Equity in Action: Changing Systems for the Better

When something isn't going well, don't just treat the symptoms, change the system that is causing the problems.

systems

TREATING THE SYMPTOMS ISN’T AS GOOD AS CHANGING THE SYSTEMS THAT CAUSE THEM


Bad systems beat good people every time. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. 

These two adages have come to my mind in the last few weeks as I have witnessed the response to the recent tragic events in Dallas. The former phrase is often heard from consultants who are called in to evaluate an organization in an attempt to diagnose troubling issues, such as why there is a high turnover or an inability to make progress in the organization’s mission. The latter was first uttered by a grandmother to teach what happens when good people rashly set off to solve problems.

Without subject knowledge and a strategy informed by those directly affected by the problem, the best of intentions can be far worse than ineffective; they usually create more damage. What good intentioned people often fail to take into consideration is the reality that systems are more powerful than individuals.

Systems are complicated and sneaky, hard to observe and sometimes shielded in secrecy.

Systems are complicated and sneaky, hard to observe and sometimes shielded in secrecy. Many times, we are unaware of their very existence and normally, we are clueless as to how we participate in them. But we do.

As social entrepreneurs and funders, we are often at a loss for why our best efforts, our copious financial investment and sweat equity, aren’t really getting us anywhere. The answer, of course, is that we are mostly treating the symptoms and not changing the systems that cause them.

This past May, I had the opportunity to attend the Social Innovation Summit in Washington D.C. The conference was interesting and I learned a great deal. But the most important lesson I learned was outside of the conference while crossing a busy intersection.

The light turned green and, with suitcase in tow, I began to cross the street. As soon as I entered the intersection I heard sirens and looking to my right, saw several police cars off in the distance, but coming my way. I had plenty of time to cross. Suddenly, in the middle of the intersection, from all four corners, police officers came rushing towards those of us crossing the street with guns drawn, shouting, “Get on the ground! Get on the ground.”

I admired the police and all the sacrifices that they make for us and I simply kept on walking to the other side of the street. The thought never occurred to me that they were shouting at me.

When I arrived at the other side of the street and looked back, the officers had their man on the ground.

A stranger, a black man about my age who was in the intersection with me, finally came to my side of the street, said to me, “Man, you need to get down when the police are yelling at you like that. You could have gotten yourself killed.”

Of course he was right, and I should have. But what made me keep walking while others immediately got to the ground? The answer is the systems in which we were conditioned. We came from two different systems and had two completely different paradigms in place. I unconsciously followed mine, quite possibly to my own peril.

We came from two different systems and had two completely different paradigms in place. I unconsciously followed mine, quite possibly to my own peril.

At Social Venture Partners Dallas we invest in exceptional people and their innovative, disruptive, and sometimes divergent, projects. In addition to that work, we host a conference in Dallas each year called bigBANG! It is a place where boots and suits can get together to create synergies around innovative concepts in order to “do good better.” This year, our partners, The United Way of Metropolitan Dallas and The Dallas Foundation – months before tragedy compelled us to – agreed that in addition to featuring the outcomes from this year’s Festival of Ideas, bigBANG! will focus on the theme Equity in Action.

This theme centers on one question, what could we do together in Dallas that would begin to create the kinds of systems in our community that don’t beat good people?

Several months ago when we began the planning for this year’s bigBANG! event to take place on Oct 27 at Paul Quinn College, the last thing we wanted to do was to go on the stage and pretend that we are the experts on the topic of Equity — we clearly are not. But we are experts at convening and getting things done. So we set out to have as many conversations as we could with the experts, the people who are already focused on this work of righting wrong systems.

There are some incredible people and organizations in Dallas who have been at this for years! As a result, we have met the most remarkable people in our city who every day are pouring out their hearts and their best efforts to make real and lasting systemic change.  What we also discovered was that the organizations doing the most important work for systems change often get the least support, fight the hardest battles, and are relatively unknown. 

What if well-intentioned people could invest in some of these action people, scale their projects, and grow their capacity? What if we invested private dollars in a county program that is really working for young adults in our criminal justice system, in addition to or instead of some non-profits that are not working for systemic change at all?  

I challenge you to visit Judge Birmingham’s Court and his AIM Program and not have a complete paradigm shift. While this county program doesn’t address the issue of why a disproportionate number of young adults of color end up in his court, it does help them from going deeper into the system. Wouldn’t it be impactful if we could make this program available to more of our young citizens and expand it? What if we expanded the hard work of Collective Impact being done by a few to many?

To affect the change we want to see, we have to acknowledge that there are different systems at play for different people.

To affect the change we want to see, we have to acknowledge that there are different systems at play for different people. We have to be even more discriminating and stop supporting actions and enterprises based solely on good intentions and expand measurements on actual results. We have to invest in the people and programs that are already doing the labor and showing results regardless of which sector they hail from.

Let’s listen to the people who are actually affected by unjust systems and try the solutions they recommend. Why not? If for no other reasons than our own self interest of economic stability and physical safety, we can at least earn bragging rights that we are privileged to live in a world-class city where prosperity abounds.

Social entrepreneurs resonate with the words of Margaret Mead as our reason to have hope, “We are continually faced with great opportunities which are brilliantly disguised as unsolvable problems.”   

Join us a bigBANG! 2016 as we tackle some great opportunities for our city!


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