To Improve the Lives of Students, Two Communities Learn to Relate Differently

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This essay is part of a series written by leading education practitioners in response to a Carnegie Corporation of New York report on improving education equity by addressing fragmentation.

So much of what holds our current societal challenges in place is the result of how we relate to each other. While we may work together or live in the same community, our interactions rarely afford the opportunity to deeply explore our varied histories and lived experiences, and how that history and experience shapes our thinking and our present situations. This keeps us from building the shared understanding we need to accomplish our common objectives.

The only way to achieve that understanding is through honest conversation about who we are, what we’ve experienced, and how we view the world.

The only way to achieve that understanding is through honest conversation about who we are, what we’ve experienced, and how we view the world.

As students of social change, we have each observed this dynamic from different vantage points. FSG consults with organizations and businesses to advance their social change missions. The Systems Leadership Institute serves as the hub of a global community concerned with organizational learning and improvement. PolicyLink is a national nonprofit and leader in helping communities understand and address issues of equity. 

Having worked in parallel for many years, we have recently joined forces to achieve some new understandings about how to promote positive social change. With a philanthropic grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York, we are together supporting local leaders in two communities — Staten Island, NY, and Oceanside, CA — in a long-term process to build and maintain the relationships needed to achieve lasting improvements in the lives of young people.

This project is part of a larger initiative of Carnegie Corporation, the Integration Design Consortium (IDC). The IDC is premised on the idea that efforts to improve the lives of young people are too often pursued in isolation, and with an incomplete understanding of their circumstances and the circumstances of the adults in their lives. The result is that well-intentioned strategies produce fewer benefits than hoped for, because they weren’t a good fit for the reality in which they were implemented. More on the IDC, and the thinking behind it, is in Carnegie Corporation’s new report, From Fragmentation to Coherence: How more integrative ways of working could accelerate improvement and progress toward equity in education.

This problematic tendency is the result of long-standing habits of mind and work. Most of us who work in organizations see our jobs as to create and implement narrowly defined programs and practices. We feel an urgency to “get something done,” and indeed, getting something done is less complicated when you limit the number of people and considerations involved. Often, however, what does get done winds up yielding disappointing results because the planning failed to recognize and make explicit numerous confounding factors.

Fortunately, through our work with organizations and communities, we have learned — and in some cases developed — a set of tools and practices that may be used to help change these habits. Many of these tools and practices are meant to guide community groups through the kinds of conversations that need to happen so that people from different backgrounds have a better understanding of each other.

An example of one such approach applied in our IDC work is called “Targeted Universalism,” originally developed by professor and critical race scholar john a. powell. Despite the fancy name, the notion behind it is simple: improving people’s circumstances requires identifying disparities and bringing the experience of marginalized populations — which many times are not acknowledged by the broader system — to the fore. In our work in Staten Island, the use of this approach has helped the members of the Equity Alliance of Staten Island choose a population focus that includes all students in the community, with a priority focus on Black and Latino students.

Another set of useful tools are the “ladder of inference” and “ladder of connectedness,” which help people appreciate what it means to listen more deeply to one another. As a result, instead of entering conversations with good intentions but without recognizing and suspending predisposed assumptions about others, people are actively seeking to acknowledge their own gaps in awareness and to understand the circumstances and perspectives of other participants. 

In our work in Oceanside, this deep listening contributed to a new initiative with significant potential. It began in a small community meeting, when a longtime Latino community leader spoke openly about the challenges that he and his community have experienced. Those challenges had been unspoken in the broader community for years, but for a moment in that meeting those challenges were heard and allowed to be spoken in a way that was new. The ripple effects have been significant. Community members, now appreciating how the challenges facing these youth are inextricably linked to the well-being of the whole community, have designed a new pilot program focused on high school success for Latino boys and young men.

A third strategy has been to introduce the idea of systems change to help focus attention on deeper sources of problems. This includes traditional systemic approaches like policy advocacy, but also has started to move into matters beyond the reach of policy alone, like how power dynamics are holding key problems in place. In Staten Island, members of the Equity Alliance believe that one way to shift power dynamics behind inequity is for young people to become more involved in the work. Traditionally, youth involvement has been more in the form of input and engagement in workshops. 

The group’s aspiration now is to develop a core group of youth leaders who can participate in all key bodies of the initiative and share decision-making power. This shift from input to inclusion recognizes that the adults who traditionally make decisions cannot fully understand the condition of the youth they are intending to benefit, nor the real opportunities for change.

Perhaps our biggest learning goes back to the current beneath all these conversations — race and equity. One might assume that challenging conversations about race, power, and privilege could create rifts in a group and actually make fragmentation worse. However, we have experienced the opposite. These conversations are never easy, but through authentic conversation deep preexisting rifts surfaced and are made explicit — and then begin to heal. The result can be a richer shared understanding of the present reality and a shared sense of purpose that grows from the genuine interconnectedness of groups within the community and the inclusion of voices and experiences that have not previously been represented. 

David Garfunkel is an Associate Director at FSG who supports communities to develop and implement collective impact strategies, designed to support residents and organizational leaders to achieve progress on large-scale, complex issues in their communities.
 
Peter Senge is a cofounder of the Systems Leadership Institute and has been at the forefront of organizational learning since publishing his classic text,
The Fifth Discipline, in 1990, considered by Harvard Business Review to be one of the seminal management books of the previous 75 years.
 
Jessica Pizarek is a Senior Associate at PolicyLink who provides technical assistance to communities across the country seeking to plan, operationalize, and sustain cradle-to-career systems of supports for all children and families.