Dismantling Disparities in Communities: Resources and Tools to Advance Systems Change

Dismantling Disparities in Communities: Resources and Tools to Advance Systems Change

Feb 23, 2021
A collage of students and teachers

Given the complexity of social change efforts in an increasingly urgent social justice and geopolitical moment, the question is no longer whether funders and community partners should invest and engage in systems change work, but how. These efforts require more equitable approaches to address disparities in communities, including raising community voice, changing policies, and rethinking practices. And as many foundations and community leaders develop, co-design, or refine programs in education, employment, and public health, among other areas, there are opportunities for them to more deeply root investments and engage with communities to sustain their impact.

As the learning and evaluation partners for the P-16 Community Investment initiative—a three-year, five-community effort funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation— Mathematica and Equal Measure produced a series of resources and tools to help community stakeholders, funders, practitioners, and researchers understand and support the development of coherent, high-functioning, equity-centered place-based systems that span all sectors. Mathematica and Equal Measure developed these resources in collaboration with the foundation and its partners in the participating communities to advance understanding of “systems change”—that is, shifting the conditions that produce and hold societal problems in place.

“Cross-sector collaboration and place-based systems change is an effective way to address the complex structural challenges facing marginalized and historically oppressed communities—particularly Black, Latinx, and communities experiencing poverty,” said Ann Person, senior researcher at Mathematica. “These resources and tools distill practical lessons from the vast body of work on place-based systems change—providing funders, researchers, community leaders, and other stakeholders insights on how to fund, co-design, implement, and better understand systems change.”

Mathematica and Equal Measure are launching this series with the Crosswalk of Frameworks for Understanding Systems Change. With interest in investing in systems change growing, the field has seen a proliferation of frameworks for systems change success. For funders and practitioners, however, the number of resources can be overwhelming. This publication presents a crosswalk of place-based systems change frameworks to identify their most common elements. It can serve as a guide for funders, practitioners, and other stakeholders to inform their efforts to support, develop, or refine place-based systems change.

In the weeks following, Mathematica and Equal Measure will publish:

  • Rethinking Common Backbone Functions as Capacities: As we approach the 10-year anniversary of Kania and Kramer’s foundational article identifying the five conditions of collective impact, organizations can rethink common backbone functions needed to support collective initiatives. Through a literature review, Mathematica and Equal Measure grouped backbone functions into four categories and identified some of the key capacities necessary for each. In each category, the document delineates the capacities necessary to perform these functions effectively to achieve collective goals throughout the community.
  • Self-Assessment of Place-Based Systems Change Efforts: This assessment is designed to help community partnerships take a closer look at their areas of strength and areas where they can go deeper to effect place-based systems change. Though it draws from learning in cradle-to-career education, the assessment has broader application. It can be used to examine multi-sector partnerships and collective efforts in areas such as health, transportation, and economic development.
  • What Drives Systems Change? Key Findings and Implications from a Literature Review on Systems Change in Education: Building on decades-long efforts, various place-based partnerships have emerged seeking to improve the systems that impact individuals’ journeys from cradle to career and beyond. This brief summarizes the current research on critical components of successful place-based systems change in education, illustrating how these components play out in practice through narratives from five exemplary communities that have embarked on systems change efforts.
  • Investments in Implicit and Explicit Dimensions of Place-Based Systems Change: A Tool for Funder Reflection and Action: This tool is intended to help funders who have elected to invest in place-based systems change strategies assess the extent to which their strategic intent, culture, and capacity can support complementary dimensions of systems change. By using this tool, funders—and by extension the foundations within which they work—can further clarify how to focus their place-based systems change investments, leading to more coordinated, locally owned, and sustained impact.
  • The Community Ecocycle in Place-Based Systems Change: A Tool for Funder and Community Reflection and Action: This tool is intended to help funders who have elected to invest in place-based systems change in two ways. First, funders can use this tool to consider the dynamic, natural, and necessary developmental phases through which communities move. Second, the tool can help funders engage with communities to co-design investment approaches that better match communities’ current and future assets and needs based on their developmental phase.

To learn more about the P-16 Community Investment initiative, and to access the suite of resources and tools as they are published, please visit this page. Mathematica and Equal Measure welcome the insights and perspectives of readers and hope to inspire a vibrant dialogue that will further strengthen investments in place-based systems change.