Have you ever noticed that behind every superhero is a good origin story? It’s the tale of they got their superpowers and how they made the decision to fight for the good of others. But whether you are talking about one extraordinary person or a team of uncanny strength, the real superpower is the movement that they create. By planting the seeds of justice and hope, they can create real lasting change.
Today, we going to explore the origin story of the Cradle to Career national movement and how that is now transforming the lives of millions of families. We’ll learn more about how the environment in which this movement was born parallels what we’re experiencing today and what lessons we can apply for those seeking to change. We’ll hear about some fail forward moments. Most importantly, we’ll talk about why this is a moment to truly feel a sense of hope.
Today’s episode will feature a discussion with Jeff Edmondson, the Executive Director of Community Mobilization at Ballmer Group and the founding executive director of the flagship Strive Partnership whose work became a national model for the concept of “collective impact” in 2010. And, we’ll also be joined by Jennifer Blatz, the current president and CEO of StriveTogether.
Hi, I’m Christian Motley of Together for Change. Here, we share expert perspective on what’s possible in communities and how we can work together to build to last. This season, we’ll be highlighting different voices from StriveTogether to bring a variety of perspectives and experiences in talking about this work. Have you ever noticed that behind every superhero is a good origin story? It’s a tale of how they got their superpowers and how they made the decision to fight for the good of others. But whether you are talking about one extraordinary person, or a team of uncanny strength, the real superpower is the movement that they create. By planting the seeds of justice and hope, they can create real lasting change. Today, we’re going to explore the origin story of the Cradle to Career national movement and how it’s transforming the lives of millions of families. We’ll learn more about how the environment in which this movement was born parallels what we’re experiencing today, and what lessons we can apply for those seeking to change. We’ll hear about some fail forward moments. Most importantly, we’ll talk about why this is a moment to truly feel a sense of hope. Joining me today is Jeff Edmondson, the executive director of community mobilization at Ballmer Group, and the founding executive director of the flagship StrivePartnership whose work became a national model for the concept of collective impact in 2010. We’re also joined by Jennifer Blatz, the current president and CEO at StriveTogether. How are you Jeff?
Doing great, Christian. Thanks. Great to be here today.
Always good to have you, Jeff. Good to be with you, Jennifer. You’re doing well?
I am. Good to be with you, Christian.
Well, let’s get started. Jeff, maybe you can kick us off. Can you take us back to the beginning, before collective impact was even a thing? What was the big idea behind StrivePartnership?
Yeah, I mean, this is the 10th anniversary of Collective Impact. But it’s kind of the 20th anniversary of this particular movement. In some ways, Jennifer, I’d be interested in your take on this, but it actually was built out of tragedy. Here in Cincinnati in 2001, a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man, Timothy Thomas. Back in 2001, I had actually just moved here after that, when there were riots that ensued. And there was a response by the community that I think could be viewed as more programmatic in nature. There were a group of community leaders, about four years after the tragedy that they kind of recognized that while the programs that had emerged were serving maybe three, four hundred people, nothing fundamentally had changed. Nothing systemically had changed. And that there was a need for us to look at how the community and all of its partners, we’re working together in new and different ways to actually change. I think at the time, what we meant was change how systems operated. But we really didn’t know what we were doing. We were essentially wandering around, looking for examples all over the country, of places that were taking more comprehensive approaches to addressing the root causes of what led to the shooting and murder of Timothy Thomas. And we found some examples. But we also had to contextualize it for Cincinnati. And we had to figure out where we really were as a community in that moment. And what it would take to do something that wasn’t programmatic in nature that was more systemic. And it really then took some pretty enlightened leadership to step up and say, we don’t have the answer. We don’t know exactly what it would mean to do something in a more comprehensive way. But we have to take it on. And we have to take it on for the long term. And I think about some of the local leaders here in Cincinnati that stepped forward yet. You know, Chadwick, where Jennifer and I were based at KnowledgeWorks, who said, I’ll put in the patient capital and I think that’s one of the big lessons from this is the patient capital that KnowledgeWorks put in to see this work. You had Nancy Zimpher who moved in as president of the University of Cincinnati and really had this unique and pretty much radical vision for how universities could operate to serve communities, not just do research on communities. You had Kathy Merchant at the Community Foundation. Ron Wright at the community college. You had Rob Reifsnyder at the United Way. You had a group of key leaders in the existing power structure and I think that’s something we can come back to that all felt like they held accountability for doing something more than just implementing programs. And they were willing to show up at 7am meetings. You know, they were willing to use a lot of political and social capital to try to figure out how to do that. And that’s where I think the failing forward really started to come in, because we made a lot of mistakes, and the leaders would just kept at it. I should have said Rosa Blackwell at the school district and Michael Brant and the Newport school district and all these others, they, there were a lot of mistakes, and they just kept at it. And I think the core shared belief was that they knew something different had to be done. And the status quo just wasn’t going to be good enough.
