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Economic Growth

Alison McCarthy

In continuation of the dialogue on the Unintended Consequences of Systems Change, our July Social Innovators Breakfast focused on Colorado’s Economic Growth.

We had three amazing panelists that guided the discussion and that we owe our deepest appreciation:

Jake Williams: Healthier Colorado

Elizabeth Garner: State Demography Office, Department of Local Affairs

Lauren Ris: Colorado Water Conservation Board

They started by painting a picture of Colorado’s growth. Since 2010, Colorado’s population has grown by 578 thousand people, making it the 7th fastest growing state in 2017 and 2nd fastest in 2016. This growth will bring with it economic opportunities that have since been unheard of. The recreation industry is one of the largest in all of the United States. Furthermore, economic growth leads to more money in public coffers to do public interventions (public health, social interventions). We can expect great advances in creating equality through this. However, as expected, many challenges come with growth of this size. Of particular interest to the panel, water needs, housing, infrastructure, and unequal economic gain were all brought up.

The panel specifically focused in on a economic growth. While Colorado as a whole is growing, economic prosperity is not being equally divided among all groups. Instead, we are experiencing and expecting even more disparity between the largely white, upper class and mostly minority, lower class. It is evident that if steps aren’t taken to level the playing field, this gap will continue to group.

To tackle this problem and brainstorm solutions, we divided the room into small discussion groups. Each group generated ideas and then we met as a whole to share our findings. Of the ideas discussed, big ideas included raising money in public education for underserved areas, increasing entrepreneurship opportunity, making public transit more affordable and accessible, and highlighting Corporate Social Responsibility.

After the breakout discussion, it was clear to see big takeaways to help us move forward. First off, the value in engaging in these types of conversations are crucial to our growth as a community. Hearing diverse perspectives is the only way we reach our potential. Furthermore, even though one’s first reaction to projected roadblocks isn’t to jump up and down in joy, it is often through crisis and constraint that creativity and innovation take hold. We will see new ways of tackling economic inequality, water shortages, and energy. Lastly, while it isn’t a fix-all, education is a huge step in creating lasting social change.

We will continue to explore the interconnectivity of systems with the rest of our Navigating the Unintended Consequences of Systems change series. These include:

• August 29: Addressing Food Insecurity

• September 26: Transit-Oriented Development: How to Avoid Displacement

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Housing Affordability

Alison McCarthyOur Social Innovators Breakfast Series summer focus, Navigating the Unintended Consequences of Systems Change, continued in June with a panel discussion on housing affordability.

We are grateful to our three panelists for representing a range of perspectives and experiences, and for sharing their expertise and lessons learned:

When asked about how involving people who are most impacted by housing affordability (or lack thereof) in their work has made a difference, panelists pointed to the phenomenon of “you don’t know what you don’t know.” All three panelists talked about understanding the gaps between what exists and what a community needs: One talked about shifting focus to a specific population what was otherwise not part of the work (seniors on fixed income at risk of losing housing); another about integrating social equity into developments; and the third panelist talked of engaging community members in the design process of an affordable housing building so it is a trauma-informed space that can best meet the needs of the people it intends to serve.

One key point made during the discussion was about the range of ways people can experience homelessness. “We really need to keep in mind this affordability crisis, often, is invisible” and can weigh heavily on those living paycheck-to-paycheck because of the rent burden, those who are living doubled-up with relatives or couch surfing, or those staying in domestic violence situations for fear of being homeless if they leave. “We really need to keep in mind all of these invisible people who are holding it together, but they’re doing it at a real cost to themselves and their kids.” Nodding heads around the room suggested the panelists’ words rang true for many audience members.

Panelists discussed some of the most pressing issues regarding the current landscape of housing affordability, including the impact of interconnected systems that go along with housing (access to and affordability of healthy food, transit, the built environment) as well as policies that can impede or alleviate finding and keeping safe, affordable, stable housing. All three panelists explained how the social determinants of health play into housing insecurity, and how addressing upstream factors is important if we want to move beyond band-aid solutions to the housing crisis.

