Applying a Racial Equity and Inclusion Lens to Collective Impact

Applying a Racial Equity and Inclusion Lens to Collective Impact

Racial equity and inclusion are integral to collective impact’s core principles. Partnerships must make a commitment to applying a racial equity and inclusion lens throughout its work, in order to achieve equitable change for all people they seek to serve.

Collective Impact is a journey toward changing systems that impacts the lives of entire populations. If we don’t address racial equity and inclusion in collective impact, then we are not going to improve systems nor will we get dramatically better results for people.

For far too long, systems’ leaders have taken a universal look at problems and have applied universal solutions without considering the unique needs of different groups of people – particularly people of color. In doing this, we miss critical opportunities to make a real difference in people’s lives and build more effective systems. In recent interviews with Steve Patrick (Aspen Institute), Michael McAfee (PolicyLink) and Ted Smith (City of Louisville), each agreed that aligning systems is a key strategy for enduring change. However, they cautioned that if structural racism and inequity are already woven into the fabric of our systems, then aligning systems only further perpetuates racism and inequity. Therefore, at the core of our collective impact work must be a commitment to racial equity and inclusion that is more deeply embedded in our solutions than racism is embedded in our problems.

At Living Cities, we do not name “applying a racial equity lens” as a separate principle of collective impact. We believe that applying a racial equity lens is not an “add-on” to the work that can be applied “as needed.” Rather, a commitment to furthering racial equity should manifest in each of the collective impact principles, which consists of a cross-sector table(s), shared result, change in behavior and feedback loops.

Equitable and Inclusive Cross-sector Table(s)

A cross-sector table made up of many partners is a critical element of collective impact. Doers and decision-makers from the public, private, nonprofit and philanthropic sectors agree to hold themselves jointly accountable for achieving the population change they seek. When the composition of these tables does not reflect the diversity of the people they are aiming to impact, problematic assumptions inevitably become embedded in decisions about what problems to prioritize and how to best address them. Having an inclusive cross-sector table is not about adding a few people of color to the mix so that the diversity box is checked. It is about making a genuine and consistent effort to engage and include leaders that are reflective of and rooted in the communities you aim to serve. Creating an equitable and inclusive table requires intentional effort to reach outside the typical social and professional circles from which partners are found.

Shared Result

The shared result is the enduring population change that a cross-sector table of leaders in a collective impact initiative agrees to achieve and is measured against an indicator over 10+ years. To truly achieve a shared result, an initiative must focus their efforts across multiple outcome areas (e.g. education, health, housing), and deliver on, or scale, a collection of strategies rather than a single program or intervention. The shared result is the driving force of collective impact, but requires patience and discipline to stay the course in an equitable and inclusive way. Two approaches are critical to success:

  • Disaggregating Data to Design Equitable Strategies: Since a disproportionate number of low-income people are people of color, there has been a lot of debate about whether or not race should be explicitly stated in shared results aimed at improving the lives of low-income people. Whether or not race is explicitly stated in the result, stopping at “all” when it comes to data and strategy design will jeopardize your partnership’s ability to develop targeted interventions that maximize your resources. Take our Integration Initiative site partners in San Francisco. In San Francisco, their shared result is that all low-income families in San Francisco are sustainably housed and safe. To ensure they achieve this shared result equitably, San Francisco is disaggregating their data by race. This approach allows them to design strategies that raise the bar for all low-income families while also eliminating disparities among racial groups. Theo Miller, one of the co-directors for the initiative, said “I can solve problems for low-income people in San Francisco and at the end of the day still have no black people left.” His statement is powerful in that it speaks directly to structural racism embedded in our institutions, and why our attempts to be race-neutral rarely have race-neutral outcomes. In order to achieve equity for all low-income families in San Francisco, they need to disaggregate the data to understand the unique conditions and progress for African Americans, Asian Americans, European Americans, Hispanic Americans, etc. Disaggregating the data allows us to understand the magnitude of the problem for each group, and thereby develop more targeted and effective interventions.
  • Commitment to Change Behavior to Achieve a Shared Result: Each member of the cross-sector table must also commit to working differently in order to truly achieve a shared result. Even as we are attacking big, seemingly intractable problems like structural racism and poverty, change begins with checking our personal biases, understanding how we contribute to racial inequities and exclusion, and holding our cross-sector table partners accountable to doing the same. It requires members of collective impact initiatives to create space to stay in open dialogue, to learn, understand and grow. As each individual builds his or her muscle for greater awareness and changed behavior, the cross-sector table of partners becomes stronger collectively and better able to influence systems and their leaders. The domino effect will ultimately bolster our ability to dismantle structural racism and lay a new, equitable and inclusive foundation upon which our systems can exist.

The key for the changed behavior in a collaborative arrangement is trust and relationship building, which we’ve written about in a number of previous blogs. A cross-sector table of partners must engage with one another to reinforce shared identity, develop connective tissue, and build strong relationships that imbue trust and support as they embark upon the collective impact journey of risk, reward, failures and successes.

Feedback Loops that Signal Progress Towards Shared Result

The fourth core principle of collective impact is the feedback loop, which is a process decision makers use to evaluate progress towards their shared result. Using data to learn “what works, what doesn’t work and why” are critical to ensuring that we have the right strategies in place and we are executing them with fidelity. Simply put, data is information, and may be used at multiple levels and in multiple ways.

To begin, we must first understand the population condition and determine ways to monitor it. Take the cross-sector table of partners in San Francisco’s Integration Initiative who want all low-income families in San Francisco to be sustainably housed and safe. To understand the current condition for low-income families and track progress toward the shared result, they have selected housing retention rate, social cohesion, workforce participation rate and high school graduation rate as indicators (quantitative measures).

There are two critically important factors about San Francisco’s approach. The first factor is their explicit naming of “low-income families.” This matters because it centers the focus on impacting people. Given the high cost of living and limited opportunities in San Francisco, several families are focused on simply surviving. In a competitive market, fixing up places, no matter how well-intentioned, often leads to low-income families getting priced out of their neighborhoods when there aren’t wrap-around strategies to ensure they can continue to benefit from place-based work. Therefore, the San Francisco Integration Initiative table of partners is working to provide stable housing, while also ensuring residents are effectively prepared to access good jobs and get connected to opportunities and services. Having these opportunities in place supports families to participate in neighborhood improvements sustainably and enables them to work to live rather than work to survive.

The second factor is understanding the “why?” behind what the data is telling you. Why do those strategies work–or not–to move the needle on outcomes. Feedback loops should not start and end with population data. Rather, feedback loops should be a part of the way members of a cross-sector table hold one another accountable and move the work forward. Feedback loops should also monitor the performance of strategies to ensure that we are delivering quality services, products, information, etc., and ultimately, having a positive impact on people, processes and policies. The only way to truly understand the story behind the data is to engage with community members about their lived experiences. Too often partnerships see services not utilized and make assumptions about why, or worse, blame the community for not “caring to make improvements” because they are not grounded in the cultural and historical context of the people they aim to serve. If racial equity and inclusion built in to the foundation of feedback loops, then our journey to the shared result and commitment to behavior change–although challenging–will be authentic and ultimately successful.

Racial equity and inclusion are integral to each of collective impact’s core principles. If a collective impact partnership is not applying a racial equity and inclusion lens throughout its work, then it is in grave danger of doing different things, but doing them in the same old way. Angela Glover Blackwell says “equity is the superior growth model.” Focusing on communities who have traditionally been left behind in the quest for economic stability and opportunity is beneficial for all, and required for real and enduring change.

If you have any questions or want to share your story on your racial equity journey, please email


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