Yeah. Jeff, thanks for taking us on the walk down memory lane, as you were sharing that story I was thinking about. So in April of 2001, when Timothy Thomas was murdered, I was finishing graduate school and had connected with someone who had recently joined KnowledgeWorks, and was being recruited to join KnowledgeWorks, which I did in May of 2001. And as you were talking, I was thinking about, you’re right that the community’s response was, well, more programmatic in nature, what was really unique about it, and what, you know, I think about, that’s 10 years before the birth of collective impact. It was really in the community’s best interest to collaborate. And to come across sector, we needed the business community, the justice community, the philanthropic community to come together in response to what had happened in the murder of Timothy Thomas. And I think about, I think we don’t often reflect on, sort of, the impact that, that had in the community. And certainly now we think about what we’ve experienced over the last year and years since these killings continue in communities and community response to this work. I think you’re right, Jeff, there were many mistakes made, we definitely thought that we weren’t talking about systems change or systems transformation at the time, but we knew at the core the system needed to transform. And we thought that we could do that with systems leaders. And I think if the community leaders who, who really responded in the moment of Timothy Thomas’s killing back in 2001, would have had an opportunity to reflect, I know that there was more that we could have done at the time to really engage residents and those most impacted by the system. And I think if there’s something we’ve learned over the last 20 years, it’s certainly over the last 10 years of doing this work in this way is that community residents and those most impacted by the systems, and the challenges that we face are the best qualified to be able to identify solutions and really change work with systems leaders to change and transform systems.
Can I ask both of you, in the earliest days of this work, you all are talking about the partners that were necessary, some of the key individuals, Jeff, you mentioned, and, Jennifer, you mentioned the importance of working across sector. I’m curious, like, what was the case that you had to make for them? Was the critical incident in Cincinnati, the killing of the young man? Was that the mobilizing factor that made it easy to kind of pull folks in? Or was there a case that you really have to make to say, we’re going to do this new thing in the community?
So something to be known about Jeff and I is that while we’ve had this productive partnership for 20 years, we are Yin and Yang, and often have different takes on on what sort of, what was the defining moment. And Jeff really gets the credit here for mobilizing the local work I was, I was doing different type of cross sector work on college access at the time. But I remember, you know, thought partnering with Jeff, and we knew that the community was program rich, but really system poor. And there were lots and lots of programs. And I credit this to Jeff, I think even at that time, I was still thinking more programmatically I was supporting college access programs, and at the time didn’t really realize that although the cross sector nature of the work, it was certainly much more programmatic. I remember advising programs and different types of programs. And Jeff came, you know, with a very different approach. We aren’t going to start another program. We’re really going to look at how cross sector leaders can share accountability and leverage their differentiated responsibility for improving outcomes for children, and children and families. And so I don’t know that it was one moment other than the data. I mean, the data that we were seeing consistently, only 40% of children were prepared for kindergarten. When they arrived at Cincinnati public schools. I mean, that data showing that you had to start much earlier than than college access was critical. But I defer to Jeff on this because I was still in my college access program world, as this thing was really floating around in his mind. So I would love to hear your take on, Jeff, what was really the moment, kind of, that change things?
Yeah, that’s a great question. I think where Jennifer and I maybe, definitely, are Yin and Yang to each other and how we work together and it’s what made the partnership that we’ve had and sort of nurturing this forward over the years, I think, work so well, I think there is one area where we are very similar, Jennifer, which is working very, very hard and long hours. And I think we both need to give a shout out to our families, for their tolerance.
I mean, to, I remember exchanging emails with you at 1, 2am. Or maybe we instead got up early, and we’re exchanging emails at 5am, whatever it was, I honestly think it wasn’t anything that Jennifer and I did. It was what it was, was listening to the community members at the time, and very quickly feeding back to them what they were saying, like, I feel like a lot of collaboration up to that point, people would bring people into a room and there’d be a whiteboard. And we used to call it whiteboarding. And people would ask all these questions, and people would fill up this whiteboard with ideas, and then nobody would ever get back to them. And I think the one thing that we realized was that in order to nurture this movement, in order to capture the moment, it was our responsibility to capture in real time what people were saying. And then very quickly, turn it around and say, here’s what we heard you say, verbatim, and here’s three or four themes we thought emerged, and the people would have that when they woke up the next morning. So regardless of who it was, it usually was leaders. And again, when we get to failing forward, you know, it was the people in the power structure. But there were times where we, we went on listening sessions and engagement sessions, and I’ll never forget, we went over to Ninth Street Baptist Church in Covington, Kentucky, and they held a forum with with their congregation, to say what would be an appropriate response to what our community has been through, and what we would envision for our children and families. And there was a mom sitting in a pew, who said, you know, I just got to say that there are a lot of great things happening in our community. And, and my kids benefited from these two great programs. And she went through the types of programs. And she said, and now one of them is, you know, to college access programming, which is important, Jennifer, and I know, you were you were working on, like my son is a first generation college student. And right after she spoke, the grandmother of three other kids stood up and said, but that is the problem because my children, my grandchildren, did not know about that. They did not know about those resources. And they are not in college. And in fact, one of them is in prison. And the problem is, is that it is completely random as to whether or not you know, kids and families find these things. Because you got to believe that if I knew about that thing, I would have made sure that my grandkids were in it. And I remember that moment so vividly. And that night, capturing it, sending it out. And it immediately elicited a response from so many people, leadership, elected officials, community advocates. And it wasn’t just that moment, it was lots of moments like that, where people said things that really resonated, and that we were able to kind of capture and feed back to people. And it led us down a path where we ended up saying we need a shared vision, we need to capture these insights. And rather than assuming that we all mean the same thing, by education, or success, we need to define what we mean by that so that we are all fully on the same page, because it’s starting to sound like we are when we see all these themes emerging from what people are saying, but we’ve got to land on that. And that I think, is when we landed on and it was really I remember Rob Reifsnyder who said, could we actually define metrics of success? He was at the United Way at the time, and I think, you know, they had been wrestling with outcomes and whether or not you know, we as a community should be reporting outcomes. And he said, should we be defining, through metrics, what success looks like and make sure that everybody is on board. And that was, I think, a pivotal moment. But it was more what community members, what community leaders who had formal authority, we’re kind of working their way through that I think actually culminated in what became in Cincinnati, StrivePartnership, and that all across the country and other partnerships that you know, and lead to the network of StriveTogether. That’s how I remember it. And that was powerful.