The interconnected nature of systems can make an issue like housing affordability feel even more complex and difficult to address. However, as panelists reminded the audience, interconnectivity also means multiple points of access into the issue, and multiple opportunities to affect change. “I urge you to think about how you can enter this sphere,” one panelist said in closing, as another added, “We need to address those other systems that accompany homelessness.”

You can view a recording of the panel discussion here.

We will continue to explore the interconnectivity of systems with the rest of our Navigating the Unintended Consequences of Systems change series. These include:

• July 31: Colorado’s Economic Growth
• August 29: Addressing Food Insecurity

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Moving from Equality to Equity

Alison McCarthyIn May 2018, our Social Innovators Breakfast Series launched a special summer focus: Navigating the Unintended Consequences of Systems Change. Though we anticipate Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) will be an important component for all events in the series, we decided to kick things off with a DEI-specific topic: Navigating the Unintended Consequences of moving from Equality to Equity.

We are grateful to our three panelists for representing a range of perspectives and experiences, and for sharing their expertise and lessons learned:

  • Heather Chikoore, Policy & Equity Specialist with the Colorado Education Initiative;
  • Tara Manthey, Vice President of Advocacy and Communications with the Colorado Children’s Campaign; and
  • Nancy Csuti, Vice President of Research, Evaluation & Strategic Learning with the Colorado Trust.

Panelists discussed both internal and external shifts driven by an organizational focus on equity. Internal work includes making structural changes such as hiring, performance management, and evaluation practices as well as staff training and education. External work includes dedicating time and resources to foster a genuine relationship with diverse partners, supporting grantees to advance equity, and working with marginalized populations to elevate their key concerns and progress.

“It’s been life-changing for me,” one of the panelists reflected when asked about personal growth on the journey to furthering equity, recognizing privilege, dismantling systems of oppression, etc. “I just wish I’d learned this years ago… the fact that I am White has made all the difference and that recognition has been pretty eye-opening.” In fact, one of the lessons panelists shared was the realization of how they may have unknowingly perpetuated inequities by hiring based on existing relationships by not asking candidates about their experience tackling inequities, thinking this work exists within the 9am-5pm window as opposed to a constant effort, unwittingly asking staff of color to do the emotional labor of educating White staff, etc.

Audience members also contributed to the dialogue by posing thoughtful questions to our panelists, illuminating their own struggles, lessons, and hopes for championing equity in Colorado. We hope this event prompted important reflections and provided concrete ideas for advancing equity – and we hope it is one of many ways funders, advocates, and other professionals can leverage each others’ knowledge and shared values to continue this important work.

Other events as part of our Navigating the Unintended Consequences of Systems Change series include:

• July 31: Colorado’s Economic Growth
• August 29: Addressing Food Insecurity

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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion – Moving Principles into Practice

Alison McCarthyWe’ve been busy this Spring! As promised, we want to be transparent in sharing our journey to incorporate Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) principles here at Spark. This blog post describes our DEI updates since May.

Tools for sharing and reflection

One of the early activities identified in our DEI plan was to develop a project checklist. The intent of this checklist is to ensure we consider DEI principles in all Spark projects. Not all the items on the list will apply to all projects. However, it reminds us of our values and probes us to ask questions like: “Could this element be included/considered? Why or why not?” It is meant to be a tool to help us think critically about the incorporation of DEI principles into our regular practice.

As we drafted the project checklist, we also recognized the importance of integrating DEI elements into the work before the project launch phase. We decided to develop a project proposal checklist so DEI can be integrated from the beginning of the project design process.

We adapted our checklists from work by Public Policy Associates and Equitable Evaluation. While we are still piloting them and anticipate they will be tweaked over time, we’d love to hear any thoughts or feedback you have on what we’ve come up with so far:

It’s also important to note that we understand that something as complex and crucial as DEI cannot be boiled down to a couple of checklists – we don’t see these tools as the end-all-be-all. Rather, we see them as a starting point, a way to prompt us to integrate these values into everyday practice.

DEI Awareness and Learning

In addition to our process tools, we’ve looked at other ways to elevate DEI within Spark.

