Welcome to Together for Change, the podcast where we explore the transformative power of systems change and civic infrastructure.
In this episode, we will unravel the complexities of systems transformation. While the term may sound simple, defining and achieving it is no easy feat. We are joined by two distinguished guests who have earned the Systems Transformation designation from StriveTogether. Bill Crim, president and CEO of the United Way of Salt Lake, and Susan Dawson, president and executive director of the E3 Alliance in Austin, Texas, bring their valuable expertise to our discussion.
Together with Bill and Susan, we will delve into real-world examples of systems being transformed in the field, uncovering the key lessons learned along the way. Join us for an enlightening conversation that will inspire and empower us to drive positive change in our communities.
“We’re not talking today about transforming students, we’re talking about transforming systems.”
– Susan Dawson, President and Executive Director of the E3 Alliance in Austin, Texas
Hello, I’m Monroe Nichols, Director of Policy and Partnerships at StriveTogether, and your host for today’s episode of Together for Change. 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 addresses the root causes of issues, rather than only focusing on the symptoms.
At StriveTogether, we think about this through the lens of changing systems and building civic infrastructure. Today, we’re going to focus on what it really means to transform systems. While the word systems transformation rolls easily off the tongue, it can be difficult to define what it means, and even more difficult to achieve it. With our guests, we’re going to explore some examples of systems being transformed in the field and the key lessons learned along the way.
I’m joined today by Bill Crim, President, CEO of the Promise Partnership with the United Way of Salt Lake, and Susan Dawson, President and Executive Director of the E3 Alliance in Austin, Texas. Both these organizations recently earned the Systems Transformation designation from StriveTogether. Bill and Susan, good to see you both, and welcome to Together for Change
Great to be here
Good morning, Monroe.
I want to begin by digging into those elusive two words, systems transformation. We throw these words around quite a bit but we don’t hear quite as much as to how people are defining in the field, and even more so the tangible examples of how it’s been achieved.
As two organizations that have certainly been recognized for making this sort of progress. How do you define it? And what were some of the early indications that your respective communities were on the pathway to getting to where you’ve been today?
I guess I’ll start. Thank you for having us here today, Monroe, and thank you for being here, Bill. You’re such, you’ve got such great work going on in Salt Lake City, we’re glad to be talking about this.
I’d say to start, the most important thing is that we’re not talking today about transforming students, we’re talking about transforming systems. Because so often, it is the systems that are the barrier or the opportunity for our students to succeed. Too often, implicit bias, or sometimes even explicit bias is what helps or hinders our students from reaching the success and the economic mobility that we want them to. And especially when we think about scale, not helping tens, or hundreds or thousands of students succeed, but helping hundreds of thousands of students succeed. So when you think about systems transformation, at scale, we’re really talking about population level change, and understanding deeply those systems that are impacting our students, our schools, our teachers, our staff who are trying to work together to create the kind of success that we want to see. I’d say one example that we have, and we have many that we’re proud of, but an example that demonstrates this is that we found through our research that mathematics and successfully navigating mathematics, in advanced courses through secondary is the strongest predictor for students going on past high school into some credential post-secondary degree, industry certification, that can predict long term economic mobility and success.
And through our work both in research, and then backing up that research through our education systems, we found that there is huge, huge bias in systems that is introduced all the way back in fifth grade, when decisions are made about what students are or not offered the opportunity to have advanced access to courses. So for instance, here in the central Texas region, only a third of our Black fifth graders, who were the highest performing in the state, they were doing everything that we were asking them to do, but only a third of them are being put on the advanced pathways to be able to take algebra one by eighth grade and therefore take advanced math in high school and beyond. And so we work together across 15 of our school districts across the region changed the way that we do policies and practices. And it was as a result of that have been able to close the gap between our highest performing black and white students by over 85%. So again, it’s a question of using the objective data coming together, changing systems so that our students can succeed.
That’s great. I really liked what you said about changing systems, not changing students, right? Like making sure that we’re putting those young people at the center and figuring out what around that needs to be addressed or transformed to make sure they can achieve. Bill, coming over to you, just thinking about how you would define this concept of transforming systems and, and maybe some early indications that you felt where you saw Salt Lake start to turn the corner a little bit. In your work?
Well, I would say one awesome definition is what Susan just described it, people working together, system leaders, especially working together differently, using data differently, to hold themselves accountable for every student success, listening to students, voices, and parents voices differently.
You know, I think the StriveTogether Theory of Action probably is the most explicit definition like, and I think you could say, in a partnership, you could say we want to transform our system, and people wouldn’t know what you mean. But if you hold that theory of action in front of folks, and you look at it, specifically, I think that gives a definition. So I think that’s super, super important to be explicit. But the behavior that Susan just described, that’s what people who don’t carry the Theory of Action around with them in their pocket, would see they would see people doing their work differently, behaving differently when it comes to result.
