Posted Wednesday, April 15, 2015 at 5:56 pm

By Juan Sebastian Arias and Sheri Brady

In order to truly solve the complex social issues our communities face, the structural causes of inequality along race, class, gender & culture lines need to be tackled head on. With its focus on changing systems, collective impact provides a framework through which these equity goals can be explicitly advanced.

Last month, we hosted a workshop session at the Champions for Change 2015 training for organizations serving as backbones in collective impact efforts along with Joanna Scott from Race Matters Institute and Richard Crews from Thriving Together in Phoenix, Arizona. We designed the session to offer these organizations some guidance and building blocks around how their collective impact work can more explicitly tackle questions of equity and social justice.

To help bring the major insights from the session to the broader collective impact field, we are sharing some of our own highlights of the conversation.

Equity Needs to Live in the Backbone

First, you need to be explicit about equity in order to get results. As Richard Crews put it, equity needs to be the private practice of your backbone before it can be your public policy. Equity needs to live in the backbone and be baked into how it functions. Equity need to be an explicit lens for your work, through which you do your analysis and strategy design. And as Joanna Scott shared, starting with the goal of diversity, for example, won’t get you to equity, but starting with equity can get you to diversity. So for organizations playing backbone roles in collective impact, this means looking internally and changing your own behaviors, practices, and policies in order to practice what you preach. There are many tools for doing this, including organizational self-assessments that help you measure your racial equity impact and highlight ways to improve your policies and practices. For an example of how All Hands Raised, a Portland-based cradle to career initiative, adapted this for their collective impact partnership, see here.

That said, the process of embedding equity into your practice is an ongoing and iterative one, though it does require intention. So once your organization embraces equity as an intentional practice, how does this show up in the actual work of your collective impact initiative? Several important steps were raised throughout the panel discussion.

1. Disaggregating data is a foundational step.

Data helps you understand the problem. Without looking at how specific sub populations are doing with respect to your common goal, you are at risk of misunderstanding what’s really going on in your community and of perpetuating disparities. There is rarely a one-size-fits-all solution for the complex issues facing communities, and so crafting strategies with a blanket understanding of the community can sometimes do more harm than good. Disaggregating data by race, gender, class, sexual orientation and other characteristics gives you a fuller understanding of how to be more effective. In Seattle, the Road Map Project releases its annual report card disaggregating several indicators by race and/or class. For examples of their data reporting, see here and here.

And while data disaggregation is critical, many stakeholders may resist breaking down results by race for a number of different reasons. Some resist publishing information about disparities because they fear it will reinforce stereotypes while others fear the data may scapegoat certain communities. In these cases, it’s important to remember the role of disaggregated data is to provide a better picture of the problem so that the solutions can be better crafted, more effective and longer lasting.

2. Structural analysis of disparities gets to the root causes.

The next step when you have a deeper understanding of your local disparities through disaggregated data is to conduct a structural analysis to help identify systemic or root causes. By digging deeper into the why behind disparities, you can identify the barriers you need to overcome to achieve equitable outcomes. This also helps with the concern raised above about reinforcing stereotypes or scapegoating particular communities for a perceived failure to thrive by helping to connect current conditions to historical root causes.

Luckily, the Race Matters Institute offers useful tools for doing this. In their full toolkit , Race Matters offers a way to begin with a specific disparity (such as differences in 3rd grade reading proficiency) and then “back map” to identify root causes and critical interventions. 

3. Use data and structural analysis to support and shape local narratives.

The local narrative of what’s going on in your community is critical for influencing the hearts and minds of community members at all levels. The stories we share to illustrate the issues that different groups face have a profound impact on public opinion and on our own policies, practices and behaviors. By telling the stories that illustrate the connection between disparities and structural causes, you can begin to influence local narratives and shift public perception of the issues.

For example, data shows that white and African-American families have very disproportionate levels of wealth. Examining the causes of this wealth gap, we can see that home ownership plays a significant role in perpetuating the disparity. Home ownership is a path to building wealth, you pay less in taxes when you own a home, you can borrow against the equity in a home versus having to take out other types on loans or in some cases refinance a home to avoid taking out a loan. Then by digging into the history of homeownership in the U.S., we can link differences in homeownership to the fact that African-American were not allowed to participate in the government sponsored low interest loan programs after World War II meant to spur and support homeownership. Clearly linking the structural root causes to the current disparities can inform the community narrative around why these differences exist in the first place, and support the case for targeted efforts.

In this sense, it’s critically important to tie the narrative to the structural causes. Tying the narrative to the structural helps to combat the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” or “talented tenth” mythos. While individual action is an element there needs to be an understanding that combating structural long term issues.

Advancing Equity

While these are some starting points for building equity into your collective impact work, there are many ways to take steps towards equity and much of it will defined by your local context. In the end, advancing equity is an iterative process. Practicing equity will always be ongoing work – both personally but also organizationally and structurally.

The Collective Impact Forum and Living Cities are dedicated to helping build the field around embedding an equity frame into collective impact work. To support practitioners interested in learning more from the panel workshop at Champions for Change, you can find the workshop materials and a list of resources linked below.

As another upcoming opportunity, Living Cities is hosting a webinar on racial equity and community engagement in collective impact on April 30. Register here to learn more about the webinar. Living Cities is also offering a set of resources on equity through their free e-course on community engagement in collective impact.

Related Resources


Tracy Timmons-Gray

administrator, backbone organization, community manager, funder of initiatives, partner organization, other, technical assistance provider / consultant, content administrator, blogger, funder community of practice

Wonderful post, Juan Sebastian and Sheri! So much to think about.

These steps seem like really powerful ways to better see disparities. My question is how we can avoid paralysis when deciding on moving on these steps. For those that are new to these ideas, what are some ways to start when you want to perform a structural analysis to assess disparities and inequities?

Submitted by Tracy Timmons-Gray on Wed, 2015-04-15 19:06

Sheri Brady

funder of initiatives, partner organization, blog contributor

Great question Tracy

For structural analysis I would start with the disaggregated data, remember many of your indicators may be individual versus structural (e.g. reading proficiency vs. the percentage of teachers teaching in the subject). Then begin doing some research on the subject (in this case third grade reading). Research includes academic; think tanks, and other program reports from people in the field. Root causes can be charted, tkkkllhen explored. Challenges on the left, barriers in  the middle, and interventions on the far right. Literally plotting it out versus scribbling notes  can create a space where the analyst can check their own work. Is this structural (big picture) or individual (focusing on the behaviors of people)? 


Submitted by Sheri Brady on Sat, 2015-04-18 00:31

Tracy Timmons-Gray

administrator, backbone organization, community manager, funder of initiatives, partner organization, other, technical assistance provider / consultant, content administrator, blogger, funder community of practice

Thanks, Sheri! That's super helpful.

Submitted by Tracy Timmons-Gray on Thu, 2015-04-16 18:10

Juan Sebastian Arias

funder of initiatives

Hey all - for some more insights on equity within collective impact, see this blog post from StriveTogether some common barriers to promoting excellence through equity in collective impact.

-Juan Sebastian 

Submitted by Juan Sebastian Arias on Mon, 2015-04-20 17:11