Welcome to Together for Change, the podcast where we explore the transformative power of systems change and civic infrastructure.
The North Star is the only bright star whose position relative to a rotating Earth does not change. For StriveTogether, that North Star is economic mobility and creating equitable pathways for every child to have the best possible opportunity. This involves both transforming systems and delivering outcomes. And, it involves placed-based communities. So what does it mean to get better results?
This episode features Jennifer Blatz, President and CEO of Strive Together and Lisandra Gonzales, CEO of Rocky Mountain Partnership.
“You shouldn’t have to have a PhD to be able to go out and enact change.”
– Lisandra Gonzales, Chief Executive Officer for the Rocky Mountain Partnership
Hi, and welcome to Together for Change. My name is Simon Tam. I’m the Senior Director of Marketing and Communication at StriveTogether, and your host for today’s episode of Together for Change. Now for the past year, I’ve been working behind the scenes on the overall production and outlining of conversations for this podcast. I’ve been very proud of what we’ve been able to produce but I’m especially excited for what’s to come this year.
This season, we’re focusing on our North Star of economic mobility by diving deep into how children and families are better off as a result of social impact work that treats the root cause of issues rather than only focusing on the symptoms at StriveTogether. We do this by changing systems and building up civic infrastructure.
Now, this season, we’ll also talk about the work in a couple of different ways that we work upstream, to focus on the roots. In other words, we’re willing to go a bit deeper, because that’s where we have the ability to create lasting change. And in that spirit, we’re going deeper this year, by really focusing on these key ideas of economic mobility, getting better results, and transforming systems.
Today, we’re really going to focus on that North Star of economic mobility piece, and what it means to get better results. I’m joined by Jennifer Blatz, President and CEO of StriveTogether, and Lisandra Gonzalez, Chief Executive Officer for the Rocky Mountain Partnership. Let’s jump right in.
Now, Jennifer, I’d like to begin with you. Our listeners have heard you talk about the origin story of the Cradle to Career movement, and how StriveTogether kind of emerged from that. But today, I would really like to focus more on how you got started on this journey. Can you share a little bit more about your why? What brought you into this work, and how your approach to creating social impact has really changed through your personal journey?
Sure. And Simon, it’s great to be here with you to have this conversation today. So to start, education was really, really important to my family. I am actually the first in my family to go to college. And I remember growing up hearing very consistent messages from my parents, my brother and I talked about this all the time that, you know, they wanted us to have more opportunity than they had. I remember, you know, my parents worked hard, they worked a lot of overtime, my dad worked third shift. And so there was these messages around, like you need to get a good education, you need to go to college, so that you can get a good job. And that, you know, you won’t have to work so much overtime. And that’s what we want for you. So from a very young age, I knew that I obviously didn’t have the words, economic mobility, but it was definitely, you know, my parents, like so many parents, every parent, wants, for their own children, is to have something better. And so I went on to the University of Kentucky. I was very, very involved as a student took everything in as a first generation college student, there were lots of opportunities to get involved. And I took advantage of all of those, of course, my family wanted me to, or I thought I had a perception that my family really wanted me to make something better myself.
So I was an English major and thought I was going to go to law school. But it turned out that I really, really loved the experience of getting involved in campus and went on to graduate school for higher ed and student affairs, so that I could help other first generation college students. I worked in college admissions.
And so that really brought me to this work as a practitioner. That’s how I come to this work. My background and earliest part of this work is in college access and attainment. And when I came to the work of StriveTogether, you know, after having worked for many years, sort of on one end of the continuum, I’m really looking at that transition from high school to post secondary, and knowing that starting in that work is far too late. And so this opportunity to work cradle to career, for me was sort of the combination of my own personal story, my work as a practitioner and really bringing me into this type of work where I am today.
You know, I’m kind of wondering just hearing you talk, it really kind of resonates with me as well because I was also the first in my family to go to college. I think from a very, very young age that was kind of instilled in me that an A minus was not good enough, that it had to be all As because my dad would always say, “We want you to work with your brain and not with your back,” because you know, they grew up in, I was one of those kids on free and reduced lunches and, and they didn’t want that to happen to me.