As a team, we started regular DEI Discussions where we select an article, video, podcast, or other resources on a relevant DEI topic and get together to discuss it over coffee. Our first conversation was centered on a Denverite article on the gentrification of the Welton Corridor/Five Points. Since Spark is housed on Welton Street, we felt it was important to consider how we interact (or don’t) with our neighbors and the changes occurring in the neighborhood. We asked ourselves an important question: If Spark were located somewhere else, what, if anything, would change? The question spurred thoughtful reflection and rich discussion. Next month, we plan to focus on inclusion in the workplace, basing our discussion on this article from Psychology Today.

Additionally, Spark’s Social Innovators Breakfast Series launched a special summer focus: Navigating the Unintended Consequences of Systems Change. Though we anticipate DEI will be an important component for all events in the series, we decided to kick things off with a DEI-specific topic: Navigating the Unintended Consequences of moving from Equality to Equity. You can listen to the panel discussion on our YouTube channel. Keep an eye out for next blog post, which will be a reflection on this conversation and the lessons that emerged!

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Systems and Programs: Moving from Enemies to Friends

Too often, programs are framed as the enemy of systems change.

Over the past few years, there has been an increasing emphasis on the need for “systems change” to achieve large-scale social impact.

As someone deeply embedded in research and evaluation at the systems-level, I fundamentally believe that addressing complex problems requires system-level solutions. An increasing emphasis on systems – including a greater focus on multi-stakeholder collaboratives, discussions of leverage points, and the need to shift how organizations operate – gets me excited. I see the potential to do things like reform the justice system, shift to a more prevention-focused model of health and tackle big issues like climate change.

There is, however, one framing of how to address complex issues that dampens my excitement: systems versus programs. The discussion can become a battle between two opposing forces, including phrases like, “we don’t fund program work,” “we only focus on systems,” or “we need to move from a program focus to a systems focus.” Systems and programs are painted as victor and villain,  fundamentally at odds – and I believe this framing is not only incorrect but has the potential to hamper meaningful change.

Too often, programs are framed as the enemy of systems change.

I am in full agreement with the adage that we cannot program our way out of complex problems. Programs alone are rarely the solution. In my years as a researcher and evaluator I have learned time and again that focusing entirely on programs can prevent us from addressing structural inequities and root causes. Often, one of my first questions to an organization with a completely programmatic focus is, how does the program fit within your broader agenda to change the system?

That does not mean, however, that programs are fundamentally at odds with the system in which they are situated. It also does not mean that programs are not a critical component of addressing complex problems.

Consider a parable most of us have heard: A fisherman notices people are falling and drowning in a river; so, he goes upstream to prevent it from happening by building a bridge (a systems change). Great idea! But the problem is unlikely to be solved with construction alone. What if people don’t know how to use the bridge or do not see its value, won’t you have to educate them? Moreover, it is highly likely that no matter how beautiful the bridge, not all people will use it (maybe it is too far away), are you going to let those people who fall in drown?

Programs play a critical role in addressing complex health and social challenges. To lower teen pregnancy, we need to provide evidence-based sexuality education, alongside systems to increase access to contraception. Food banks and school meals programs are critical components of a well-functioning food system. In youth development, school-based mental health services are a key strategy to address issues such as trauma. For economic development, opportunities for meaningful employment need to be coupled with job training programs that set people up for success. The list goes on and on…

Programs contribute to sustainable systems-level change.

To me, what is needed is a balance between systems and programs: we must consider how programs fit within a systems change strategy.

In a recent study of 25 collective impact initiatives, changes to programs and services were identified as a critical component of achieving population-level outcomes.

I think it is time that we, as a field, pause and ask ourselves some tough questions: How can we make sure that we are appropriately delivering and scaling programs while also working to change key parts of the system? How can we best use programs to advance a systems-change strategy, for example, training community leaders to advance system reform? In what ways can programs be integrated to better address root causes? It is time to swap the pendulum approach for one that forces us to consider how programs and systems are related. With this shift in thinking, we might then begin to see that programs and system are not enemies, rather, they are friends – maybe even best ones.