I completely agree. I mean, I think, Jeff, what you were describing, and I think we were, we have to give credit to KnowledgeWorks, that trained us well, of being relentless and following up and you know, what you mentioned, the late nights and, and typing out emails and making sure that we were capturing themes and keeping people engaged, that was critical to the early days of this movement, and keeping local partners engaged and focused on the results. And I can also remember Nancy Zimpher, who was the president of the University of Cincinnati at the time, and really had a very, very important and very busy job and said, I will be at these meetings and my, I expect my colleagues, the other college presidents, the heads of the United Way, the business community, to you are in the seat, you have to be here. That is 80% of it, is we have to be in our seats, and really wrestling with the data and what’s going on in our community and be committed. Those, that committed leadership. And that was unique. I mean, you, we’ve had many, I mean, in my years before that, and my work and college access had many different types of tables. P16, was a big thing that I had worked on early in my career across Ohio, there were P16 councils. And of course, they were the top level leadership to start and then soon, you’d have the next meeting, the next meeting, and you’d have you know, assistant directors, and soon you’d have a program associate they’re filling in for the college president that never happened. Nancy Zimpher would not let that happen at the Strive Partnership table. And again, I know Jeff’s reference, we’ll get to the fail forwards. And we were very focused on systems leaders, but they had the power, they have the power and should they have the power? No, I mean, not they, we need to. And we’ve certainly evolved to be really thinking about how to share power and making you know that possible in communities, but to get systems to change, you have to change the mindsets of those with power.
And you had just, I mean, she had this great quote that 90% of the job is just showing up. And the other 90% is actually getting the work done. And I know she borrowed that from somebody, but she would literally get off a red eye from the west coast at 5:30am, I’m very familiar with these, and show up at a meeting straight from the airport with all these partners. And it was that, that was powerful. I also remember the other thing that Nancy did, because I think it’s worth flagging, is she modeled just radical vulnerability. Where I remember vividly she was in a meeting when we kind of realized that we needed these common outcomes. And one of them was college success. And she stood up and said, You know, I run this university, it’s one of the largest employers in town. But more importantly, it is an engine of opportunity for people. And I need to just acknowledge to all of you that our our retention rate is around 51, 52%. And that is on me, and I need all of your help. I need all of us working together to figure out how to address that. But I’m not gonna sit here and act like everything the University of Cincinnati is doing is perfect. And I think that was another huge thing, because then other people started to feel comfortable, you know, acknowledging that the way they were working may not be, you know, really getting us to the place we needed to be. And so she didn’t just show up, she then showed up, and I think did something that’s really hard for leaders to do, which is acknowledge that maybe the way things are operating and even within their own institutions or their own entities, you can’t happen that way. And that I think was a really powerful thing as well. Yeah.
Well, I know that you all have mentioned fail forwards a couple of times. And part of the reason I’m interested to hear more about the fail forwards is because when I think about sort of their readiness factors that you all have mentioned, you know, it sounds like the community was mobilized. So there was like this will to do something, and even to do something different. I hear about these community conversations sounds like both in Cincinnati and in Covington, I know its strike partnership began as a regional partnership that crossed the bridge over there with Northern Kentucky. And then you had engaged leaders like Nancy Zimpher, who you knows so well. And we know that the community is thinking about outcomes. And so it begs the question, if you were in the trajectory, talking about the larger movement, you know, you all are starting with strong partnership, if there was something, I don’t know what, what do you know now that you didn’t know then? What would you do differently? If you would, I guess this is that place where you might list the fail forward.
