Drawing on Community Wisdom To Guide Collective Impact

March 19, 2015   

Collective impact involves bringing together a wide range of partners—schools, community-based organizations, government, businesses, foundations, and individuals—to address a critical community issue. Initiatives are often complex with many moving parts, and challenges include making sure that proposed solutions reflect not only data and research but also the everyday realities, desires, and expectations of the people most directly affected by the issue.

Based in Anchorage, Alaska, 90% by 2020 is a collective impact partnership focused on ensuring that students enter kindergarten ready to learn, stay on track, and graduate on time. To engage diverse stakeholders—who include students and parents—90% by 2020 facilitates community conversations across Anchorage to build awareness of issues relating to school success and high school graduation and also to create a sense of community ownership in working toward joint solutions.

Several years ago, 90% by 2020 began holding conversations around education in the community. With a model adapted from the Harwood Institute, these initial conversations focused on aspirations, asking questions such as, “What do you want for your children?” and “What do you want for your community?”

As the work of the partnership has evolved, so have the conversations. While still aspirational, current conversations are more focused and ask community members about barriers and opportunities related to specific issues addressed by 90% by 2020 networks, such as kindergarten readiness, school attendance, and high school graduation. June Sobocinski, who serves as vice president of education impact at the United Way of Anchorage and directs the efforts of 90% by 2020, talks about the multiple benefits that spring from these conversations. “We are talking to families and youth and community members to really tap into our local wisdom. We then try to connect that wisdom to what organizations are trying to do strategically,” she says. “At the same time, we are trying to build community ownership for the outcomes.”

Sarah Sledge, who also works on 90% by 2020 through the United Way of Anchorage, adds that the conversations help the partnership connect community expertise with national research and local data.

Up until now, we’ve had so much great quantitative data—data that tell us what kids need and what is impacting their success. The community conversations have really helped us put a human face on the data. In a lot of cases, what we’re hearing reinforces what the numbers tell us, but it also validates it from the community’s perspective. We’ve found that yes, kids do want that supportive adult in their lives, they do need that engaging curriculum, they really do want to be noticed when they are not in school, and they are motivated by an incentive for good attendance. Hearing it from the community legitimizes the data, because we can say, ‘It’s not just in the numbers, it’s what you are telling us.’ —Sarah Sledge

Sledge says that in addition to sharing themes from the community conversations with partner organizations, 90% by 2020 communicates the findings from these conversations with the larger community through reports, posts on social media, email blasts, and other communications.

Ciara Johnson, who facilitates many of the conversations in her role with the Anchorage Youth Development Coalition (AYDC), looks at the conversations through the lens of cognitive development and strength-based practices for working with youth. “We want to provide this opportunity to bring high school students together and talk about what they really think would make a difference for these issues in education,” she says. “People are really interested in knowing that their voice is connected to the outcomes and work going on.”

We host many of the conversations at our partner organization sites—libraries, youth-serving organizations, and businesses—so that they take place in the community. The conversations are small-group sessions with 10-12 people, and we intentionally keep it small so there’s an opportunity for dialogue and for people to respond to each others’ ideas. If they hear something that they want to talk more about, there’s an opportunity for that to happen. —Ciara Johnson.

Since creating a sense of community ownership takes more than just inviting people to a one-time session, 90% by 2020 includes conversation participants in a feedback loop to help them see how their contributions are making a difference. Participants are also invited to stay connected through volunteer activities. “It’s important for them to know that they can continue to be a part of the movement, that they weren’t just a focus group, but that they are vital to what’s going to make the community better,” Sobocinski says. “They shared their voice, but they can also share their volunteer time. They can even just smile at a kid that day, and know that smile made a difference in that kid’s life. The community at every level, from the grassroots to the treetops, has a role to play.”

See our blog post on youth engagement through 90% by 2020 written by June Sobocinski, Sarah Sledge, and Ciara Johnson as part of our March 2015 series on collective impact. For more information about Education Northwest’s work across the region related to collective impact and youth development, please contact Julie Petrokubi.