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Keeping Youth Out of the Juvenile Justice System: Creating Policy and System Change

By Lauren Gase, Spark Policy Institute and Taylor Schooley, Los Angeles County Department of Public Health

Each year, roughly one million young people are arrested in the United States. Contact with the justice system is not only a public safety issue – research shows that it can lead to a range of negative health and social outcomes, including damaging family functioning, decreasing high school graduation and employment rates, increasing the risk for involvement in violence, and worsening mental health outcomes.

Contact with the justice system is also an equity issue; persons of color are disproportionately represented at every stage of justice system processing. It should concern anyone interested in promoting health, educational achievement, and community and economic development.

The public health sector can be a strong leader in creating justice systems transformation because it has experience bringing together diverse stakeholders to facilitate meaningful dialogue and collaborative decision-making. Public health focuses on prevention, holistic wellbeing, and the root causes of poor outcomes. It is grounded in using data to drive decision-making to identify opportunities for improvement.

To illustrate this, we’ve gathered examples of several jurisdictions that have begun to advance promising solutions to justice reform in partnership with public health:

  • In Los Angeles County, California, the Board of Supervisors established a new division of Youth Diversion & Development within the integrated Health Agency. This division is tasked with coordinating and contracting community-based services in lieu of arrest or citation for youth countywide.
  • In King County, Washington, Executive Dow Constantine announced an executive order to place juvenile justice under the purview of the public health department. The order aims to change policies and system to “keep youth from returning to detention, or prevent them from becoming involved in the justice system in the first place.”
  • A recent analysis from Human Impact Partners examines the impacts of youth arrest on health and well-being in Michigan and identifies a number of recommendations, including diverting youth pre-arrest, training agency personnel to be trauma-informed, sealing youth records, and changing state sentencing laws.

To promote health, safety, and racial equity, we need to transform our current justice system to create the social, economic, and political conditions that allow individuals, families, and communities to thrive. Some jurisdictions have begun to advance public health solutions to justice reform, but there is more to be done. We need to think differently about the role of multiple partners – including law enforcement, courts, health, schools, social services, and community-based organizations – in creating opportunities for young people to avoid or minimize formal processing in the justice system.

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Our 2015 Year in Review

What a year it’s been! No doubt, 2015 had its ups and downs, from the ground-breaking Paris Agreement to address climate change, to continuing gun violence; from marriage equality to global refugee crises; from “The Dress” to the latest installment of the Star Wars saga. Here at Spark, we had some amazing moments – providing backbone support to two collective impact initiatives whose work is taking off, watching the successful implementation of Farm to School in several rural communities, growing our circle of partners to include several national initiatives, and continuing to create tools for social innovators. We’ve also seen some changes in our team, saying hello to a number of new team members and good bye to some, as well as changes to our physical space, and we’ve summed it up for you in an infographic!

 

2015 Year in Review

So, as we wrap up 2015, we want to take a moment not only to celebrate what we’ve accomplished in this whirlwind of a year, but to raise a glass to you, our partners, without whom none of this would be possible. Taking stock of the year, it is abundantly clear that the work you do is why we are here and how we are changing the world for the better.

Cheers to you, and all you do, and thank you. We’ll see you in 2016!

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Working in Fields

Yellow flowers in a field

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how different it looks to work in a field instead of alone. And no, I don’t mean out in a field of flowers (though that sounds lovely). Rather, I’m referring to a field of organizations trying to cause the same type of change, though not necessarily in collaboration or even cooperation.

We are all part of these fields: it’s the five other organizations who submitted nearly the same proposal as you did to a local funder; the three groups who knocked on the same policymaker’s door last week, talking about the same issue; the two partners you call when a quick turnaround opportunity comes up that you can’t pull off alone. The mix of all these types of organizations comprises our field (or fields, for multi-issue, multi-area organizations).

Years of emphasis on collaboration and collective impact have made sure we all recognize that we can’t get to the big wins without partners. However, we also deal with the competing reality that collaboration is hard, time consuming, and rarely exists across all the relevant organizations. So what if we thought about our work at a field level as more than just our collaborations? What would it take to influence how a field of organizations can achieve major wins together?