And when it comes to equity, maybe I’ll throw in with just one example or two that we’ve seen along the way. I don’t think it’s system change when a system leader behaves differently, it doesn’t change when multiple system leaders across sectors behave differently in the way Susan described, we started to see that early in a place. That’s part of our partnership. When a mayor, a set of business leaders, a school superintendent, made really pretty significant changes to the way that they thought about their own system, and their relation to kid and their relationship to each other. And they started to share data with each other, they started to focus on every child success, they had a system and population mindset, not a program mindset.
Over time, we started to see people dot planning things fingers at our legislature, and just decide to work differently. And I don’t want to minimize the importance of policy work. And I know we’ll talk about that. But it was important in our partnership for system leaders to stop pushing accountability outside themselves. And to say, No, we can do some things ourselves just within our own school district within our own city.
You know, Bill, I think that’s really powerful. This idea that, hey, there are some things we can still control here in place, and we need to prioritize those things. And then when we run into that brick wall where we can’t do any more, then maybe we can go and figure out what somebody else can help us do. I was thinking as you were talking, there’s two things I think that listeners should be thinking about when trying to transform systems care, we need to get a pocket-sized Theory of Action. And we need to get like a you know, a big systems mirror. So people can look in the mirror and say, “Hey, what is that we need to change. To make things better in this community.”
I’m really interested in digging into your respective journeys a bit more, you brought up the Theory of Action and folks listening probably understand the different gateways and that Theory of Action ranging from exploring, which is for, you know, community sort of entering the work all the way through systems transformation, which is reserved for communities that are very mature in the work where you all are.
Your organizations under your leadership have really gotten through all those gateways, right. And that doesn’t mean, the work is over, but it just means that you all are, you have those behaviors that allows you to change outcomes and systems in a way that exemplary. But what are some key takeaways, as you’ve kind of gone through that theory of action? And what were some of the major catalysts for you to be able to scale your work over the years. Bill will go to you first this time.
I probably want to mention two takeaways. And the first is building around willing partners is a way to get momentum. If you have multiple school districts and multiple places, and you’re trying to build kind of at scale. Our experience is not everybody, not everybody wants to go there at the same speed and so building actual work around and with people who are willing is a way to get momentum and pull others along with take away.
You know, Bill, I was thinking there’s a famous Texan who used to work in Austin named George W. Bush who talks about a coalition of the willing, right so it’s a a great deal. It’s like, you know, hey, where do we start?
Though the other takeaway I might mention is that we assume for a long time that language and meaning could be taken for granted, that our meaning for the words of population accountability or results was everybody else’s. And after a while, we learned that language and meaning don’t always line up. And so, for us, it’s been super important to take the time to make sure when we talk about result, we mean the same thing. When we talk about equity, we mean the same thing. And then in terms of catalyst, the one I’d maybe point to, is something I heard from StriveTogether when we were first learning about this work. And the phrase was, “Backbone or go home.” You got to have sufficient backbone infrastructure to catalyze the partnership, and to do the data analysis and to keep people together. And I don’t think you can overemphasize the importance of sufficient background report.
That’s great. Susan, if you might just jump in also on this idea of reflecting on some of those catalysts for scale. But you may even lift up some of the challenges you may have faced in Austin, and really getting to where you are right now; this trajectory over these number of years, from really getting started as a community in this way.
Because I mean, I think the one thing we often understand and respect is before any of us started a partnership, for there’s a backbone, there were folks who were operating in the space trying to make things better, right.
And so I think that goes to Bill’s point about backbone or go home… there has to be, what we’ve learned is somebody has to hold that work, right. But then just thinking about when you have that organization, and all that work, and they’re trying to pull those partners together through these five gateways, but more importantly, pull them through this this transitionary period from, you know, us wanting to get together to us really changing outcomes to us being able to submit those outcomes in our work. What were some of those challenges? What were some of those catalysts? What are some of the lessons learned and just navigating some of those challenges in Austin, Texas?
Sure. Well and Bill talked about the willingness of partners, because really, those of us who are in this space of collective impact, we’re not providing direct services to students, right. It’s all about enabling our partners to understand to gather the information to listen to those who have the lived experience that are facing these challenges and enabling them. Those partners to have aligned agreement about what they can do differently and us as a backbone, enabling them with the data with the spaces to collaborate with the policy backing with the resources with the other pieces that are required to make change happen in ways that directly impact students.
