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Until We Get It Right: Remaking Systems that Work For All

by Johnny McNulty

Last month, five women leaders from diverse sectors and geographies gathered for a discussion on re-imagining systems to better serve communities and advance social change. Read more for key takeaways.

The unglamorous truth about creating societal reform is that it has to be done over and over again, tweaking it a little each time. Our current global reckoning with the inequities built into our health, economics, and justice systems represent a unique window for rapid action for the leaders and activists who have been working on these issues for years. Five such organizations poised for this moment are the recent recipients of the McNulty Prize Catalyst Fund, awarded for promising models of change that have demonstrated success and potential to scale. These leaders and their ventures are at the forefront of rebuilding a more equitable society, and are approaching the issue from various angles. Some are tackling culture to improve economic and social outcomes, whether by teaching organizations in the US how to build anti-racist cultures, increasing Latino leadership in the education sector, or using the arts to advancing women’s rights in Nigeria. Others are trying to move the needle by building more robust and fair economic systems, like pioneering a new ecosystem for social business in Ghana, or new models of community-led development in the US.

These are very complex challenges and there’s no one right solution, but we engage, then we see what works. I am a leader who likes the iterative process.

Margaret Lapiz

These five women met for a series of rapid dialogues on the challenges of growing social organizations, the pressures of leadership, and most importantly, the process of change. And it is a process. There is a window of opportunity now for change, but it won’t be the last, and it’s critical that organizations stick to guiding lessons that will endure — like practicing inclusive decision-making, asking the right questions, working in partnership with communities, and making sure change starts with people — when the opportunity for more rapid movement emerges. As Margaret Lapiz, CEO of Under One Roof, a non-profit re-imagining community-led development for agricultural towns in California put it: "These are very complex challenges and there’s no one right solution, but we engage, then we see what works. I am a leader who likes the iterative process."

Clockwise: Ifeoma Fafunwa, Michelle Molitor, Amma Lartey, Amanda Fernandez, Margaret Lapiz

Here are three key takeaways from the conversation:

I. Include diverse stakeholders into decision-making from the get-go.

It seems simple, yet putting it into practice can be revolutionary: if you want your decisions to result in a system that works for everybody, make sure everybody is involved in the decision. This is important to make a constant practice since organizations often grow past their original community. Being open, local, and accountable helps organizations avoid replicating old inequities they may not be as aware of.

Margaret Lapiz, who is re-imagining community-led development for agricultural towns in California at Under One Roof, said this was explicitly part of how the organization was built from the ground up. “The first 18 months once I made the decision to commit myself to this journey, I spent meeting with the leaders,” recounted Lapiz. “Not only in the community (our first Under One Roof community is in Watsonville, on the central coast of California)...[but] in that sub-region. I probably met with well over 100 leaders getting to know them. Spending time seeking to understand how they see the world. Listening deeply to their concerns and their hopes and aspirations for their organization and for this community. And really synthesizing all of that in a way that I could articulate potential ways for us to think about how we want to move forward together.”

Bringing women into public life as equals is the mission of Ifeoma Fafunwa’s theater company iOpenEye Productions — making sure they are included at decision-making levels from the family to national leadership is central to that cause. “Policy is important because things will not change automatically. Oppressors don't just welcome the oppressed, you know. So yes, it's opening the door [and] having the right policies, but [also] making sure that diversity is at the decision-making place,” said the Nigerian playwright.

It's important for women and people of different ethnicities to be involved in decision-making at the design stage of programs or institutions. That, for me, is where it begins.

Ifeoma Fafunwa

“We have to create systems and spaces where people feel like they have full agency to do what is best for them and what is best for others in their community, and that we are unencumbered by intentional or unintentional roadblocks that are unnecessary, and are actually not allowing us to thrive as a whole people,” says Michelle Molitor, Executive Director of the Equity Lab, which works directly with companies, non-profits and other groups to help them build anti-racist internal cultures and deal with such topics every day. “We create systems and structures and accountability and, frankly, [the] relationships that allow for that good work to happen, and for it to not be shrouded in a scarcity mindset, but instead [to work] in a mindset of abundance and a mindset of love and in a mindset of pushing for the future.”

iOpenEye street performance in Lagos, Nigeria

The Equity Lab

II. Find The First Step: Ask the right questions, define your goals and what change looks like, and start with your own community or organization.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and so does replacing the status quo. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the size of the problem. Changing a million minds can seem impossible. Changing one mind a million times, however, is simply difficult.

For Amma Lartey, who is spearheading the cultivation of a social entrepreneurship ecosystem in Ghana, rephrasing the question around reforming systems led her to the answer of making sure all parties’ interests are represented. For Amma, asked by Amanda Fernandez how she reconciles the tension in using for-profit business for good, “what I find is that when the question becomes what value is, in terms of social value, it changes. Then, [doing good] is a rule of the game, and suddenly it’s possible. It’s not a tension anymore. Maybe the problem was that we were asking the wrong question from the beginning, and the question [was] ‘how do we maximize value for shareholders? They are the only stakeholders that matter.’ When you define who matters so narrowly, of course, you will end up with an answer to that question that isn’t the best answer. And so, we were just asking the question differently. Entrepreneurs rise up to the challenge. It doesn’t mean that the business is inefficient. It does not mean that they don’t compete. [Valuing all stakeholders] just means that they are answering a different question, and they hold themselves up to a higher innovation challenge.”

