Social Innovation Summit: Dismantling Barriers to Opportunity

USC Sol Price School of Public Policy

Policy change agents take a whack at entrenched, cradle-to-career inequalities at the 2019 Price Center for Social Innovation Summit.

“The zip code in which one grows up should not be a primary determinant of life outcomes.”

That ringing call-to-action set the tone for the 2019 Social Innovation Summit on March 29, hosted by the Sol Price Center for Social Innovation (the Price Center). More than 200 civil servants, community activists, policy wonks, social scientists and students took a deep dive into the seemingly intractable problems of stagnant social mobility in underprivileged communities, using the tools of evidence-based innovation to imagine creative ways forward.

Illuminating Pathways to Opportunity

USC Sol Price School of Public Policy Dean Jack Knott and Price Center director Gary Painter welcomed attendees from a wide range of public, private and nonprofit niches in the Tutor Campus Center ballroom. While the 2018 Social Innovation Summit had tackled a single intractable problem—urban housing instability—this year’s program targeted three major areas of concern: child welfare, educational attainment and career re-entry from the criminal justice system. Grouping them under the “Pathways to Opportunity” umbrella, the 2019 summit aimed to identify social innovation tools, such as new financial models or organizational forms, that are expanding access to opportunity for low-income communities.

USC Dornsife sociologist Ann Owens started the conversation by asking “Do neighborhoods matter?” Armed with data-rich maps and charts of Southern California communities, the social scientist made a compelling case that living a few city blocks east or west of an invisible line has life-altering consequences for Southlanders.

Incarceration, poverty, pollution, education outcomes, life expectancy, violent crime and racial segregation all map with alarming precision to neighborhood boundaries. The whys are complicated, but the composite picture from Owens’ keynote presentation was clear: In terms of social opportunity, neighborhoods still matter a great deal.

“We need new solutions to these longstanding problems,” Owens concluded, “and I think there’s a real role for social innovation to play here.”

Intensity Matters

Price CSI director Gary Painter turned to David Plouffe, Head of Policy and Advocacy for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, for insight into new approaches for catalyzing social change, engaging the former political strategist in a brainstorming “fireside chat.”

Plouffe, who was formerly Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, a White House senior advisor, and an advisor to Uber before joining CZI, shared insights on how to recognize when change is possible, and the role social innovation, including social movements can play in the process.

“You can’t engineer a movement,” Plouffe asserted. “It’s either there or it’s not.” Grassroots action “can be nourished, funded, accelerated, but at the end of the day, it depends on people being passionate about something.”

When that “intensity” exists—as it currently does in the criminal justice reform space— organizations like CZI can help build momentum, Plouffe said.

“The question is: What kind of technological assistance? What kind of training or policy development do folks need? Sometimes we can overcomplicate things. Maybe all they need is our financial support, and they’ll handle it from there,” he said.

 

Evidence and Social Innovation

Effective aggregation and sharing of data was a recurring theme throughout the summit, and Plouffe highlighted its glaring absence in a crucial part of the criminal-justice reform space.

“It is striking to me,” he said, “that one of the most important decisions in our society is the one a prosecutor makes about charging. And it is not data-informed. It’s breathtakingly not data-informed.”

By contrast, Price Center Data and Project Manager Elly Schoen MPP ’18 previewed a new index that the Price Center is currently building. Part of the Neighborhood Data for Social Change portal, which launched in 2017, the index will show which factors are important in predicting economic opportunity –independently of poverty – to help illuminate strategies for expanding opportunity across neighborhoods. Intriguingly, the research employs a “machine-learning” approach, called a neural network, to funnel dozens of predictors into at least 10 outcomes.

 

A Holistic Cradle-to-Career Outlook

More intriguing innovations came to light in the summit’s three panel discussions.

The first panel focused on using and sharing data to strengthen families. Moderator Jacquelyn McCroskey of the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work framed the conversation around troubling child protective service statistics from 2006: by age 5, the data shows, 15 percent of all babies born in Los Angeles County were the victim of reported child abuse or neglect allegations, and their cumulative risk of being victims of reported abuse rose to 27 percent by age 18. Reversing these numbers requires early identification of the infants at greatest risk for future harm. Panelist Regan Foust, of the Children’s Data Network, outlined the predictive potential of the California Strong Start Index, a database built on already-existing birth records that can be used to assign a “birth-assets score” to all newborns. McCroskey and her colleagues hope to use these scores—built around 12 standardized variables—to implement a countywide preventive home visitation program prioritizing at-risk families. Other panelists included Linda Aragon, director of the LA County Department of Public Health, Division of Maternal, Child and Adolescent Health; Carrie Miller of the county’s Office of Child Protection; and Armando Jimenez of First 5 LA.