But when you talk about the challenges, Monroe, I think it was Jeff Edmondson who always used to talk about how change moves at the speed of trust. And we find that all the time, it’s all about building partnerships of trust, because I really, you know, I would like our partners to like us. But that’s not why we’re here. We’re not here to be liked. We’re not here to be loved, we’re here to be trusted.
We’re here so that those we work with understand that we don’t have a vested interest other than student success, and that we’re here to work with them to provide the very best data and resources to help us all work together to provide that platform for success for students.
And I remember we’ve been around for 17 years now. And real early on maybe 16 years, maybe just a year into it, we provided some data happens to be about the percentage of students who are enrolling in post-secondary from each of our school districts. And we fully understood that we would have to provide the context to understand that the school districts with the lowest number of students from low-income households, obviously, were going to have the highest number of post-secondary enrollment and vice versa. And so, we put this into context of the demographics of the district. And nevertheless, there were a couple of districts who were really offended by this, that even though this was data that anybody could have gotten. We were the ones that were out there putting it out there publicly and saying how can we work together to change the trajectory of our students who need some pathway beyond high school, and we have one school district in particular that we had not taken the time to build that relationship of trust before we put that data out there. And they pulled out of the alliance and they would not going to have anything to do with it. We lobbied school board members we lobbied staff, we did everything we could we finally had to wait until that superintendent retired. And they became a great partner.
But we’ve learned through it all sorts of strategies that we, as a backbone organization, need to constantly be aware about to build those relationships of trust so that we can work collaboratively towards the best interests, not of the adults, but of the students.
I think that’s great. I mean, I think that that building trust part of it is almost one, you know, the theory of action, since we were talking about it. The first pillar is about a shared vision. So that we all understand, before we do anything, before we look at any data, before we do all that kind of stuff, you know, how are we going to do this together? Are we in it together? Right, and figuring that out? I think that is an important piece of this work that we don’t always highlight. So I’m really, I’m really thankful that you highlighted that. Another aspect of trust, I think, is certainly the trust systems leader leaders. But you also mentioned how you engage members of the community. And so I’m really curious for you to kind of talk about the evolution of your work, and bringing those folks in to really take ownership within your partnership of that collective work on the decisions that you all are making the work that you take on how do you move forward as a partnership? How is the effort to involve the folks who are most impacted really, really kind of grown with the partnership?
Are there some things that you might lift up, certainly some wins, but also, maybe some things that have changed over time where you’ve shifted more to members of the community having a greater stake in the partnership itself, not just the work on the ground, but the partnership itself?
I would say in our case that the beginning, we didn’t put nearly enough attention to this question. We focused heavily on engaging and building trust with system leaders. And we kind of think, maybe took for granted that, you know, our school partners had some level of trust with parents, young people, but it wasn’t it wasn’t adequate period. And so along the way, we realized we had to hire different staff, we just created an initiative to hire from the community, instead of young people, parents from the community, we hired them. And we started a kind of grassroots parenting and youth engagement initiative, fellowship program, that helped us build our own competency that just listen and understand. And that gave us the ability to be in communities differently, listening, and understanding and inviting more voices and more people into that.
But that was something I think we didn’t have, at the beginning, we had to learn that we were missing it, and build it along the way. And we still have lots of work to do in that.
And it really is, I think, Bill, both the, you know, the formal leaders that people whose name are in the phone book, and you can look up and find the superintendent and call their office, but also those change agents that don’t necessarily have a title and don’t necessarily have an easy way to find, but may be the ones who people listen to in in our communities and that neighborhoods understand and know, implicitly.
I think there are many things that all of our organizations have learned. I think one of one of the anecdotes that we like to use early on is the power of the marker, is that when we had deliberative dialogues, throughout the community, where we brought people together for many hours, night after night, after night, we gave the students the marker and the flip chart and trained them as facilitators. And it was a very, very different dynamic, when the adults were the one sitting at the table. And the student was the one who is taking the notes and taking the comments and directing the conversation about where we needed to go. And that, that not just listening, but actually co designing solutions is where you really-
The power of the marker. That is an awesome mantra.
Right? I was like I need to write that down, the power of the marker. I’m gonna have to start, I’m gonna have to use that actually. But I will give you credit Susan. That’s a Susan Dawson quote forever for me. But the power of the marker is great.
I kind of want to dig a little bit more into the youth deals like I know, one of the challenges is to you know, anytime you get youth involved, it’s like, you know, a lot of the times we have these youth councils that are National Honor Society kids and which is nothing wrong with that, right, like kids who are normally engaged those types of things. Engaging young people who might be most impacted by systems might be a little more elusive at times. Curious to know the things that you all have done and what you’ve learned over time and like making sure that not only you’re involving youth, but it’s the right youth for the areas in which your partnership is engaging and working right now.