It turns out some folks out there have started to think about this and, in fact, have begun to define some dimensions of fields of advocates who are trying to advance a policy or systemic issue. Within each of these dimensions, there are concrete ways advocacy organizations, funders or even evaluators can help to strengthen the field:

Framing of the issue or issues

Effective fields share a common frame or core set of values underlying their work. For example, pursuing Healthy Eating, Active Living (HEAL) policy change in order to address inequities v. to address the lack of capacity in the healthcare system to meet the growing demand. While each of these frames is valid, one would approach the problem fairly differently and identify different solutions within each frame. Because of this, they might be different fields.

  • So what can you do with this? You can look for partners who share the same frame and identify common opportunities to act together. You can promote your frame to other organizations in the same space and work to change the overall framing around the issue. As a funder, you can invest resources to strengthen organizations that share your frame.

Resources and skills

Fields are composed of organizations with different resources and skills to influence an issue. Most fields have deficits, such as a lack of strong policy analysis/research capacity or insufficient community organizing. Alternatively, they may lack key skills that are rarely needed, but when needed they are critical, such as launching ballot initiative campaigns or leading litigation processes.

  • So what can you do about this? Explore the deficits and seek to grow your organization in that direction, rather than duplicating already available capacity. Build the skills of other organizations so they can engage in work that is complimentary to your own.

Connectivity

Fields have varying levels of relationships between organizations. Strong relationships allow for coordinated strategies, leveraging of capacities, and use of common messaging on specific policy opportunities, while weak relationships can make it difficult to work together at the right moments to achieve policy or systemic changes.

  • So what can you do about this? Seek out organizations that are traditionally not connected to your part of the field, particularly those that bring a different resource, skill, or voice to the work. Intentionally leverage old and new partners for concrete opportunities to move an issue together. If you’re a funder, provide resources and convening opportunities to organizations currently not connected to one another.

Composition

Composition refers to the representation of different types of stakeholders, from the inclusion of public/private partners to racial, ethnic, and economic diversity and more. Fields that represent a broad array of stakeholders carry more influence when policy opportunities arise and also help craft policy solutions that are more likely to achieve the desired outcomes than when only a couple perspectives dominate the field.

  • So what can you do about this? Identify which voices are missing from the field or are marginalized. Expand the perspectives or organizations you engage. If you’re a funder, consider bringing new voices into the field by funding direct service or community organizations who want to advocate.

Adaptive Capacity

When the context shifts in a policy campaign or systems building strategy, effective advocacy organizations shift their strategies as well. A strong field doesn’t shift in 10 different directions or miss key signals indicating a shift is needed. Rather, when part of the field identifies the need for change, the need is recognized throughout the field and the changes are aligned.

  • So what can you do about this? If your organization is skilled at monitoring the environment, share what you’re learning actively with other organizations. If you don’t have the capacity to do that monitoring, seek out partners who do and share what you learn from them. If you’re a funder, consider funding one or more organizations to engage in environmental assessments ongoing with the expectation that they will disseminate the learning actively and in a timely manner.

This might be the longest blog I’ve ever written, but I hope you find the ideas are worth the number of words on the screen. Working at a field level may lead to stronger collaborations in the future, but just as important is the way it will change how organizations respond and react to each other and the environment in order to advocate in ways that collectively contribute to the likelihood of success.

I will be joining thought leaders on this issue of working collectively (without having to work collaboratively) at the American Evaluation Association’s annual conference this year. If you’re attending, I hope you can join us and move this dialogue forward.

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Presenting Data Effectively

XKCD Convincing Comic

In my job as a Policy and Communication Manager for Spark, I spend a lot of time thinking about how we can translate the great research we do here into actionable products. When not presented effectively, data can be mostly noise – too much information to remember, interpret and use to make decisions. But, when data is presented effectively and at the right time, it can be a powerful tool for change. Here are some of the key things we use to guide our work here at Spark:

Be Clear on the Purpose: Is your primary goal to improve a strategy? To define a problem? To persuade? To educate? To call people to action? The same data can be presented in multiple different ways, which vary depending on why you are sharing the information. For example, if you’re looking to examine whether your strategy needs a refresh, you will need to focus on the data that is most actionable, whereas if you are looking to educate, there may be a need to provide additional context.