I mean, I don’t know, Jennifer, I’m looking to you, there’s so many, Christian. And you can, literally this could be a 10 part series on all the things that I wish we had done differently. I think I could go ahead and launch in. I think first and foremost, one thing we did do well, though, was make it regional. Again, that wasn’t our decision, that was the decision of the community leadership to say this, this can’t be just about Cincinnati, that’s often I think a mistake places make is making about one place, then it feels like the fingers being pointed at that place. And instead, it included Newport and Covington, many times even other areas, you know, would engage and I think be a part of the discussions. So I think that was a huge and important decision, you know, to make sure that you’re not isolating one individual place, or institution or entity that you do recognize the challenges that we face are not, you know, single dimensional, they are multi dimensional, and they are often broader than one geography, I think we got overly focused on the existing power structure, right, meaning, you know, that I think the critique that would come from our work six, seven, eight years down the line of what was founded in Cincinnati, but even then how we would organize work, through StriveTogether with partners in other places, was that we would focus on organizing the existing leadership structure. So the leaders of philanthropy, the leaders in the public sector, the business leaders, the nonprofit leaders, and that while I think that was critical, as Jennifer said earlier, and it is critical, right, you need the people that you know, have their fingers on the purse strings, frankly, you know, of where resources can flow, if you don’t have them working arm and arm, side by side, with families, with youth, with community advocates, they’re not going to, they’re not going to end up changing systems all that much. Because in the end, the system has worked not just for them, but for the entity that they represent. Right? Because they have power, something is working to their benefit. So I think what we learned and what I think, Jennifer, you have done so much more effectively than I in your time at StriveTogether is make sure that it’s a movement that is both grass roots, grass tops, in nature. And that really though, you try to shift the power dynamic by making sure that the grass roots are not just informing but deriving the action of the grass tops, instead of it feeling like, you know, you’re kind of organizing the grass tops, and then just sort of maybe moving the chairs on the deck a little bit, you’re really challenging to say, hey, we need a new kind of deck. We need a new place with more seats, and different perspectives. That’s that’s what I think, number one, if I could go back, really making sure that the grandmother that was in that pew at Ninth Street Baptist Church, that she didn’t just inspire us and I think give us energy and insights. But that she was actually at the table, making sure that when we were taking action in different ways that they represented what she knew to be the challenges. And I’m pretty sure we miss that because of how we organized ourselves.
Yeah, I agree. I think if there has been one sort of fail forward and something that I wish that we had known it was that, you know, we, I don’t regret the focus on results and rigor and results, but the move toward equitable results and centering equity and centering racial equity and our work came later, we were very focused on results and in with the intention of getting to every child cradle to career in believing that we could do that by changing systems leaders behavior without engaging or, you know, we were engaging community but with really, without sharing power with community and being very explicit about what it looks like to share power wouldn’t get us to equitable results. And I think that we learn that and you know, I was thinking also about one of the early wins and what makes the StrivePartnership and then now StriveTogether so unique is the focus on rigor and data and effectiveness and really continuous quality improvement. I think of fail forward when I think of where we where we went first for our continuous quality improvement training. And this is not, I mean, we had such great partners, business partners on the ground from the community at Procter and Gamble, Toyota who was in town at the time and GE Aviation, and so we would go there and learn how to do continuous flow. Quality Improvement at that creates Six Sigma, exactly Six Sigma, that create, you know, building aircraft engines. And there was early on some criticism that we’re talking about people here. And of course, DMAIC, the C and DMAIC is control that we changed it to something.
I can’t remember what we tried,
It was so lame. I mean…
It was bad. And we had such an incredible partner who was at the table, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital at the table, it took us a while to get to children’s as being and their work with the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, around continuous quality improvement and improvement in health care as really being the better sort of methodology for improvement for mobility outcomes, and particularly education. And so I think of the time we spent there, but we’re building that we I mean, we like to we have a lot of things that we would always say Jeff always would say, we’re building the plane as we’re flying it. So we were just winging it. And you know, had we not had that business influence and ended up at at the GE Aircraft Engine Training Center, learning Six Sigma, we wouldn’t be where we are today with the StriveTogether improvement methodology. And so it was an evolution that that really helped us drive very early on rigor in all of the various collective impact approaches that are out there by far strive togethers work is is really centers on rigor in results.