I think there’s a lot of folks out there who are who are working to do just that, and doing it in different ways. What are some strategies and doing that, that you all have used and in Utah and in Texas, to really get at the heart of the kids who are most impacted by systems and finding a place at the table for them to either have the power of the marker, which I love very much, but certainly to not be almost tokenized, right?
Like we really they’re really part of the process, right? Like, what are some strategies? What are some things you all have done, and really connecting you with most impacted by systems in your respective communities?
I think it’s something as Bill said, that we all struggle with and have struggled with over time, you really have to go to where the youth are, rather than expecting them to come to you. There is no question. But being in the environment where the lived experience can reveal itself is part of that.
One of the things especially more recently, in the work that we’ve done around blending the experience of what students are able to do in high school and beyond high school, more and more dual credit classes, and the opportunity to have experiences in early college high schools and way to blend that credit, both in industry and academics, is not just the student.
And also not just the family, but in particular the mom, a lot of times, the students will trust in what mom says about especially, you know, what are the ways that I can advance towards an opportunity that may be different than what I see in my neighborhood, or what I see in the role models, and getting moms? Okay, about what it is that is an opportunity that really can help a student move forward?
And helping, if you will raise the awareness in the moms about what are these opportunities for your student? And how do we give you comfort and understanding and understand what your concerns are about your family helps to bring together that family unit as a unit of trust in the system that you can start to build on. But again, I don’t think that we’ve solved it. And I can’t imagine anybody say they have.
What do they say? Mama knows best. One thing you didn’t bring up and Bill I’m gonna come to you on the same question, but it’s this idea of needing to communicate through trusted sources, right? Like, we have to accept the fact that a lot of folks might not know, E3 Alliance, they may not know, the Promise Partnership. I was a founder at Impact Tulsa, they may not know Impact Tulsa, but we can connect into these institutions that they do know and they do trust, whether it be churches or direct to moms and stuff like that. I think that’s a really powerful strategy in and of itself, right? Like this idea that we can form these strategic partnerships with areas and where people trust. Bill, coming to you, kind of the same question, like how do you reach in to be able to engage those young people who are most impacted by systems and ensure that they can have a real influential place within the partnership?
For us, the first step was to hire them. We just have to look at our own team and recognize that none of us came from the communities where we were working.
And in the short run, like, we just had to hire young people and parents, and not just to get over that hurdle. But that was the right thing to do. Like, their expertise was, and is like, absolutely essential. They know, right? So it is not the solution for the Promise Partnership or, you know, a particular school district to come up with an initiative by itself and drop it on kids and parents is the right thing to do, I think is to ask kids and parents what they need, what’s not working about the system, right now, what has to change.
And so hiring people to be in that work, as facilitators, you know, as organizers, was a step, paying people to then come to meeting was another step, everyone in a typical partnership gets paid to show up at noon, and have lunch and etc. And why would we think any differently about parents, like, let’s pay them, and let’s pay young people to share their expertise with us. And so we’ve done that.
And then the third thing, I think, is maybe just grows from those first two. We were not scratching the surface in terms of scale of engagement, right? And so we engage in an initiative with trusted community members and voices to just systematically listen to 200 young people over a period of time and design around what we heard something called the Utah Youth Leadership Pipeline, which is now working to systematically put young people in places of influence to change the representation of groups that make decision about young people. And we’re early in that, but that’s kind of where our focus is at the moment.
That’s outstanding. I mean, I’m thinking about this idea that here’s the challenge, and not only have you begin to address that for the partnership and the work of the partnership, but there’s this broader representation issue across your entire community. And now you’re building systems to ensure that you’re able to fill that challenge and address that challenge.
Monroe, I was just going to add, because what I hear in what Bill is saying, and we’re doing it in some different ways, is not just hearing from the community, co designing from the community, but also building that capacity in our partners and in our community. So for instance, the process of empathic interviews, where we’re digging deeply, not enough prescriptive to answer these questions, but listening to what the concerns are of youth. We’re working with our colleges and universities across the region, to teach their staff how to have these much deeper conversations with their own students. So they don’t need us to be there so that more and more of the community is enabled to have these kinds of deeper conversations.
That really is great. I’m wondering if either one of you, and I’m sure I think I know the answer this question, but just thinking about the ways that you’ve engaged youth and community, and how core of a part of your work locally and kind of propelling you all to the level of maturity that you’ve been able to achieve through the system transformation designation, might you just lift up specific to make sure we got the partners working to change outcomes, that kind of stuff, let’s talk a little bit to just the importance, just like the importance, almost serially of the difference made by youth and community members on your work along that pathway towards this transformation, might you kind of lift up how important that in and of itself has been?