It makes me kind of think like maybe for a lot of families out there that really press upon the importance of higher education in their minds that are trying to solve for these questions of economic mobility. But for me, like a very kind of singular, like, one family at a time kind of thing, right, like trying to solve a generational issue. So how did you kind of move from that family tie that the individual local college to thinking about these problems nationwide? And in many cases worldwide, when you think about all the organizations out there who are looking at the StriveTogether theory of action, and, and its approach in its work.
You know, when I think about my journey, and kind of making the transition of thinking about this work as, as a single program, or intervention to support young people, because for me, that’s what, that’s what it was about.
In my earliest days working in college admission, then working with college access programs, it was that if we could find this kind of silver bullet program or intervention to get more young people on a path, more young people like me, I, you know, I had, I obviously did grow up with privilege I had, you know, my parents were thinking and saving and kind of drilling in to my head from the earliest days, you know, this is how you get a better opportunity. And I recognize that the privilege from of where I grew up, the resources that were available to me, and even the color of my skin, enabled me to have a much easier path than many others. And so understanding that, particularly during my journey, and working at college admissions and seeing, you know, really the inequities that were perpetuated by the system of college admissions, you know, who could hire an ACT or LSAT prep coach versus who had to, you know, just use the resources available to them at their public school.
Who could hire those scholarship finders, and those private admissions counselors who helped them get admission to institutions versus who couldn’t, you know, that’s what I really understand it, how the system was designed to privilege certain people and, and how I wanted to work not only on the program interventions, but also on the system and begin to transform systems, so that more young people can be on the path and have the opportunity that I had.
Now Lisandra, I want to talk a little bit about your journey as well. In so many ways, your journey kind of brought you back full circle. You’ve held many different roles in a number of organizations. But with the Rocky Mountain Partnership, in particular, you’re working in Adams County, where you were born, you’re engaging with the 27J school system, where you’re doing outstanding work, a school system that you kind of grew up with. So what’s been your main motivating force and what have been some of the lessons that you brought with you as you stepped into this particular role at Rocky Mountain Partnership?
Yeah, like the two of you, first generation, but I’m also first generation to the US. My dad immigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico, when he was in his early 20s. And my mom’s family migrated from South Texas to work the farm fields in Brighton, Colorado, where I was raised. So growing up in a community that was already experiencing, you know, a lot of socio economic challenges, right, I grew up really having very little, my parents worked very hard and taught us the value of education, of course, but I had no idea how to navigate the labyrinth that was to become my piecing together my college degree.
I mean, I graduated from high school and started raising children and having a family and it took me about 14 years to earn my college degree. I pieced it together, a very challenging journey for me. And I think the things that it taught me was that the system was very much not designed to support me, but actually designed to help make sure that I wasn’t successful. Every turn, every corner was challenged. I couldn’t afford to go to school full time and not work, because then I couldn’t take care of my family. I didn’t understand how to navigate any of it, whether it was a college application, or as you were saying, the admissions process, paying for college was incredibly hard all along that journey as well. Transferring from one institution to another because my family moved around some was also very challenging.
And so I feel really honored and responsible to do something to have the ability to do this work and to do something to change it. And so that’s what I’m dedicating my time to now through the Rocky Mountain Partnership.
Yeah, Jennifer, you know, we oftentimes say at the core of StriveTogether’s work and for every member of our network is this idea of creating equitable pathways for every child to have the best opportunity and kind of like Lisandra’s illustrating here, like we know that the conditions can be very different for folks in many different communities, particularly when they come from different zip codes, racial, ethnic backgrounds, different levels of socio economic status.
And I think as a result, we’re seeing that there are a lot of different approaches to the work because it’s almost catered to these different communities. I’m just kind of curious from a national level, what are the common patterns of success that you’re seeing across the board that can be applied, no matter the geographical area, or political makeup? You know, what are the things that are actually driving economic mobility?
Yeah, I mean, I think to really understand the patterns that are driving economic mobility or the patterns that have the potential to drive academic mobility in this country, we have to understand just what has been the trend as it relates to economic mobility and sort of what are some of those systemic barriers, as we’ve been talking about that exist, and sort of how communities are combating them.