You just triggered a memory. And I think it’s another fail forward and in particularly, for white male leaders like myself, just to be completely honest, is, I remember at GE Aviation, we were doing a training and a team from Cincinnati, public schools came out. And we they loaned us a couple trainers in Six Sigma, what we learned another lesson was that the emotional quotient was as equally as important as the intellectual quotient of these trainers. And there was a woman named Mara. And she I remember her pulling me aside, she was one of the trainers in Six Sigma. And she said, You know, I’m glad we’re doing this, and I feel like people are getting it. I don’t know that, that Six Sigma is the right tool. I don’t know that it’s the right process. She said, I mean, yes, I’m an expert in it. And I remember saying, you know, just now it’s fine, you know, because, because, frankly, Six Sigma, as a white guy, this speaks to me, right? It’s data. It’s discipline, it’s like, it’s very, it’s very clear and directive, and bite and listen to Mara, right? I didn’t listen to Mara. And I remember even nationally, they were in groups that we would talk to, to your point about it taking a while to get to Children’s Hospital, it would be like, you know, we tried Six Sigma in our community or, you know, I remember Jim Shelton, honestly, pulling me aside. And I don’t know that, you know, because he’s he’s got a background and, you know, these kind of processes and methodologies. And I remember him saying, I don’t, I don’t know. But I was so wrapped up in what felt like a quick fix a technical solution, Six Sigma, to what was incredibly complex problem that I didn’t listen, right, I just wanted that quick fix, it felt so great, to have something to just grab on to. But it it started to kill the momentum of the movement, because of the language, just like you said, the word control or failures, right? It was all about finding failures in the system. Oh, my God, I mean, the fact that we survived, that is a tribute to the leadership in the community be like, we’re going to acknowledge that that was a mistake, because we finally had to acknowledge it was it wasn’t the right process, and we’re going to learn from it. And we’re gonna find something else rather than give up. And it would have been very easy for the leadership just to move on to the next thing in the community, it would have been very easy for them. community members could have just given up, but people kept at it. I think the lesson behind that is listen, really, really listen, especially for people like me, who have benefited from the white supremacist culture of our society. Just listen. And I know that I didn’t do that.
Thank you, Jeff, I think it’s important to talk about those fail forwards because I think, you know, as I said, to begin with, there seem to be these great sort of readiness factors in the communities really clear positives and strengths that existed in community already. But the idea that you can identify the bright spots, but also understand the places where we can still learn to grow the work. I think it’s just really important. I think it’s one of the valuable traits of Strive Together in particular, and in this work, it reminds me of the way we sort of describe Strive Together as a learning organization. And Jennifer, you mentioned the Cradle to Career Continuum. One of the questions I was going to ask was, did Strive Partnership begin with that cradle to career frame. It sounds like it was in those early days, was it?
It was the college access and success partnership.
Yes it was, yes it was. Not the cradle to career. That is…
Despite me trying to talk you out of that I do recall.
Yeah, I’m sure you did.
When folks think of StriveTogether, I know you think of cradle to career. And of course, we’re talking about this, this broader cradle to career movement. And then there’s also is another question I think about the codification of the learning that you all had. And I think one of the products of that has been the theory of action. And so identifying a set of principles, engage the community advance equity, continuous improvement, the pillars, right, and the gateways, what was the origin of that theory of action.
That was a fail forward also.
Oh my god.
This was really our work with Living Cities. And so it wasn’t I mean, there were some fail forward elements. We tried to do this work with higher ed as an anchor, and I could spend hours on why higher ed should never anchor, any type of partnership. But and I come from a background of higher ed. So I feel like I can say that. But it really started with Living Cities and Living Cities is a foundation, an operating foundation social enterprise that invests in communities, they happen to be in Cincinnati to look at making some investments in uptown economic development, essentially, with the University of Cincinnati. And they heard about the StrivePartnership work, and Marian Urquilla, who was the program officer at the time, and Ben Hecht, who is still the leader, although he is stepping down from a longtime leader of Living Cities, they took a chance on the StrivePartnership work we pitched this idea of, could we take this? And of course, we were working with Nancy Zimpher at the time, could we take this model or this what we created this type of partnership in Cincinnati? And could we take it to some other higher ed institutions who can anchor these partnerships, this is what the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities, we created some demonstration projects at these institutions. And the end was really the theory of action emerged from that work. But a key learning is that higher ed institutions could not anchor these partnerships. And we have very few partnerships across our national network who are anchored by higher ed. And there are many reasons for that.