Well, I might just say, at the moment, the biggest opportunity to change systems in our partnership is sort of sitting there in front of us with a choice to be made. One choice is like for system leaders to continue to behave the way they always have and design a solution without youth and parent voice. The other choice is to start at the bottom in the community, like start with kids, and parents and design all the way up through classroom teachers through building administrators through district level folks, and broader community partners.
And I am grateful I don’t I don’t think we’ve done this perfectly. But the fact that that choice is being contemplated is a big deal for us. Because usually people are on autopilot. And they’re like, we know we’ve got a program, we’ve got a grant, we got a strategy, we’re going to go and do it. And we actually have a system leaders pausing that saying, wait a minute, we got to use our community knowledge, we’ve got to ask kids and parents what they need. And we have structures for that now, which is, I think powerful.
On that point, and Susan even respond to this to the second partner as well. How tough is it for you to learn? And when I say your counterparts in this in this context, I mean, the folks sitting around your leadership council maybe lead the folks at formal power superintendents, other executive directors, that type of stuff. How important is a leader of a backbone to helping those leaders understand how important it is to engage you? And has that been difficult? And I don’t know if it’s difficult because of willingness, but just because of time, just because of capacity? Right? Like, you know, we’re not talking about people who have a ton of time. So like, what’s the role of a leader at a partnership and bringing your other adults along to say, Hey, this is important, this is vitally important. We can’t move forward without it.
I’m going to answer that in three ways.
Monroe, I think the first is some of our partners, and some of our community, we definitely still face cultural issues that are frankly frustrating as hell, that are an adult centric culture rather than a student centric culture. And when you have an adult centric culture, you’re making decisions that are often not in the best interests of students, even if you think they are because you’re not listening to them truly and deeply about what is needed. So that culture needs to change.
The second thing that you mentioned directly is the capacity and the understanding and just the time and again, we’re not perfect, but how do we take the skills that we learned from other Strive partners throughout the country from experts in the academic space from others, about how to deeply engage students and families and authentically engage students and families and help share those resources and understanding in that space with others to be able to do it.
The third thing is the understanding that just because something worked last year or five years ago doesn’t mean it’s going to keep working. Right?
So let me give you again, a real example is we had some discussions with our district, especially partners, after the last recession after the large economic downturn, and had consensus that they really needed help with focusing on student attendance. Texas is one of those states, where schools are still paid based on students showing up, we put together a campaign, if you will, talking to not just formal leaders, but to students and families, about the importance of student attendance called Missing School Matters. Wildly successful. Most businesses, most parents, most entities didn’t understand, for instance, that if I just take my kids out three days early for the ski trip that my school is losing $120. And by the way, that adds up to each comprehensive high school, losing $20,000 a week just from student absences. And think that what we could do taking those resources and increasing the ability of teaching and extracurriculars and ways to engage students.
So we put together a campaign, again, wildly successful, turned around the problems that we had seen with student absenteeism, brought $37 million back to our Central Texas region, just in improvements in the revenues from student attendance. Great, it was great, right? Pandemic hit, it all went to hell, students were no longer leaving because of the ski trips, or because they were, you know, standing on the street corner, or whatever it was, there was a true disengagement from the educational environment, there was a lack of feeling of belonging, there were concerns about kids health, especially our younger students, there was a whole variety of driving factors that were very different than what they were five years ago, and us having to learn and us having to learn with our families and with our partners about what’s driving behavior today, that may be totally different than what we were doing about it five years ago, and how do we work together to pivot and to move to what’s driving behavior now, so that we can help students have the exposure that they need to learn and to succeed in a very different world than it was three or four years ago?
So we have to be nimble as well.
Yeah, you know, I think that’s such an important point to the work that’s done across our StriveTogether network. But everybody in our field, the social impact field, right? How much different the world is just from a couple of years ago and meeting those challenges in different ways.
I think it also in some way speaks to how impressive in that environment, it’s been, the two of you have been able to lead through that and bring your communities to this designation around Systems Transformation, a bit of a shift, small shift, though, but not a horribly small shift, just given what you were lifting up there. Both of you had been pretty active in the policy space, and Utah and in Texas, and neither one of those political environments are necessarily easy, but no political environment is really it’s you know, but might you share, like, what you built, you talked about the policy environment via work avoidance deal, but at some point, you know, just the lever is there, and we got to go pull that lever, might you both share what finally got you all to that policy lever.
And I think we can use this in the kind of the big, I don’t know if it’s the big P or small p either at the local or state level, or even some federal work. I mean, we think a lot about of our policy work at the state level. But certainly, you know, policies pretty broad, but what finally got the two of you to saying, hey, you know, we got to get in this game. These are just things that have to change, we got to work with these elected leaders and policy makers to do it.
