Community engagement matters (now more than ever)

In October 2010, three men—Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey; Cory Booker, who was then mayor of Newark, N.J.; and Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook—appeared together on The Oprah Winfrey Show to announce an ambitious reform plan for Newark Public Schools. On the show, Zuckerberg pledged a $100 million matching grant to support the goal of making Newark a model for how to turn around a failing school system. This announcement was the first time that most Newark residents heard about the initiative. And that wasn’t an accident.

Christie and Booker had adopted a top-down approach because they thought that the messy work of forging a consensus among local stakeholders might undermine the reform effort.1 They created an ambitious timeline, installed a board of philanthropists from outside Newark to oversee the initiative, and hired a leader from outside Newark to serve as the city’s superintendent of schools.

The story of school reform in Newark has become a widely cited object lesson in how not to undertake a social change project. Even in the highly charged realm of education reform, the Newark initiative stands out for the high level of tension that it created. Instead of generating excitement among Newark residents about an opportunity to improve results for their kids, the reform plan that emerged from the 2010 announcement sparked a massive public outcry. At public meetings, community members protested vigorously against the plan. In 2014, 77 local ministers pleaded with the governor to drop the initiative because of the toxic environment it had created. Ras Baraka, who succeeded Booker as mayor of Newark, made opposition to the reform plan a central part of his election campaign. The money that Zuckerberg and others contributed to support the reform plan is now gone, and the initiative faces an uncertain future.

“When Booker and Christie decided to do this without the community, that was their biggest mistake,” says Howard Fuller, former superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools and a prominent school reform leader. Instead of unifying Newark residents behind a shared goal, the Booker-Christie initiative polarized the city.

Zuckerberg, for his part, seems to have learned a lesson. In May 2014, he and his wife, Priscilla Chan, announced a $120 million commitment to support schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. In doing so, they emphasized their intention to “[listen] to the needs of local educators and community leaders so that we understand the needs of students that others miss.”2

Another project launched in Newark in 2010—the Strong Healthy Communities Initiative (SHCI)—has had a much less contentious path. Both Booker and Baraka have championed it. Sponsored by Living Cities (a consortium of 22 large foundations and financial institutions that funds urban revitalization projects), SHCI operates with a clear theory of change: To achieve better educational outcomes for children, policymakers and community leaders must address the environmental conditions that help or hinder learning.

If kids are hungry, sick, tired, or under stress, their ability to learn will suffer. According to an impressive array of research, such conditions lie at the forefront of parents’ and kids’ minds, and they strongly affect kids’ chances of success in school. Inspired by this research, SHCI leaders have taken steps to eliminate blighted housing conditions, to build health centers in schools, and to increase access to high-quality food for low-income families.

SHCI began as an effort led by philanthropists and city leaders, but since then it has shifted its orientation to engage a broader crosssection of community stakeholders. Over time, those in charge of the initiative have built partnerships with leaders from communities and organizations throughout Newark. “We avoid a top-down approach as much as possible,” says Monique Baptiste-Good, director of SHCI. “We start with community and then engage established leaders. When we started, a critical decision was to operate like a campaign and not institutionalize as an organization. We fall to the background and push our partners’ capacity forward. Change happens at the pace people can adapt.”

Challenges related to housing and health may seem to be less controversial than school reform, but these issues generate considerable heat as well. (Consider, for example, the controversy that surrounds efforts by the Obama administration to change nutrition standards for children.) In any event, the crucial lesson here is one that spans a wide range of issue areas: How policymakers and other social change leaders pursue initiatives will determine whether those efforts succeed. If they approach such efforts in a top-down manner, they are likely to meet with failure. (We define a top-down approach as one in which elected officials, philanthropists, and leaders of other large institutions launch and implement programs and services without the full engagement of community leaders and intended beneficiaries.)

This lesson has become more acutely relevant in recent years. Disparities in education, health, economic opportunity, and access to justice continue to increase, and the resources available to confront those challenges have not kept pace with expanding needs. As a consequence, leaders in the public and nonprofit sectors are looking for better ways to invest those resources. At the same time, the increasing use of data-driven practices raises the hope that leaders can make progress on this front. These practices include, most notably, evidence-based programs in which there is a proven correlation between a given intervention and a specific impact. But they also include collective impact initiatives and other efforts that employ data to design and evaluate solutions. (In this article, we will use the term “data-driven” to refer to the full range of such practices.)

In rolling out programs that draw on such research, however, leaders must not neglect other vitally important aspects of social change. As the recent efforts in Newark demonstrate, data-driven solutions will be feasible and sustainable only if leaders create and implement those solutions with the active participation of people in the communities that they target.

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