Even before we went to the universities, and tried to see if they could anchor these partnerships, as I remember it was that Living Cities, they gave us a little bit of money. And we had Pat Brown on our team. And Pat Brown was an anthropologist, Christian. She was, she was truly trained as an anthropologist. And essentially, what Marian said is, we want to challenge you to not have Pat do anything else other than follow like, you know, the people that were working on this, not just for managers, but follow everybody around. And then ask you questions, and try to capture to your question earlier, Christian, or your point away of like codifying, see if she can codify what you guys are actually doing, because it seems pretty unique. And she created out of that I remember, Pat, as an anthropologist would ask questions, and I would be like, will you please stop asking me questions? I’m just trying to go to this meeting right now. And she would just ask questions, ask questions, ask questions. And she came up with what, what we hypothesized was a theory of change at the time, which was that I don’t even think that term theory of change was being used that much in the philanthropic sector, of course, it’s everywhere now. But it was really like that, that seed capital that they provided, to get Pat to try to codify what we were doing. And then I think that gave Marian and Ben enough confidence to say, okay, there is actually a method to this madness. And this this incredible, like, anthropologist, who, you know, had run like a nonprofit out of her church, like just her unique and incredible background, positioned her I think, to help sort of take all this input, turn it into something that was actually understandable. And I don’t know if without that I, you know, now sitting as it you know, as a funder, as a philanthropist, I don’t know that I would have had competent funding, what they did with the urban serving universities, which you referenced Jennifer, it, which is, you know, exactly right. That’s where we went. If there hadn’t been that work product, I will never forget the first time that I saw it, because you have to keep in mind, Christian, we were not trying to create a national movement here. We were just focused on Cincinnati, right, like that’s all we were doing was trying to work on Cincinnati. And I think when I saw the first version of that from Pat, that I know, Jennifer, you had a ton to do with. So don’t think I don’t know that right? Like you were. You and her were working very hard together. But I remember that being like, oh my god, there is a method to this madness, right. And it drew on everything that like Harlem Children’s Zone had done, because she also looked at that it drew on the history of community development, because she looked at that it drew on the history of the civil rights movement, frankly, because I know she even looked at that. And she was like, pulling all of that together, to try to help us understand like, what was it that we were doing that was sort of an iteration, a next step, as I think Ron Ferguson from Harvard called, at one point, collective impact isn’t something new, it is just a next step. It is the next evolution of community development. She was the one that made it possible for us to see that and I think, you know, gave people the confidence to try to take this national. Does that does that resonate with you?
Ah, yeah, I mean, this is where our differing vision, versions of history come in. I, yes. First of all, all so much credit goes to Pat Brown, she was brilliant, and really led the demonstration projects that we did with Living Cities. I believe that much of the theory of action, really, the earliest iteration of theory of action, which has been iterated is about to get to version number five at the end of this year. But that first version really came from the framework and our pillars, and that came out of the work from the living cities investment, but I do think living cities gets credit for taking a chance on us. I remember being in that meeting and meeting Marian for the first time, and there was just something there that she believed that I think it was Pat and I because I think Jeff, you couldn’t be there for some reason.
Probably a very good thing. Honestly, it was the best meeting I ever missed. No doubt. I remember that. You’re right. And then you got to keep in mind, Christian, this was all before the collective impact article came out.
Yeah, this was 2008 and 2009. Yeah.
This was all happening before the collective impact article came out. And we were struggling to figure out like that now that we, you’re right, we had the framework, we had the sort of an initial version of the theory of action, but we still couldn’t define what it was. And that really was what that article did, which I have said before, and I will say again, was the most sanitized version of reality that has ever existed. I am so appreciative that they did figure out how to communicate what it is, and capture it in a way that people can understand. But they made it sound way too easy. So everybody in the world thought they could just jump in to collective impact.
Would you call that article kind of the pivot point, to thinking about growing the movement and connecting with other networks and other communities? When did you start thinking about communities beyond Cincinnati?
The demonstration project with Living Cities was our first foray into working with communities beyond Cincinnati. So that was in 2008, or 2009. And then it was 2011 was the first time that we convened a group of partnerships, we started to hear from others across the country, especially as we start doing this living cities work that other communities were trying to do similar things. And so we started to bring them together. We brought them together twice that year in 2011. And the collective impact article wasn’t released until later that year. But once that article happened, I mean, so there were maybe, you know, 20, or 30 partnerships, or 30 communities, maybe it was, I don’t know, more like 20 communities coming together. Next thing we know, we were up to 100 communities who are trying to do this type of work. So that article was really that expanded.
We held our first convening, because of that work with Living Cities in Alexandria, Virginia, we only expected to have 11 communities show up in and I believe it was 23 showed up. 12 just kind of, you know, ended up we said, yeah, if you want to come You can come and all of a sudden we were we were meeting in a hotel that couldn’t hold us. And we ended up like taking over their restaurant, and holding meetings in the restaurant. They weren’t very happy with us. But that was, I think in that meeting, Jim Shelton, who was the assistant, I’m sorry, Deputy Secretary of Education. He, out of nowhere said, yeah, I’ll come over and check things out. And he came over and he gave kind of an impromptu speech, as Jim can do better than most anybody and said, what I need from you all is proof points. I need you all to show me that all this work of working together actually does move outcomes, that it doesn’t just lead to a lot of people sitting together talking to each other, you know, creating visions, but then it actually moves outcomes and that really was a catalyst. I think everybody left that presentation motivated to make sure that this was something different than it wasn’t just typical collaboration, that it was an opportunity to really move outcomes at a scale that previously, you know, had happened in certain places. And you know, but we didn’t really know why this was a chance to try to do that at scale.
The work had grown really into this movement, you started connecting with other communities and network members. Is there a moment or milestone that you are particularly proud of, over the last 10 years of this of this network?