In our case, you know, the evolution of our partnership actually began with policy work pretty effective cross sector partnership. And that was just a function of the people that were involved and what our theory of change was and how we showed up. And so the policy expectation was there already. And then we went through this evolution where we realized we could get policies change, and not improve outcome, like the systems are designed to get the results they get. And sometimes you might put more money into a broken system and get worse result. Or you might design a policy and successfully advocate for it. But there are 10 other competing unaligned policies, and you’re just not getting good results. So we consciously realized, oh, we got to do some systems work in order to make the policy work more effective. And they have to be in think, more clearly, I guess, or more intentionally.
I love the dichotomy that we see here because when we founded E3 Alliance, came primarily out of the private sector. And being good private sector leaders, we said, well, let’s just go find the perfect model around the country and steal it. And we’ve yet to find the perfect deal. But one of the things that we did find 17 years ago, is that there were a number of movements for social and educational change, driven by a political leader or a party that inevitably went away as soon as that leader, or that movement was done. And we could point to that issue all over the country.
And so we made it a purposeful decision from the beginning of E3 Alliance, not just to be nonpartisan, but to be apolitical, literally down to where our bylaws said that no, one who held any political office could be on our board of directors, or even a high level volunteer with our work. And so we pursued that strategy for over 10 years, I guess, and did so very purposefully because we did not want to be seen as an organization, we did practice very much little p policy, right?
And what can we see in the data that can change what we need to do at this community college or in this direct services organization, but in terms of state policy, we very actively did not want to be seen as having a vested interest or a position coming in, we wanted to be driven by the objective data. However, after about a decade, our partners across the community and the region, and in fact, the state are coming to us and saying, Look, you have the best data in the state, we can’t not use it, you have to use it to leverage it to have the kind of voice that you can at the policy level, capital P policy level that we can’t otherwise do. And it was quite a debate, it was quite a debate among our staff among our Board of would we lose this reputation of being seen as those with the objective research and information if we took on these positions.
And ultimately, what we decided is that because our reputation was strong, and because our platform of understanding how to leverage research and data was strong and was trusted, that we could move into the capital P policy space, and by doing so have been able to scale much more effectively, things that were impacting tens of thousands of students to hundreds of thousands of students. And so it’s been not something that was, you know, easy or straightforward, but something ultimately that has greatly impacted our scale across what’s a very large state.
It seems that I’ve heard you both say this in different ways, but I think it’s at the at the core of all that is the data itself, right, you know, if we’re going to engage in policy is going to be rooted in outcomes, has that been difficult to maintain in a partnership, because I’m sure once you start getting out there, folks, once you do 10 different things, maybe or whatever the case may be, how ease or difficulty of which you’ve been able to stick to that fidelity of, hey, our policy work is rooted in and driven by data and outcomes. That been an easy road for you all?
Not always, I would say for us for sure. People come to us all the time asking for us to take a position. And if we don’t have the data with which to take that position, then we may be passionate about it, we care about it, but we’re not going to weigh in, because we’re going to be seeing if we believe as politicizing something that we can’t afford to lose the reputation and the objectivity to do. So we make sure that we work with our partners work with our advisors work with others to understand not just what the data says what our data says, What can we can interpolate and that we are absolutely confident about how to do that. So 10 years ago, we would have walked we did not just we would have walked down to the capitol and said, hey, we have the best data in the state of Texas by far about how much difference pre K makes on the readiness of students to succeed in school. Please take this and make the best decisions that you can buy. And we don’t do that anymore. Today we say and, by the way, put money into pre K damn it. And because of that, that was a reason that largely we were able to fund a full day pre K through what was called HB3 across the state of Texas by having that history of data that we also would get behind and advocate for.
Yeah, that’s great. Say we got the objective data, and we have an opinion about what you should do with this information, which I think is great.
You forgot the damn it.
Yeah. Oh, yes. Yeah, you know what, nobody at StriveTogether would believe I forgot the damn it part of that, because I’m usually the one leading that party, Bill, anything to add on like the, you know, bringing your community along, and really staying faithful to the data and outcomes as really the center of your policy conversations and stay in really strict, strict to that position?
I would just say, We’ve appreciated learning from Susan and her team, like there’s a range of data capabilities, I think, in the network, and we look at E3 Alliance that Commit Dallas and others around the StriveTogether network and learn a ton that we’re trying to replicate. So thank you, Susan, for that. We haven’t ever engaged in policy work where data hasn’t been central to it. But I don’t think we have the same access to data. And we don’t have the same analytical capability within our own infrastructure, our own partnership infrastructure, are our own backbone team.
