Crisis brings out the best in Americans. World War II remains the most vivid example of civilian and military mobilization under threat. The Covid-19 pandemic is a recent example of mobilization to produce vaccines that have minimized the threat of death for all but a vulnerable few. This recent evidence of our ability to “get it done” makes it difficult to comprehend why we have limited success addressing simmering crises resulting from marginalization in cities such as Cleveland.
This is not to say that there have not been attempts to address the issues plaguing our community. Over the past twenty years, Cleveland has seen plenty of quality programs meant to tackle a wide range of issues. Yet, even the most successful endeavors have not moved the needle enough in improving the quality of life and access to opportunities many of us take for granted. In the last decade, Cleveland has consistently ranked among the poorest cities in the nation, singled out for racial inequities from infant mortality to the digital divide.
How can this be, especially when our city is blessed with hard-working and innovative community leaders, an engaged business community, and solid philanthropic institutions? Make no mistake, decline has been compounded by generations of disinvestment and structural and institutional racism, which continue to loom large in Cleveland. Intersectionality runs deep in the challenges of marginalized communities and solutions will not be found in isolation.
PolicyBridge, an African American “think and do tank” and the Levin College of Public Affairs and Education at Cleveland State University are working together to examine the possibilities of collective impact. The time could not be better for such an endeavor, with many new leaders at the helm, a new pace of change requiring swift and collaborative approaches, and a loud call to action for innovation, collaboration, and risk taking.
Through a series of public forums coupled with background research, here is what we found:
Cities and communities must use structured cross-sector collaboration, embracing continuous improvement and rigorous data to drive transformative social change. Around the country and the world, cities, counties, communities, and other stakeholders are using “collective impact” models to produce new levels of collaborative depth and effectiveness.
True collective impact moves at the speed of trust, and much groundwork is needed to build trust among collaborators. Trust must be intentionally built by peeling back years of good and bad interactions and finding ways to reconcile and move forward in support of community transformation.
While there is variation in interpretation of the term collective impact, the seminal work of John Kania & Mark Kramer Winter, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2011 indicates that it is best used when there is a common agenda where all participants have a shared vision for change; there is shared measurement; there is agreement on the ways success will be measured and reported; there are mutually reinforcing activities that engage a diverse set of stakeholders; there is continuous communication that is formal or open across the many stakeholders; and there is a dedicated support organization with capacity to manage all the moving parts.
Bringing a collaboration to the point of implementing a true collective impact process is not for the faint of heart. Like others who love Cleveland, we are tired of daily reports of youth violence, unfit housing, health disparities, and food insecurity, not to mention the limited economic, educational, and social mobility that act as a barrier to being a world-class inclusive city. All these challenges are linked, and we must cultivate leaders who incorporate systems thinking and a true appreciation of collaboration across silos. Yes, resources matter and matter greatly, but we have a moral obligation to use resources in the best way possible. Collective impact affords us a great opportunity to do just that.
Roland V. Anglin, PhD, Dean and Professor, Levin College of Public Affairs and Education, Cleveland State University
Gregory L. Brown, Executive Director, PolicyBridge
Randell McShepard, Co-Founder and Board Chair, PolicyBridge