I would say, as hard as it is at times to not be working, you know, on StriveTogether every day, because I mean, Jennifer, we worked on this together for essentially…
There was a lot of years before I ended up moving to this current role over at Ballmer Group, just seeing how it has evolved. And frankly, how much better it has gotten, in my absence as a leader within the network, and how committed, not just Jennifer and the entire team is, but the board that has emerged, and then the members of the network, and how incredibly committed people are to seeing this through. And even though we are still, you know, building the plane while flying it, I think all of us, I know, on the philanthropy side now, we don’t know how exactly to fund this just right. We don’t know exactly the ways to help drive action. But more importantly, the people on the ground, and then even you all that are working with them, seeing just the amount of learning and the willingness to fail forward and now take on, you know, racial disparities. And, you know, the systemic root causes that lead to those disparities. I mean, it is awesome to see, at times painful, because it just, you know, I want to be in there, you know, in the trenches with you on a more daily basis. But seeing how it has evolved, is how, oh my God, it is really powerful. Just so much credit to Jennifer, the entire team, at StriveTogether. And, you know, I know, they would say just as importantly, if not more than, the partnerships all over the country. I mean, it is really amazing to see.
Yeah, I mean, so I think for me, and I’m not I can’t limit it to like just one moment. So I’m going to, I’m going to do three. So that I mean, the first…
Breaking the rules.
I’m going to break the rules. I don’t typically do that, but I am going to do that today. So I mean, first and foremost, it was the theory of action, which I know we’ve talked about, but I’m gonna start there. And that was a huge risk at the time. And I admire Jeff’s leadership, we were putting a line in the sand and saying, if you want to be a part of this movement, we believe that there are some core benchmarks and milestones that partnerships have to hit, we’re going to put this theory of action in the field and we cut the network in half. And that was a risk. We had critics in the field who said why would you start like the collective if this was in 2013, the collective impact movement was, you know, such an important movement for the social sector, supposedly, so why would you stymie this momentum by cutting, you know, basically telling partnerships, they couldn’t be a part of this network? And that was committing to impact over the collective. And that was a risk that Jeff, as the leader of this movement took at the time, particularly because at the time our parent organization KnowledgeWorks wanted us to expand, and many people wanted us to expand, but we wanted to get to impact, deep impact in communities. And so that committment…
Ok so Jennifer, I got to barge in here. You’re being very nice to me. But you were the one that sat me down. I believe it was, you know, remember what you said. You sat me down and you said, I am hearing from the vote, you know, the communities that really want to do this work, but they feel like most of the people that are coming to these these gatherings, they’re not really doing anything different. You have to listen to the people that are doing things different. And so you get the credit for putting on the table that we had to have that kind of courage. So I appreciate you saying that. I think yes.
We’re gonna just agree that this is where Yin and Yang, like, we came together. Yes. I was concerned about hearing from the network members. And yes, you probably resisted it a bit because you would have, you know, you would have built that empire. However…
Let’s go far and wide.
But that would lead, I mean, to the second one, so I said that I was going with three. And, but the second one is getting those proof points. And so we hit our proof point goal. You know, we set a goal of bringing Jim Shelton his proof points. And those demonstrated those are partnerships who’d not only demonstrated that they had moved outcomes, but who had changed systems and nobody in the field was measuring this type of work. And we had so many things that led to getting those proof points. The accelerator fund where Jeff’s masterful fundraising and raising that fund to really accelerate and invest in partnerships to get to outcomes and systems changing. So when we hit our proof point goal in 2018. We had set the goal for five, we had 10 proof points, that was incredible for the momentum of this movement, but also led to my third moment, which is really the investment that demonstrated there is a belief in this work and this movement. And that’s the investment that the Ballmer Group made, which not only enabled StriveTogether to build to an a national intermediary that could truly support a network and get in driving impact, but the investment that’s happened in communities. Our partnerships across the network 70 partnerships have gotten to results and transforming systems because of that investment in the belief that you have to have an invest in civic infrastructure to really drive systems change, and outcomes improving. And so those are three moments along with Jeff’s evolution story that I think are critical in StriveTogether’s evolution.
I would just piggyback on that last one around the investment that now we, because I’m at Ballmer Group, made what really was the first step to that was when Steve and Connie Ballmer came to Cincinnati and I think Jennifer, you and maybe Colin Groth had the idea to do a data walk. Yeah, we ended up putting data from the proof point communities that you just talked about all around the room. And it was only supposed to be, I think, like an hour long meeting. And Steve, in particular, who is a self proclaimed data guy, was just walking around looking at all these data points. And the run charts, right, the annotated room charts that showed how interventions led to improvements. And just had so many questions. We had extra slides on the table that we weren’t able to get on the wall. And he was like flipping through and pulling them out. And I remember that discussion afterwards with them around all the failing forwards. And I felt like we were just a true partnership at that moment. Right. It was like they were trying to help us figure things out based on what they’ve been learning from visiting grantees at the time. And we were trying to help, you know, point out things that we’d learned from all these amazing network members. That was a powerful moment. Yeah, it led to it, you know, a year or two later, this really important investment, and frankly, me becoming part of this amazing team here at Ballmer Group that is just so committed to just rigorous data driven cross sector, you know, change. Systems change. That was just a great moment. I love that one.
