becoming the majority who are hungry to apply their innovation and be entrepreneurs? People of color are three times as likely to start businesses as people who are white. The entrepreneur spirit that the nation needs is there. It is a gift. It is a gift that will only be tapped if we ask how do we make sure that all can reach their full potential.
The equity agenda has become a national and economic imperative as well as a moral imperative. So when you think about collective impact, Melody got it right. You can’t think of equity as an afterthought. Because you will be doing the work to build the nation. You have to think about it as what we are all doing.
So this notion of having a common agenda, it is the beginning point. You have to have a common agenda that actually can think in context. That common agenda has to be in context. The context of who is being left behind. What is their race? What is their gender? What is their ethnicity? What is it about the place where they live that hinders them in terms of being able to have access to everything that they need? In America, where you live is a proxy for opportunity.
In America, where you live is a proxy for opportunity. It determines everything.
It determines whether or not you get to go to a good school. It determines whether or not you are lucky enough to own a home or that you have any value that you can pull out of it. It determines whether you live near a job or near a natural job network. If I asked you to raise your hand, and asked you where you got your first job, it’s because you knew somebody. You knew a family member or a cousin or an uncle, or a neighbor who was able to get you to a job. That’s a natural job network. Where you live determines that. If you live in a place where nobody is working, you don’t have access to a natural job network. Where you live determines whether or not there is a public transportation system that can connect you to opportunities throughout the region.
Where you live even determines how long you live. You tell me your zip code and I can tell you your life expectancy.
It even determines how well you live while you live in terms of asthma, heart disease, and diabetes and all those things.
So, when you’re thinking of a common agenda, you got to put it in context. This notion of where you live determining almost everything has to do with a long history of discrimination. People don’t just happen to live in communities that lack all of the basics. People were forced to live there. Those were the only places people were allowed to live. They were the only places where people could buy homes if they had the resources that allowed them to do so. It was by law. It was by policy, and we are still feeling the impact of it.
I had the honor to teach a course on race in American cities this past semester. And one of the students was shocked to look at the red-line map that he was reviewing. There were maps. It wasn’t just a mental map. They were written down. These are the areas that you red line. You may not sell property there to black people. You may not rent to people who are black. You may not make mortgages available. All kinds of things red-lined.
He was shocked when he took the red-line map and he overlaid it with the poverty map and the race map, and it was almost exactly the same all these decades later. The notion that this stuff didn’t just happen, but it happened because we were shamed into it, unfairly, at every level of the nation, and we placed people at a disadvantage.
So when you think about coming up with a common agenda, it can’t just be looking at the impact of all the wrong that has happened. We have to understand the wrong that has happened. And we have to think about all of the implications of that as we’re going forward. We need to put in context of achieving equity, putting it into the context of understanding the role of race, and we have to be prepared to work with the people who are going to work with the problem deeply. Deeply.
Another story I want to tell you. Again, it’s an Oakland story. In Oakland, we have had, and you’ll have to ask Junious whether or not it has improved—I hope it has improved—we have had a lot of challenges in terms of our public school system. We got to a point where the public school system was not able to even attract a superintendent. They had asked 2-3 people to come be the superintendent, and they had declined because there was so much wrong.
The Urban Strategies Council then joined with the community and said, “Stop it. This is embarrassing. Stop trying to go out and get somebody before you look inward, and come up with a plan and a strategy for how you’re going to improve the school system. If you had a plan that was authentic and that the community was behind, we guarantee you that plan will attract superintendents from all over the country who will want to come and work for your community.” We went to the school board with that story, and we got the school board to accept that they would stop looking, and that they would work with the community to be able to understand what the school system needed, come up with a plan, and use that to go forward.
They relied on the community to lead this process, and the community led the process by talking with the community. What we did was we had meetings all over Oakland. We didn’t ask people to come to us. We went to the communities, and we had meetings to pick up and analyze exactly what was needed. From that, we created a document called “Good Education in Oakland: An Agenda for Positive Change.” And the school board members and the mayor and everybody began to use that agenda to be able to plan on how to go forward.
We then went back to the school district, and we said, “We can’t come up with a plan if we haven’t disaggregated your data, and have everyone in the building look at it.” And we got PG&E, our local energy company, to make their training center available. And in making it available, we got teams from every school in the district that included parents, teachers, principals, food service workers, janitors, because that’s the school community. And each school went into a room and looked at their data on the wall. Their data disaggregated by race. They said, “This is what you needed to work on.” They came up with individual plans, moved into one plan. That one plan then went back to the school board. They approved it.
They attracted a superintendent who was very good. He did not stay. No one ever does. So, although this story doesn’t have as happy an ending as the infant mortality one, but what’s important about this story is that we knew we had to focus on this data. They had to own it. They had to understand it. They had to plan from it. But when you think about how to share data, it doesn’t just mean that you come and you look at it. You have to share it for a purpose. You have to understand it. You have to apply it to real people in your community. You have to use it to ask how you are doing.
All of those things about sharing data have to come back to disaggregating the data. Once you have disaggregated, to develop different lines of work, depending on where it is you need to go. Very important to be able to get out of this notion of “We got our data.”
When I have done work in communities, what I often find is that some of the most important people, for being able to make a difference, are the people who gather the data from all of the agencies. And rarely does anybody ask them to come to a policy table. Rarely does anybody ask them to come to a visioning table. Rarely does anybody say, “You have to be a part of this because your input is going to be so important.” Being able to pull in people who gather the data as part of it forces them to look beneath the numbers, to say, “What does it say?” So getting into, “What does it say?” is going to be so essential.