The day’s second panel looked at an innovative funding model for improving school equity. USC Rossier education policy professor Julie Marsh framed the discussion around a financial model designed to expand educational attainment for high need students. The Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) was established through a change in California law that decentralized school funding decisions to prioritize traditionally under-achieving students. Implemented in 2013, the LCFF is succeeding on many levels, but the goal of closing the achievement gap remains elusive.

Given the slow pace of progress, panelist Jeimee Estrada MPP ’11 of Innovate Public Schools emphasized “the power of looking at outliers.” Of the 2000 schools in L.A. County, she noted, 279 are getting 80 percent of their low-income students of color ready for college. “That’s not a small number,” Estrada said. “We know it’s possible. Now it’s about digging deeply into those schools and learning about what these disruptors and innovators are doing.” Sixup founder Sunwoo Hwang took the educational funding conversation to the next level, describing his venture-backed company’s new financial approach to  providing student loans  that better serve low-income students with high potential. “Our focus as a company is on smart-loans,” he said, “and really lifting this deserving population of students into not social mobility but upward mobility.”

The day’s third panel looked at social innovation approaches to expanding opportunity for people re-entering the workforce after incarceration. The moderator, University of Pennsylvania criminologist John MacDonald, framed the conversation with startling metrics on relationships between crime and blight. In major cities, he reported, just 5 percent of city addresses generate 50 percent of all crime, “and there’s an emerging science that shows we can reduce these problems by changing neighborhoods block by block.” Putting new windows and doors on abandoned buildings in Philadelphia lowered gun violence by 39 percent. Clearing out vacant lots resulted in an 8 percent drop in gun violence.

Crucially, these inexpensive projects generate community-based jobs, a major theme of the re-entry panel. Criminal reform activist Beverly Parenti described The Last Mile, a prison-to-work pipeline that she and her husband, venture capitalist Chris Redliltz, began as a software programming class for San Quentin inmates in 2010. Now active in 12 criminal justice facilities, the coding school boasts a zero-percent recidivism rate among graduates. Parenti spoke of lives transformed and “changing the narrative to remove the stigma” around incarceration.” Two of her fellow panelists were themselves formerly incarcerated: Shanae Polk, program director with 2nd Call, a community group fostering the personal development of ex-offenders, and Jeffery T.D. Wallace, president and CEO of LeadersUp, a talent development accelerator for young adults, including those who have experience with the justice system.

“When we talk about stigma, let’s be clear: we’re talking about 70 million Americans—one out of every three,” said Wallace.

The panel also included Efty Sharony, director of the L.A. Mayor’s Office of Re-entry.

 

Passionate Intensity and Cross-Pollination

Throughout the day, attendees peppered the panelists with questions. USC Price visiting professor Christine Beckman, who moderated the panel on education, was pleased with the “passionate intensity in the room,” especially given the summit’s sweeping scope encompassing families, education, and the criminal justice system.

Beckman said she’s eager to continue these conversations with students in Price CSI’s Southern California Symposium, all of whom attended the summit.

At the closing reception, Marion Clark, an alum of the executive education program, reflected on the summit’s impact. “It was an eye-opening, eventful day. I was really engaged by every panel,” said Clark, who is president of the Surf Bus Foundation, a Santa Monica-based nonprofit that brings at-risk teens to the beach for transformative surfing experiences.

This kind of “learning-upward” is exactly what Price Center director Painter had in mind with the ambitious, cradle-to-career, access-to-opportunity theme of the 2019 Social Innovation Summit.

“Unfortunately, zip code currently does partially determine your life chances,” Painter said. “Traditional policy levers have failed to close these gaps. So, we must look at a social innovation approach that identifies new models of social change through community-driven processes of piloting and testing new practices, bringing them to scale and ultimately diffusing these practices to create systems of change. Today’s summit brought together dynamic scholars and practitioners whose work is doing just that.”

 

To watch the full archived live-stream of the 2019 Social Innovation Summit, go to https://vimeo.com/327304876.