Personal privilege. You mentioned Jim Shelton a couple times. And I think it’s important to say I, you know, I started my career as a young aide for Jim which feels like so many years ago now. But it is also, it was like 2013, something like that, at the department, when I first saw that collective impact article and I first learned about StriveTogether all those years ago. Here we are.
Wait a minute, Christian, were you the one that got Jim to come to Alexandria and give that little impromptu speech? Was that here?
Maybe I bought the flight tickets.
From now on, we’re just gonna say you had a big role in that, because it was that, that was such a great moment. That really was, yeah.
We’re living in such a critical moment right now. And it is interesting to look back and see the origin of StrivePartnership, in the earliest days of this movement coming out of you know, an instance of another sort of young black man whose life was taken in a community that mobilized to try to meet that moment. And here we are, in 2021, a year beyond the triggering of really, a twin pandemic, really understanding the impact of racial injustice, but also trying to respond to this global health pandemic, which I think is just important to say, and the role that we have seen civic infrastructure play in the communities I know in the communities that we serve. The question I have, is given where we stand today, where would you want to see or where do you see this work, having impact on communities and you know, as we talked about it, equitable recovery? And as we talk about continual efforts to close disparities, I mean, where do you see this role of civic infrastructure and this movement to improve outcomes from cradle to career?
I think it’s, you know, as demonstrated by what we’ve, what we’ve shared about our learnings and failed forward, the focus on systems and really designing and transforming systems. And we define systems transformation as the shifting of policies, resources, power structures and practices. And I think we’re, this moment in time when you have, we’re working towards equitable recovery and administration, who has committed to driving racial equity and communities who is putting resources into communities or trying to put resources into communities, but certainly through the American rescue plan, and hopefully, through additional infrastructure plans. And it’s really talking about civic infrastructure and people and investing in systems to really drive towards more equitable outcomes. And I think if there’s one thing that we’ve learned through this nearly 20 years of doing this work is if there were a silver bullet program that could solve the problems that we’re facing, we would have found it by now. We would have found it. This work to drive towards more equitable outcomes had started long before this 20 year sort of history of the early states of the StrivePartnership. And yet, we haven’t figured that out yet. And so I think the real opportunity here is these partnerships across the StriveTogether. Cradle to career network are committed to not only improving outcomes, but to really transforming systems so that you get to population level impact at scale. And that is something that we can do, we are seeing it happen through policy change through the work to shift power in communities. And I think that if we can leverage some of the public resources that are going into communities to drive the types of infrastructure around using data around changing behaviors, changing mindset, focusing on results and communities, we can get to those changes. But we have to transform the system and know that it’s going to be an ongoing long term battle, because the system, as Jeff said earlier, will always adjust to always correct. It will always oppress. And so naming that our systems are white supremacist systems that are designed to get the results that they’re getting and working to transform those communities is the moment that we have right now. We have to do it. Otherwise, as we continue to be faced by challenges in this country, as we have been over the last year, we’re going to continue to experience these disparate outcomes and the tragedies that we’ve seen inexperienced in communities, particularly Black, Indigenous, Latinx and Asian communities across the country. And so that’s where I think we are in this moment in time, and there’s an incredible opportunity. And our partnerships are well positioned to meet this moment.
Yeah, I think Jennifer said it very well. And my additions would just be that I hope in 10 years, we look back and we were able to say, yeah, we met the moment. We did face down to pandemics. And we responded in a way that met the moment. And what that means is that outcomes are improving, and that racial disparities have closed that we as a country can say we’ve faced in our history as part of that. And we recognized that we have to be courageous enough to take on the systemic challenges, while effectively implementing the programmatic solutions, right? It’s not one or the other, it is both hands. It is providing those really strong, high quality, rigorous, constantly improving programmatic responses, while addressing the systemic issues that often keep us from sustaining that work. And then the other big thing as I would say, is that government in particular, realizes that not even it with all of its resources, can do it alone, and that they need to work through these partnerships as the default mechanism to make sure that they are hearing from residents and families and youth and using data intentionally to use tax dollars in very intentional ways. And that philanthropy will say yes, we will continue to invest in programs, we will also invest in the value and the work of these backbones or intermediaries in communities across the country, because both are important. And government or philanthropy will never have money to do it all by themselves or to invest in that miracle program. It has to be done that, you know, if we are going to take on the inequities that exist in our society, we have got to do it through these rigorous partnerships that just stick with it for the long term and aren’t afraid to take on the most complex of challenges by locking arms and doing it together.
Absolutely. Thank you both. Jennifer, Jeff, grateful for your time today. Thank you both for sharing this, kind of, origin story of the growth and trajectory of this work. And to our listeners. Thank you for joining us today. Don’t forget to subscribe to Together for Change and stay connected with us by visiting StriveTogether.org where you can find transcripts of our Together for Change podcast series. Thanks, everybody.