That when you look at this notion of mutually reinforcing activities, that’s where, if you haven’t done it right in the beginning—if that common agenda didn’t embrace the equity agenda, the racial nuance, you’re not going to have the right people working in the right way on what’s going on.
As you look out across the nation, where we’re making a difference is where people are engaged in activities that they understand. They understand what it has to do with anything. In the Promised Neighborhoods programs happening now, inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone, some people are so into their work, and making such extraordinary progress, that sometimes they forget that they were inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone. They were inspired by the needs in their neighborhoods. They were inspired by their collective sense that WE have to do something about this.=
In those neighborhoods, like in Minneapolis with the Northside Achievement Zone, what we see is that the right people are engaged, because they know that the problem cannot be solved if they are not engaged. And that means parents are engaged. But they’re not just there to be able to help with fundraising. They’re not just there to be able to say that they got community engagement right. They’re there because they had an essential role to play in their children’s education, and they’re playing that role. The business community understands why they’re there. The faith community understands why they’re there. Having people really engaged because they buy into the vision is how you really fill that collective table.
I was actually…amused is not the word, but it’s something like amused, when I first heard the term “collective impact” being put forward as a new concept because these stories that I’m telling you go back a long way, or way before that got put forward. What we said we were doing was community building, and what we meant by community building is that we were working on the problems in the community, understanding that authentic engagement and building collaborations and using the data and making the community stronger than it was—all of that had to be part of it.
We came up with the definition of community building, and this was in the 80’s, so this was a long time ago. And this is what it was:
Community Building: Continuous self-renewing efforts by residents and professional engaged in collective action that results in improved lives, greater equity, and new standards and expectations for life in community.
That was our definition.
Continuous self-renewing efforts: Obviously community building could not stop when the funding stopped. Couldn’t stop when a leader left. We had to do the work in a way that would be continuous and it would self-renew as problem after problem, challenge after challenge presented.
Engaged in Collective Action: Because that’s the only way that residents and professional could work together. We called out residents because if residents don’t own it, it’s not authentic. We called out professionals because it is hard work, and they need to understand that, and all the profession acumen is needed for this work.
But what does it result in? It results in improved lives, but also greater societal equity. Because just improving life if we’re not changing the context, in terms of power, in terms of policy, in terms of politics, it’s not going to be continuous and self-renewing and sustainable.
And one of the most important things that happens is this notion of new standards and expectations of life in community. Once community has solved a problem collectively, where people know that their input is absolutely essential, there’s a new standard for how we work here. There’s a new expectation of what it means to do this work well so that it gets us there. And those standards and expectations inform the next effort, and the next effort.
People in communities who work on these issues discovered outcomes and results a long time ago because that’s what they need. People don’t want to see people come into a community to just work on it. They want you to come into the community to solve it.
People don’t want to see a report come out of it. They want a have a different level of well-being by the time it’s over.
People don’t want to take time away from their busy, demanding lives where they don’t have enough time to do the things that they know they want to do just to be able to be someone’s headcount at a meeting. They want results and change. The community thrives on a commitment to results.
You can’t come into a community and tell the community that they got to be committed to results. What else are they going to be committed to?
There are so many people who have devoted their lives to working in community, often for no pay or little pay, because that’s just the kind of people they are. Do you think they were doing it just to say they worked on it? They were focused on results, and they were doing it with others because they know that’s the only way to achieve something.
I saw to the staff of PolicyLink, “If ever we come up with something we’re working on that we can do by ourselves, we need to go back to the drawing board.” The only thing worth doing is the thing that you can do, and must do, with others.
It is so important for those of you who are beginning to do collective impact to know when you are doing it right, you are joining a community that has been waiting for you. They have been waiting for you to get it. They have been waiting for you to understand that it’s the only thing that is going to make a difference.
And when you come, you have to come with the humility to know that people in the community know a lot more than you do. And if you think you’re going to get it right without tapping their wisdom, you are wrong. If you think you’re going to get it right without tapping their energy, you are wrong. If you think you’re going to get it right without tapping their ability to hold the systems accountable that have to change, you are wrong.
Community lives this. They got skin in the game. If you don’t get results, you probably still have a good school that your kids can go to. You probably still have a house that you can return to. You probably still have a job that you do. But if you don’t it right, the people who got skin in the game suffer.
Don’t think for a minute that you have discovered this. Do not think for a minute that you are the only ones who care about outcomes. I don’t think anything offends people in community more than to have people who don’t live there, who don’t know their story come in and say, “Well, now we’re going to really do this right. Now we’re really going to get some results. Now, we’re going to really try to bring in the people who have to be ‘in it’ to get it right.” That’s what people have been wanting all along.
So, this notion of equity, and I’m going to end here and hopefully be in conversation with others. This notion of equity has to be fundamental. It challenges all of us to be clear about the context in which change has to happen. When you think about equity, equity as a term can apply to anything. Just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential.
Sometimes people are not reaching their full potential because of the context in which people are lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans* are trying to do their work.
Sometimes we are not all participating because people with disabilities are not able to fully participate.
Sometimes it has to do with people who are Native American not being able to have access to all that they need, not being able to get out of this cradle to prison pipeline and get into a cradle to career pipeline. The data on Native Americans in incarceration is worse than that for African Americans, for black people.
Sometimes it’s because of language. Sometimes it’s because of immigration status. Sometimes it’s because of race.
If you aspire for all, and you understand the specificity and nuance for all, you can always apply the equity lens. You can always have that conversation. And once you start having that conversation, you know who has to be in it.
Thank you for your work.
Thank you to the Collective Impact Forum for providing this transcript.