And so it’s something we continue to try to build, and I would say, are one of our most significant learning is that at least in our state, like there are, maybe this gets to the, the language and meaning problem, like we can talk about being data driven, and evidence based and using data, etc. But our systems are often on autopilot. And you can be really explicit in a piece of legislation about the results and data, you know, that you are using that policy to drive. And we’ve seen the system for political reason, over time, intentionally move away from a results focus. And then we have to go back with a new piece of legislation or a new legislative effort to correct what is seems like systemic inertia, away from results, and away from equity, and towards status quo politics. The other thing I might say is that in our data, at least, data is essential to driving a policy conversation. It’s not sufficient. So having a broader policy, advocacy, infrastructure and grassroots organizing infrastructure is pretty important, I think.
Absolutely. You know, I was gonna ask you all the question about the infrastructure, but I think you, I think you kind of nailed it, right? Like, you need the data. But you need all these other things. Right. I think you all may know, I moonlight as a state representative in Oklahoma. And there’s two things that I think are really important critical in that job that that boggled my mind, and it’s where I live in StriveTogether.
Where I live in that environment, is that in StrivedTogether, in our world, and our network, and even our partners have gotten really good about centering outcomes data, when trying to make a decision about anything, whether it’s really going to put a group of partners together to try to improve, improve an outcome, or you’re trying to make case for a policy deal. Like we have more in the way of data and information than I ever see as a policymaker, by the way, like that’s somewhat missing from the decisions that we make, right? Like there’s and I think it speaks to Bill, what you said, like, there’s not great data infrastructure just as a given anywhere across the country, right? And certainly not with even an outcomes focus. There’s some snapshot data, but there’s not like, you know, the good longitudinal stuff. And so like, probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 1% of the cities that we may come probably based in data. And so you know, there’s a huge base on that, I think, on the other side is when you do have the data, sometimes what’s missing is that push of the system to say, you have to change this. And so that that grassroots advocacy becomes a big part of that as well. And so I think that’s a great point that you need both, yes, you need the data.
You need the story.
We used to talk about and we still talk about whenever we bring on new people and have an onboarding process, about trying to not just recognize, but embrace the creative tensions in this work. So for instance, the creative tension of partner versus push, right? We very much want to be seen, initially, and ideally as partners, to our school districts, to our colleges, to our community groups. But if we thought the system was working, we wouldn’t be here. Right? And so and so how do we balance that ability to, to partner and yet to push the system to change? And how do we do that in such a way that we continue to build trust and don’t lose those partnerships? Um, again, there’s not a magic answer. But if you think about, okay, how do I embrace this? How do I balance this? How do I use the data to push? How do I use the lunch that I’m buying them or whatever it is? That’s one. But I think another one, when you ask about how do you keep things going is this the concept of urgency, which we have to have, because these students are in the system, now we can’t abandon them, we can’t not support them, versus the concept of just pure dogged persistence.
And often as the backbone organization, we are the ones who have to both bring the urgency to the table of we’re not willing to wait for assessment scores two years from now, we have to be able to move things forward based on what we understand and hear and see in the data. But we also have to do so recognizing that very often, we’re the ones who are having to bring that persistence and not be willing to take no for an answer. And so thinking about those tensions, and embracing them and building them into the work that we do and how we do it is critical.
Is that, Susan, that is one of you saying, not taking no for an answer. I wonder like has, you know, I bet at some point in time, here comes Susan, there may have been some frowns or some running away or people smiling now with open arms now, they fully embrace you because you won’t take no for an answer. I wonder just and how that has resonated with partners? I think it probably goes back to the trust deal. But I love this attitude that like, hey, we’re your friend, but friends got to be honest with each other. I appreciate that so much. Because it really is about, you know, young people, families. And as we said before putting people in a much different position than it had been historically. I love that I imagine your partners there too. But I bet there’s probably maybe a small bit as to your along with that trust. I don’t know, maybe?
Now remember, trust is more important than being liked.
You also need the push. That’s right, you need the story, you need the push. That’s exactly right, Susan’s exactly right. You all have the long tenure in the network. And I’m thinking about those who are sitting there, you know, we have this North Star of economic mobility, which can be a long arc, Susan you mentioned pre-K and you know, full day pre k and that type. So there’s a long arc between pre K when somebody is getting ready to go to work. I think there’s plenty of opportunities along that arc for a system leader or someone a partnership or even a partner to get stuck in trying to, you know, work through that. What advice would you give to folks who are sitting in the same chair as your look, you’re sitting in or sitting in the same chairs or your staff or your partners? What advice might you give them as they’re trying to advance their work, right? It’s a long guard, this is hard work, you know, often work, you don’t get to see the benefits of it for years and years. And you probably don’t see a thing because that you’re still focused on things you’re starting to get used to you are focused on a long time ago. So what advice would you give the folks who feel a little stuck right now?