So I mean, one of the, we know that, you know, the defining feature of the American Dream is really the opportunity to do better than one’s parents, which we’ve discussed. You know, our parents wanted better for us. That has been fading since 1940. So looking at that data, and understanding that zip code is the greatest determinant as to whether or not a young person is on a path to mobility and not only zip code, but that white kids are more likely to be on a path to mobility than kids of color, even you know, white young people living in poverty are more likely to be on a path to economic mobility than wealthy black families and black children.
So when you look at those statistics, and that data, you understand that it’s systemic. So when you ask, you know, sort of what are the patterns emerging, and communities who are beginning to really see evidence of getting more young people on a path to mobility, I think it’s the communities who are taking what at StriveTogether, we call a sort of both and approach, you’re both working to put in place best practices and interventions that can support young people from birth through career, but you’re also working at the system. So when I think of patterns, I really think that the patterns we’re seeing are very much aligned with the the principles and key pillars of our Theory of Action at StriveTogether.
First and foremost, the community of cross sector leaders at all levels in a community, have to come together around a shared vision, and a belief that every child, regardless of race, ethnicities, zip code or circumstance should have an opportunity to be on a path to mobility and kind of agree to that shared vision and then begin looking at their local data, really using that data to drive change, you know, both at the programmatic, at the more incremental level, but also to shape policy, so that you get to systems change and systems transformation. And this has to happen through collaborative action and really collective action, to have multiple different stakeholders working together with community to co-develop opportunities and solutions to put young people on the path.
And then last but not least, you know, when we see communities who are really getting this done, it really making an impact in the community. It requires investment, it requires really strong adaptive leadership. So you have to have that leadership in place. And this is long term work.
You need investment, sustainable investment, patient capital. So when I think of looking across our StriveTogether network, those communities in every community across the network are following these, this theory of action in this way of building credit, career, civic infrastructure, and community. These are the communities who are really starting to see an incredible impact and a sustainable impact on outcomes in their community.
Lisandra, I would love to dive into this a bit more. I know Rocky Mountain Partnership has really been approaching the work at multiple levels. But you know, when Jennifer mentioned multiple stakeholders, I remember one of the stories that really made me fall in love with the work that you all are doing there. Because you know, one of these things that we’ve talked about this on the show is that the people who are most impacted by problems need to be part of the solution.
It’s that multiple stakeholders, that community engagement piece, and I know that Rocky Mountain Partnership has really modeled this for the whole country, especially with your work around civic engagement. Can you share a little bit more about that work with civic influencers? And how engaging with the community has unlocked new approaches for delivering outcomes?
Yeah, absolutely. We positioned a sister leadership table to our Community Leaders Council, so our Community Leaders Council comprised of all of the decision makers who have formal authority across our region. We realize that we couldn’t do this work, obviously, without understanding the root causes, and those who are experiencing the challenges, or those who understand the root causes, and can help us uncover those things and do the real work that’s going to address those things.
And so the Community Coalition Council is comprised of individuals across our community that are referred to as civic influencers, we not only train and resource them, but we help ensure that they have support to be at decision making tables to help address the things that are most impacting them. So this sister leadership table is separate for a reason that we also don’t want them to be influenced by some of the politics that our community leaders have to contend with.
For example, if you’re a school district superintendent, or a city manager, you have a board of elected officials that you answer to. And so your representation on the community leaders councils dependent on the decisions or agendas they need to follow and make with the information that they have.
Our civic influencers or a coalition needs to be able to be separate and independent from that so that they can feel and have the ability to share and talk about the real challenges that are experiencing, and vice versa to talk about the unintended consequences of ideas that each group has. So we bring them together to then co design, the strategy and the projects that they’re going to launch to address that strategy, our civic influencers.
The whole premise behind our civic influencer model is we don’t want to necessarily continue business as usual, right. But we also need to have community members who know the system to change the system. And so empowering them to know how to show up in these spaces. For example, even just some of the way meetings, our agendas are handled, or decisions are made, those are things that they need to be skilled and trained on, so that they can show up in a very sophisticated way to address the challenges.
Yeah, and for folks who are interested in learning more, there’s a great article about the civic influencers work from Rocky Mountain Partnership in our annual report, Impact Rising, so if you go to strivetogether.org, to learn more about that story, see the data, how data is being used, and who’s being impacted by the work.
