“We are building the civic infrastructure necessary to support every child from cradle to career.” Well, that sounds pretty fantastic, but what does that actually mean?
At StriveTogether, we have defined civic infrastructure as: A way in which a region or community comes together to hold itself collectively accountable for implementing its own unique cradle-to-career vision and organizes itself to identify what gets results for children; improves and builds upon those efforts over time; and invests the community’s resources differently to increase impact. And once again, I ask: What does that mean?
I feel like sometimes we get caught up using obscure words because we want them to mean something different from the expectations that more common words often elicit. But in the end, we wind up complicating the lines of communication. So, let’s take a stab at defining civic infrastructure in a way that doesn’t make our heads spin.
My elementary English teacher taught me never to define a word by describing what it is not, so naturally, that is exactly where I am going to start. Civic infrastructure is not a program or an initiative that you can just implement in your community. It also is not a tangible thing that you can use any of your five senses to identify. Rather, it is the organization of all the moving pieces in a community that impact a child and his or her family in a way that more effectively gets kids from birth to a meaningful career, successfully. It’s what we are already doing to support kids, and a little of what we may not be doing, but organized so that we are working together, using data and moving resources in a coordinated way to constantly be getting better at what we do. So what are these moving pieces exactly? I default to the framework:
Shared community vision: This consists of bringing together stakeholders around a unified vision and goals, but it’s stakeholders at every level (grassroots and grasstops) and across all sectors of the community, collectively holding each other accountable for improvement. If third-grade reading scores go down, it is not the school district’s problem — it is our problem because we all are responsible for improvement and we all are part of the solution.
Evidence-based decision making: This includes all the metrics with which we track our progress and assess our improvement, as well as agreeing on which high level data points we want to move because we know they will indicate impact. It also consists of using the data we are tracking to help us understand how to get better, and keep getting better, as opposed to merely proving whether or not we’re failing.
Collaborative action: Yes, it consists of all the services we already have to support kids from birth through when they enter a career, but it’s also bringing together the providers of those services to work together differently. And when we say “work together differently,” we mean coming together to use data to identify what practices within their area of work have impact and how they can collectively work together, using data to keep improving. It’s much more than just sharing best practices and networking with other providers of similar services.
Investment & sustainability: This involves more than asking for money from the funders to support this work; it’s asking for the community’s time and voice, a partner’s skills and expertise and a leader’s influence and support — and then aligning all those assets behind things we know will work for kids. It takes resources and investment from every stakeholder in the community in order to sustain this work and resources of all different kinds.
When you pull all these pieces together, line them all up, mix them all around in a way that makes sense in your community, you are essentially creating civic infrastructure. And although each of these pieces are singularly important, and people do individual pieces really well already, we can never achieve the kind of impact we want to see without putting it all together, without building that solid civic infrastructure.
I hope I have simplified the idea of civic infrastructure here and provided a clear definition for you. But since this is the work that you all are doing every day, I encourage you to join in the conversation. Tell me I am wrong, tell me I am right on, but mostly tell me how civic infrastructure is defined in your community.