Know Your Audience: Does your audience have a depth of knowledge on the topic at hand or are they relatively new to the issue? Are you preparing a single document or presentation for an audience with varying levels of knowledge, interest, and/or education? Is their time limited? Do they need the facts quickly? Or will they have the time to digest the information more fully before taking action? Think about what is important to your audience and what they need to know the most. All of this will factor into determining how best to present information, e.g. an informal or formal presentation, a facilitated dialogue, or written, such as a brief, check-list, report, or white paper. These considerations will also influence the structure of the information and your tone.

Tell the Story: Stories make information more relatable, which makes your findings more actionable. Even if you don’t have a “traditional” story, it can be helpful to think of how you present your information using the elements of a story: characters (who is affected and who are the key players?), the setting (describe the context), plot (there should be a beginning, middle, and end), conflict (what is the central problem to be addressed and why is it important?), and resolution (what are some potential solutions, where do we go from here?). We tend to only remember one or two key things after a presentation or reading a document. If you present a series of findings, your reader will remember a couple of those findings, but will lose the rest. If you present a story, your reader will remember the overall picture of what the findings collectively mean.

Be Visual: Most of us are, by our nature, visual creatures. Often, showing is more effective than telling at conveying information, which means you’re increasing the likelihood your findings are used! Visuals can include charts, graphs, tables, maps, infographics, even pictures. Taking the time to think through which type of visual is the most appropriate for your audience, as well as what results are most worth highlighting, can help ensure your visuals have the most impact.

 

XKCD ConvincingActively Engage: Sometimes you don’t have direct access to your audience in-person or by phone. Instead, you’re sending documents, posting them online, etc. When you do have access to the audience, however, you can take the use of data to the next level. When we are presenting information, whether virtually or in the room, we don’t do half hour long PowerPoint presentations. We talk for 10 minutes, discuss and debrief for more than 10 minutes and repeat. We put the data up on the walls and let people walk around the room and talk with each other. We put visuals and stories on the tables and have small groups explore the meaning. We find ways to make sure that more time is spent digesting and thinking about how to act on the findings than spent absorbing the new information. When people integrate new information into how they are thinking about a problem or a solution, they are more likely to use it than when they simply learn the new information.

There are many great online resources out there for presenting data effectively, including our recently-released toolkit in our Tools for Social Innovators series, Data as a Tool for Change. We’d love to hear how you incorporate data into your work, and tips and tricks you have for presenting information effectively. Share in the comments or click here to contribute to the toolkit!

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How to Build a Health Care Movement

What happens when 14 community organizations, two foundations and several communications experts come together to change how the public thinks about access to health care? You build a movement.

cotr_logo_fullProject Health Colorado (PHC) was a groundbreaking three-year Colorado Trust initiative to build public will for access to health. PHC involved 14 community organizations that used multiple innovative strategies, along with a paid media and mobilization campaign, to engage the public around access to health. A few of the innovative strategies used by the grantees included:

PHC also included a paid media campaign that targeted key groups throughout the state. In addition to traditional and social media strategies, the campaign deployed street teams at fairs and festivals. The street teams helped spread the message of the importance of access to health for all, engaging the public with an interactive website where they could ask questions, get answers and get involved.

What happened as a result of the forums, storytelling, training and mobilizing? Over 25,000 Coloradans were reached through in-person conversations and more than half a million people were reached through electronic and digital communications. People reached by grantees went on to talk to others, creating a ripple effect, carrying the message of PHC that people should be able to get the health care they need, when they need it. Volunteers from all walks of life became ambassadors for the message, particularly community members with no professional reason to be involved.

Want to learn more? The final evaluation report for PHC explores the impact of the many intersecting strategies, walking through key findings and their implications through a mix of infographics and narratives. We’ve also created a separate evaluation report intended for foundations that are undertaking complex grant strategies like PHC.

Let’s learn together about what happens when organizations come together around an innovative idea, and work to make a meaningful difference building public will for access to health.

This post originally appeared on The Colorado Trust blog April 2, 2015. Reposted with permission.