For Ifeoma Fafunwa, changing womens’ mindsets is the primary vehicle for the shift iOpenEye is trying to bring to Nigeria. That shift is not merely mental because shifting it even a little makes the way things were before almost impossible. “In the short term,” said Fafunwa, “I'm looking at real, tangible [changes]. I'll feel good when girls don't have to wake up one hour before boys to fetch water and cook the breakfast, and then wake [the boys] up to get ready and get them out to school, and then the girl figures out how she gets educated. Or a wife doesn't feel like a total failure if she can't keep her husband happy, even though he doesn't want to be happy... or a father doesn't feel like his daughter is his property to sell, to marry off. I mean, these things seem like medieval times, but they are happening now, all over the world. So, for me, those little movements will count as something major.”

Sometimes, the issue is more straightforward. Sometimes, the community knows what it needs: simply what it lacks. For agricultural communities in California — some of the lowest-income populations in the incredibly expensive state — the answer was clear: an economic ladder that worked and a place to be safe, healthy, and live in community with each other. “Right before the pandemic started,” said Margaret Lapiz, “we held a focus-group-led design session. We heard from those in attendance five things that shaped how I think about what systems and institutions need to do to work for everyone. The five things were 1) a job that pays a decent wage; 2) a home that our family can call its own; 3) access to good and affordable health care; 4) children educated and equipped to live and thrive in this world; and 5) places and spaces where we can socialize, connect, gather, and celebrate as a community.”

Michelle Molitor works to teach organizations of all kinds how to have productive internal conversations about race and equity. Learning how to have disarming, productive conversations means organizations can move past crafting statements and towards actual action. “We want to engage people in conversations directly about the problems that we have— about how race is the number one determinant of much of the inequity we see, if not all of the inequity across all sectors in American life. The work we do is done strictly through a lens of love and liberation. But also, we can’t be in love and in relationship with each other if there’s no accountability, and part of that accountability is being able to engage in conversations about race productively, and to make changes productively.”

We have to create systems and spaces where people feel like they have full agency to do what is best for them and what is best for others in their community.

Michelle Molitor, Executive Director, The Equity Lab

III. Punctuated Equilibrium: Normally, progress is slow, but opportunities for more rapid change—like now—have to be recognized and seized.

It’s scary to get our hopes up, especially after some years of harsh disappointment, but hope is the name of the game. And this time, not for the first time and not for the last, there’s real energy, momentum, and will for change. Doing the work day in and day out for years is what it takes to be ready to seize these windows of change, and the Catalyst Fund recipients all reflected on this fact. Hard-earned wisdom protects us from the constant bumps and setbacks, but it also means being able to recognize when a moment is real.

Amanda Fernandez, CEO of Latinos for Education, found positive signs in American culture at large that a recognition of key issues has finally dawned on the country, even if the overall pace of change remains frustrating. “With all of the challenges we've had [in 2020] ...and how challenging our country's politics have been, the bright spot that I see is the recognition of the leadership that's necessary moving forward. And I'm actually seeing those changes. I think the cabinet decisions of President Biden should be a signal, and I'm seeing that in other contexts as well: conscious decisions by people in power. By the dominant culture. By leaders, white leaders, who are being more conscious. And I'm seeing many more voices. That does give me a lot of hope. It can be frustrating, because it's like the old saying, ‘you need to go slow to go fast,’ and we're not yet at that ‘go fast.’ We kind of keep going slow. But there are the bright spots where I am seeing some things going a little bit faster in terms of representation that needs to be at the table.”

With all of the challenges we are facing today, the bright spot is the recognition that leadership needs to change.

Amanda Fernandez, CEO, Latinos for Education

That urgency was shared by Margaret Lapiz, who predicted the years of work building trust and buy-in by the leaders in Watsonville and at Under One Roof will lead to more rapid movement going forward. “What I hope is [the] trust that has been built over these last two years of connection with leaders and partnership and a lot of different initiatives that we've already been doing with folks [will help us] come together and put aside our individual and organizational ambitions. I think this is going to be the test coming out of COVID.

I don't think [we can afford] the status quo of the past fragmented uncoordinated solutions silos where there's duplication and redundancy and sub-optimal returns. We can't afford that coming out of this pandemic.

Margaret Lapiz

"This is also a community that is strong. Where the institutions and nonprofits are each very capable. They have a tremendous track record of success [when] they've had previous opportunities to collaborate. And they've really as a community come together in response to COVID. So we can really, I think, change the equilibrium for this community to a new state for its children, in particular, and its young people.”

For Amma, this movement is not only global, it’s about a new generation demanding a better way to live their life, especially in their work. “I think that for many businesses, employees are asking those questions now. Asking, ‘why are we doing this work?’ and ‘what is this organization about, and how are we impacting our community?’ [This is happening] for the corporate mainstream and [for] main street. Employees are saying ‘we don’t want to be part of businesses that don’t add value beyond what they do for customers and shareholders.’ And I think it’s the way that the world’s hottest [businesses] are going, and most businesses that want to survive will have to follow.”

Watch the full conversation here

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