Now, I’m kind of want to bring this back to that initial idea that assured at the outset of this idea of our North Star of being economic mobility here. I’m curious from both of you, you’re both leading organizations who are working in this area. But how do you describe a North Star from a mission statement? Or do you think they’re actually one and the same?
In my opinion, they need to be the same. You should wake up every single day with clear understanding of what it is that you’re trying to accomplish the game changing, what is the difference that’s being made in the world as a result of the work that your organization is doing. And so for us, every single day, for the Rocky Mountain Partnership, we envision an inclusive and prosperous region where every community member, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, age, zip code, or circumstance has the opportunity to earn an income that allows them to take care of themselves and their families and thrive from cradle to career.
That can’t happen, unless we wake up every single day with community partners and community members who are working together to solve those challenges and problems that stand in the way of that vision and mission. And so breaking down those silos, removing obstacles, supporting resources and policies that align with effective solutions towards our North Star is our vision and mission.
I completely agree with Lisandra. I think, whether you call it vision, mission, North Star, high aim, whatever, you know, we call these things that guide us in our work, they have to be clear and they are the same and so at StriveTogether, we talk about ensuring that every child regardless of race, ethnicity, zip code or circumstance has every opportunity to thrive and reach their full potential.
And so every thing that we do is aligned to that North Star vision and it is our mission to ensure that more kids are on a path towards that more, North Star. I do think they’re very much the same. And we have to be clear in what guides us in our work and keeps us focused and that really is what a North Star is. So I yeah, I think they’re definitely the same.
Yeah, and we know that just as like a sailor will use a compass or they’ll look at their sails to see where the wind is heading. What kind of measures or indicators do you each of you like to use to make are that we’re actually on the right path? And what happens when, perhaps if some of the data shared indicates that maybe a different path needs to be taken?
On the ground, we have a scorecard report card, if you will. Its first objective of this, this data is to help us understand the current state. When we think about overall economic and social mobility, we have about 33 different indicators or data points, if you will, that span across five categories. Everything from basic needs, health and mental health, workforce and training, education, for example, are all things that we measure so that we can really understand very much like you would understand an environmental landscape, right?
Or like, how’s the environment, how our community members are faring, this includes things such as understanding even how community members are voting? Are they advocating for themselves, because that’s a very strong indicator of someone’s economic and social mobility. We look at that data. And our work is intended to improve those metrics. And so we have, of course, much more specific data points, key performance indicators for all the work that we do that align to that.
You know, if I could just jump in, Lisandra, one of the things you mentioned here is civic engagement or community voting. And you all had just worked to get a pretty historic levy passed for the school district as well. Do you want to dive into a little bit more about what it took and how you worked with your civic influencers to help, you know, to drive that voter participation? And was there any kind of key, key moment or tactic or strategy that you found that really helped unlock any kind of barriers that were preventing people from engaging in the past?
Well, yeah, I mean, the school district 27J was the third least funded school district in Colorado. It’s also the school district that I grew up in. The disparities that I even experienced as a learner there, right, graduating fairly at the top of my class, actually, and then going into a learning environment and having to do a lot of remedial work to even just be able to keep up at a college level, or what learners are still saying to this day.
One of our civic influencers, her name is Gaby Chavez. She is a graduate from the Brighton School District, and very, very, very top of her class. In fact, she is going to one of the most prestigious schools here in Colorado University of Denver. And her story is the same. I mean, she and I bonded very quickly when she said I struggled going to school, and being alongside somebody for more affluent school districts and realizing just how much I am behind. And so the lack of funding caused the school district to have to make some really tough decisions on what they were cutting. They were one of the school districts in the US who cut went down to a four day school week, and all programming, basic support basic needs support that a school district might need to provide in a challenged school district, like this economic play challenge community, they cut everything and so there was no more to cut, they were having to decide basic programming things would have to go.
And so we didn’t have a choice but to pursue an additional mill levy override. But all the failed attempts over the past 20 to 22 years were a pain point. They were doing the same thing. Every single year, they’d have very passionate and committed community members come to the table, but their usual suspects, right, the same committee members getting together to put together a campaign to go after this mill levy override. And it just seems that this was the year we had to engage those most impacted. The first thing we did was put the mill levy language in front of our community members, and our young civic influencers were like, I don’t understand a thing that says. Neither do I.