That’s right. I think Derek Jeter said something like that at one point, right? Bill, what advice you give the some of those folks who are stuck out there thinking about this long trajectory, thinking about how we are taking these families and really transform the systems around them to put you know, to help them along this economic mobility pathway. What advice you give to those folks who feel a little stuck or overwhelmed?
I would say take what Susan, just said about urgency. And I think people who feel that urgent, like Susan clearly does. And I would bet everybody listening to this podcast feels that urgency. And if we feel stuck, it’s likely because we’re bumping up against some people who don’t see the problem, or who don’t feel the urgency, who are not working, you know, to dismantle you know, the systemic inequities that are there. The My advice is that finds the more urgent people. Find some people like Susan who are relentless about this. And because of they are there. And our experience, I remember feeling stuck myself or our team members will feel stuck. And I think you can get into a headspace where you forget that there are other people who feel the urgency and the relentlessness. And sometimes those people they get it especially if they’re in big systems. They kind of go silent to survive. And I think they’re they’re like there are relentless, urgent people everywhere. And when I feel stuck, I go find the more people like that.
You find those willing partners you were talking about?
Yeah, somewhere, some somewhere, there is somebody who’s feeling that urgency, and is relentless about result. And if I’m feeling stuck, I just got to go find somebody who can work on something with me to get unstuck.
Yeah, I’m thinking about Dr. King, and this fierce urgency of now, right? All right. So, you know, we’ve kind of had this conversation today with with two leaders who have just been amazing and moving their communities and their partnerships forward, moving from talk to action to impact to transformation. And I think in that there’s probably some folks out there who are thinking, oh, Susan, and Bill are done. Now, they have nothing else to do. They bring system transformation, just so we can make sure all those folks understand you still got stuff going on, might you share with us just before we wrap up some things that you’re most excited about looking forward in Salt Lake City and in Austin?
Well, in Salt Lake, I’ll just say, very quickly, I think, because of the time spent over the last decade, building trust, we have a critical mass of leaders, from the community, from youth and parents, up to superintendents and mayors. That feels a sense of urgency for action. And that critical mass, I think, is going to be able to dismantle some really harmful systemic practices, and achieve faster progress towards equity than we’ve experienced in the past because of the trust that’s been built. And the critical mass of relentless kind of urgent leader that exist.
I love that bill. And before I answer, because my answer will be similar. Let me just tell you Monroe that it’s kind of funny the way that you asked that. Because when we started E3 Alliance, officially in May of 2006, we had some discussions and basically what what we decided was, we were never going to need more than five people, we’d have about five years doing this, we teach that damn system how to work together, and then we’d all retire to the beach and drink Mai Tais. And the the long and short of that is we’re not on the beach, drinking Mai Tais. it is long term work that requires real ongoing focus of, of an independent catalyst for change that can bring together these partners that are large and small and different, who are committed to making the change that we need to see. But I would say that one of the examples Bill is in our largest school district in our region, we’ve been through now, four superintendents in three and a half years. And you would think that that would be a little disheartening. It can be. But it also is not, because I think we have worked so long, building those relationships with the unnamed change agents with now increasingly, the students and families with the people at all different levels, within school districts and colleges and community groups and civic organizations, that I’m quite confident that despite the changes that we see, in institutional leadership, we have the momentum, and the tools and the commitment by the community to keep doing really great things for our students. And if we stay focused on our students, and using data to drive the collaborations that we need to really have true systemic change, we will succeed.
Cheers to that.
Great. Well, Susan, I can assure you that if you maybe not retire but if you want to take a break, head to the beach from Mai Tais, Bill and I will rerecord this episode on the beach with Mai Tais instead. Yeah, I’m all game for that. I just want to wrap up by thanking you both for spending time with with us today. Susan, Bill, you all are great examples of leadership not only in our network, but just folks in our sector across the country. And so I am very thankful to have you all as a as an example to follow in this work.
Well, thank you, Bill. for all you’ve done in Salt Lake City and the leaders throughout the Strive Network. It’s really inspiring that we can all learn from each other. And thank you, Monroe, for hosting us today to allow us to share.
Now let me add my thanks to you Susan and the rest of the StriveTogether team, you Monroe and everybody in the network who’s doing this work.
And I want to thank everybody listening for joining us today. Stay connected with us by visiting strivetogether.org where you’ll get the latest information through our monthly newsletter including information about our annual convening coming up September 19 through 21st in San Francisco. You’ll also find transcripts of our Together for Change podcast series, case studies and more.