In the spring of 2018 I had the opportunity to test the hypothesis that Social Innovation1 is a process and an outcome of a group of people coming together to identify novel community development solutions to societal problems. I was invited by the USC Sol Price Center for Social Innovation to participate in the Southern California Symposium: New Strategies for the Region’s Future. I am eager to share my observations about the experience and the use of social innovation strategies as the basis for creating potential change in low-income communities of Los Angeles.
In advance of the first session I was curious about the opportunity but unsure of the required time commitment. However, after having met the advisers and coaches, and the members of the cohort, some of whom I knew well from my field, I developed a strong sense of the potential for partnerships to come.
The cohort was tasked with fully vetting and researching a problem statement and defining a vision for a North Star statement to guide the work, along with identifying the shareholders who, together with them, would lift up strategies and solutions to solve the problem, culminating in a final presentation in front of an audience at the capstone session.
Societal issues that need solving are complex and deeply entrenched in low-income communities. And for a cohort with a deadline, it can render the process daunting and the members resistant from time to time.
The first step in the journey toward social innovation is therefore to acquire trust; the ability to work together toward a common understanding, believing that achieving a beneficial societal outcome is possible, despite thoughts of the degree of difficulty it poses to land on a common goal in a soon-to-be assigned group of 5 from very different walks of life. It would most assuredly require a great coach.
The value of social innovation lies in the way in which it ushers in the creative process, targeting systems change. It inspires collective action, despite discordant beliefs that would take the project outward to a broader context, or perhaps more inward to a narrower one. One thing is for sure, it takes time to arrive at a compromise; which seems to be the real purpose of the symposium.
My group chose Educational Equity, and its flip side, the inequities that prevent systemic change in student learning in high schools. Along the way I was surprised by the diversity of beliefs on what educational equity might mean. I anticipated that finding a “new solution” would not be easy, but I was not prepared for how challenging it would be to build consensus on the topic.
Unlike how agencies have worked with communities in the past where the agencies’ “superiority” meant that there were right and wrong truths that drove solutions, here members were faced with each other’s facts and truths, not coming from one source, but from the vast experiences and wisdom of the individual members. It is what led the group to generate a novel solution, with real possibilities for impacting and hopefully, chipping away at the intractable issue of educational inequity.
My experience was that creativity would serve to bind the group to get us to the capstone. To get there would require refocusing team efforts on the shared understanding of the issues, and a desire to promote individual success. Our coach was more than instrumental in this regard.
Our solution led us to develop a framework for a prospective index of key indicators for communities to self-evaluate existing local neighborhood conditions, ideally leading to greater community investment, and ultimately, the long-term probability of better skills and knowledge of the workforce in the region.
The Quality of Learning Opportunity Index (QLOI) would potentially measure the availability of associated support systems and resources a community provides to its young people within a five mile radius by applying an objective rating scale based on availability of after-school programs, municipal programs, faith-based activities, enrichment programs, organized leagues (sports, dance, etc.) and other forms of work training and emotional development support (i.e. mentoring, etc.).
By quantifying these variables, along with key external indicators such as housing availability/affordability, opportunities for employment, financial support for advanced training or education, etc., the community could evaluate where it has strengths and where there are gaps in learning opportunities for students both inside and outside of the formal school day, with an end goal of facilitating greater community investments ultimately leading to increased opportunity for local economic mobility.
In hindsight, I have come to see that joint crafting of meaningful solutions in short time frames that all team members can adopt requires establishing parameters around the selected issue early on. Only in that way can the team focus its energy in productive ways, adopting small steps that lead to consensus and achievement of the projected outcomes. One of which should surely be the development of new friends.
I came into the cohort already understanding that community shareholders are skeptical of the many initiatives launched in their neighborhoods over past decades by well-meaning, but disingenuous outsiders with good intentions of improving the quality of life, but little understanding of what the residents want or need. I had assumed I was not one of them.
However I was to learn that our propensity for often contrary views of the work and our differing expectations of the potential outcome, only served to keep us from experiencing the principle of collective action and recognizing why we came to do the work, and for whom.
By having participated in the Southern California Symposium I have been given a “new pair of glasses” with which to approach my event facilitations with institutional and private investors, funders, and nonprofits. It affords me the opportunity to listen more and seek to convince less.
I keep the Social Innovation framework in mind, and then I let go to see where the conversation takes us.
A note of appreciation to team members Hilda Delgado, John Bwarie, Rachel Barbosa, and Todd Nguyen, and coach Sean Knierim.
Melody Winter Head is a regional community development manager at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco in Southern California. She wishes to acknowledge the support of Ellen Pais, formerly of the Los Angeles Education Partnership, in influencing her adventure in the Southern California Symposium, and in guiding her approach to this writing.
Team 3, Final Presentation: “Building Education Equity”
1 “A novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals.” https://ssir.org/articles/entry/rediscovering _social innovation, p.8