How does a community work together to solve challenges? Usually, an organization (a Chamber of Commerce) or sector (higher-ed) or community group (neighborhood council) tries to create changes on their own. This has been the preferred approach to problem-solving and investing in our communities, but it rarely works to create sustainable, lasting changes in economic, health or education outcomes, especially in neighborhoods and populations that have suffered from inequitable investment or access to resources for many years.
Collective impact is an approach to creating systems change that, usually through a backbone organization, brings partners together around shared goals, aligns actions and strategies, and uses data to drive investment and measure impact across multiple activities. In Spokane, we have been using this approach, blending with other models like Asset-Based Community Development and Promise Neighborhoods to bring residents, schools, and multi-sectors organizations together to build hope and opportunity in the neighborhoods of Northeast Spokane.
The ZoNE at the Northeast Community Center is built on strong partnerships. Through these partnerships, we have been able to accomplish some incredible outcomes, especially as we responded to the pandemic over the past year.
What does it mean to build a successful partnership? Trusted relationships. Letting go of one’s ego and the way “things have always been done” at one’s organization. Being willing to embrace a shared opportunity/future vision even though it may seem impossible. This isn’t easy work! For instance, it has taken us years (6+ years!) to build partnerships with local schools as well as Administrators and Board members at Spokane Public Schools. (And there is still more work to do!). But because of the relationships we have developed between over 50 partners organizations, school principals, and neighborhood leaders, we were able to quickly respond to the economic/health impacts of stay-at-home orders last year by creating an emergency task force that delivered over 61,000 boxes/meals to families in NE Spokane.
As a partnership that is focused on 2Generational strategies to impact student achievement, we were well-positioned during the pandemic to take advantage of emergency funding opportunities to implement strategies we had already identified (pre-pandemic) to advance mental health and sense of belonging of both youth and adults.
We’ve learned a few things about building partnerships along our journey. Different people define “partnership” differently. This can lead to miscommunication and frustration among partners. Our goal this year is to better define what it means to be a ZoNE partner at different levels of commitment so there is common understanding.
Another learning: building trust and partnership between/with residents who have been left behind systemically is much harder work than engaging organizations! If you truly want to engage residents, students and families in co-designing solutions, it is imperative to invest time and resources in building leadership capacity and compensating trusted messengers in the community.
The ZoNE is proud to be a part of the WA Cradle to Career Advocacy Network because we believe in (and can demonstrate) the power of partnerships in supporting thriving families and closing the achievement gap for our students using a collective impact model that engages the whole family and community. We are learning so much from other “backbones” across the state and sharing best practices as we all work to elevate the voice, assets and challenges of our most marginalized students and families.