When I would look at my ballot to vote, I didn’t understand the language itself, much less the implications of what would come of voting yes or no for this ballot initiative. And so we worked alongside some of the supports that StriveTogether provided us we worked with Children’s Funding Network, I forget the names of all the different groups, but they’re very critical resources to put together an impact assessment. That impact assessment came from information gathered focus groups, interviews, I think there were some surveys that were conducted with your unusual suspects. The individuals that were not only going to be impacted with a lack of funding, but those who live in the community and are impacted by the lack of education general support that our learners were getting, for example, we have a talent supply shortage, very, very front line talent that we need for health, first responders with very significant shortages.
And so being able to connect the dots for community that this is what’s happening behind those closed school doors is training so that these individuals can provide the services and be in your community was an eye opener. And so that information, our civic influencers were armed with sophisticated data, and information to go back out into the community and in their own words, in the languages that are spoken in our community, mostly Spanish, were able to talk to voters, I think the data that we have on how many community members were engaged in conversations with our civic implementers is through the roof. I mean, it’s incredible. And so that was the difference this year.
And not only did they successfully pass the mill levy override, unprecedent win, but the money that is being invested into the school district, they now have Gaby Chavez, one of the civic influencers was one of, I think, eight community members, over 70 applications were received from, you know, in from individuals who are very competent, and this is the work they do to help determine how to spend the dollars on the ground. They placed Gaby Chavez at the decision making table. And that’s an example of things that are changing and long-term changes, I think we’re going to continue to see.
Yeah, what a perfect example of not only bringing the people who are most impacted by these things, bringing them into the part of the solution, even for something less, what many folks would consider, should be considered like obvious ballot language, and how that could really impact the results. I think it’s also an example at least in the, in the past of how a lot of times we see in this field and just kind of general public policy work, how a lot of poor results or poor policies are driven with the very best of intentions, and why it’s so important to use data and and to take a more comprehensive approach that doesn’t always rely on what we’ve always done.
You know, Jennifer, I want to kind of raise this question to you. I know we oftentimes talk about like getting better results getting better results for youth and families, it might seem kind of obvious to us. But for folks who are impacted by that work, like what does it actually mean to get better results? Like if you’re, if you’re talking to a parent or member of the community that is traditionally marginalized? How do you explain the work that we’re doing to them in a way that they can understand and not only like, get, but also enthusiastically support?
Yeah, I mean, so I will definitely speak to this. But I also want to speak to just Lisandra’s story about Gaby. I had an opportunity to meet Gaby. I was in the Rocky Mountain region in December and had an opportunity to hear firsthand from the superintendent of 27J and Gaby and other civic influencers about this work. And I just I do think, and this is this kind of goes along with the question you were asking, Simon, around, you know, how do you talk with a parent or community member. And I think, for us, it is preparing parents and community members, given helping them have access to the data and information we have, I shouldn’t be out there talking to other community members, that members of the community should be talking to the community members.
And so I think Gaby told a story of even talking with her dad, about, you know, not really understanding, not being supportive of the levy and really having the information that she had and knowing you know, her dad always wanting the best for her, just as we’ve talked about our parents wanting the best for us, and helping him understand that this passing this levy, like how it impacts, you know, even though she’s already graduated, and out there, just how it not only impacts those young people who are coming behind her, but also the community as a whole.
So I think we have to talk about, you know, we have to get better at the messaging around. Even those who don’t have kids in the school system aren’t necessarily as directly impacted by these policies and practices. It does have an impact. It has an impact on the well-being of the community. It has an impact on the economic prosperity of a community when this type of school levy is passed. So having those types of conversations with residents and parents and young people and really talking about what it is that they want for their lives, what it looks like for them to thrive what it is that you know, people want for their own children.
This is how we have to be able, began to talk about these results in our work and the work that Lisandra and I do. That’s more at the balcony, you know, we’re looking at the outcomes, we’re looking at gaps closing, we’re looking at those cradle-to-career outcomes, which are very key indicators of economic mobility. And I’m not sure that, I mean, we know that from research and many, many years of research that that reading on grade level, by third grade is a key predictor of future education success, or taking an advanced math class by ninth grade is a key predictor as to whether or not you’ll attain a post-secondary degree.
So having conversations with young people and families about that and helping them to understand just how important these outcomes are, but also, how important that the system’s you know, these changing and shifting policies, like with the school levy, you know, understanding the inequities in school funding and how school funding is happening, these are, these are what we call at StriveTogether, systems indicators.
So you have the academic kind of education outcomes we’re all familiar with, like reading at grade level by third grade or algebra by eighth grade and getting college enrollment college completion. But they’re also the system’s indicators like school funding or teacher demographics, and helping young people and families understand the impact of these sorts of contributing indicators or systems indicators, so that they can understand the policy change that we’re working to achieve and that they can then become engaged as the civic influencers have in their own advocacy and their own policy change work on the ground.
Yes Simon, I’d love to, to share a little bit more about our civic influencer model, the structure itself. So civic influencers are young people, community members who have been equipped with the necessary training, tools and resources to affect positive change in areas that directly impact them, and those around them. They make up our Community Coalition Council, which co leads the Rocky Mountain Partnership, but they’re really intended to be out in the community. This, this entire effort is intended to be a leadership springboard. And by building the skills and experience of our young people in our community members, we’re trying to create a pipeline of qualified individuals who are equipped to take on important roles and hold leadership positions across the community.
Some key performance indicators that we’re putting in place to help ensure that we’re accomplishing this is how many of our civic influencers are not only engaged within the Rocky Mountain Partnership and the work that we’re doing, but hold leadership positions outside throughout the community, school board’s elected offices, any sort of thing that can help them enact the change.
Now, the caveat here is, they have to be armed with the right information. I mean, we are here on the ground, the best intended individuals with formal authority, maybe with the loud voices, and our don’t necessarily have the data and the information to always do the what addresses the root cause. We need to not only support our community to have that information that decision makers, but we need our civic influencers, to have that level of sophisticated information, so that they can go out and enact that change in the most impactful way.
So our data, infrastructure and the innovations that we’re making to that we’re using a regression model formula on our factors, what are within our key drivers, like what is the work? What are the challenges and barriers that our community is experiencing? So that we can with the best predictive analysis, understand where the greatest wins will come. It’s a whole thing. But this is the level of sophisticated innovative data that our civic influencers are being trained with, trained to understand and to articulate and help our community understand it in a simpler way. You shouldn’t have to have a PhD to be able to go out and enact change.
Yeah, and I think, you know, we’ll be diving more into this throughout the season, because there’s going to be a common theme of building up civic infrastructure. But this is just a great way to kind of put faces to that, like, you’re building up the relationships within the community. You’re building power for folks, and you’re equipping them so you’re setting them up for success, which I don’t think happens nearly enough.
I think there’s a lot of good policies and, and intentions that go out there in the field. But oftentimes, they don’t come with the resources and training. There’s almost an assumption that people are at the same level or have the same access to resources and information and data, when in fact that for folks who are, you know, approaching the work from a different level, they almost have a responsibility for making sure that they’re very well equipped.
Well, thank you both for so much rich information. I want to close out today by asking a simple question. What gives you hope? Jennifer, do you want to tackle that first?
Yeah, sure I can. Because I mean, what gives me hope our leaders like Lisandra, and the work in Rocky Mountain Partnership and the incredible unexpected, but completely necessary wins, like the passing of the mill levy after so many years, stories like this, give me hope. And this is happening in nearly 70 communities across the country that this type of building cradle to career civic infrastructure and in staying with staying the course with this work, knowing that it’s long term work, but just meeting people like Gaby, who are spending time trying to get others engaged in this work, that’s what gives me hope. And I’m very, very hopeful.
Our civic influencers give me so much hope. And I think that it’s also our community leaders are inspired and see the power that comes with civic influencers in the work that they’re doing, and feeling a whole level of hope across the network for sure.
Thank you both. And thank you for our listeners for joining us today. Please stay connected with us by visiting strivetogether.org where you can get the latest information through our monthly newsletter. You’ll also find transcripts of our Together for Change podcast series of case studies and more. Again that’s strivetogether.com.